I’m not sure what category this behavior falls under. Call it one-upmanship, a lack of empathy, or just plain stupidity. But it occurs whenever you voice a sigh or complaint and someone immediately challenges its validity. For instance, on a particularly hot day you step out of your air conditioned car and say to someone, “Wow, this is too hot for me.” Then the other person responds with, “You call this hot? I’m from south Texas and we have weather like this in the springtime.” Or, if you complain about the cold, and the other person reminds you that you have no idea what cold is since you don’t live in Minnesota, as he does.
At one duty station we had a chaplain assistant who had been wounded in action. He received a bullet to the leg. Henceforth, whenever he participated in regular newcomer’s briefings to all newly arriving Soldiers, this assistant would share his own war story. Unfortunately, he used his wound to minimize those of others. At one point one of the new Soldiers asked to see a chaplain for some problems she was having as the result of her recent deployment to Iraq. The chaplain assistant responded by contrasting his own “real wound” to her perceived wound.
In other words, no matter what problem you have or what adversity you’ve been through, they’ve always got one-up on you. Consequently, “You’ve got nothing to complain about.”
But there are significant flaws with this approach to other people’s problems. It’s true that we can always find someone who’s got a bigger problem or more severe circumstances. But if we follow this line of reasoning to its logical conclusion, then only those people in the absolute worst circumstances merit any hearing or help. Everyone else must suffer in silence. Their pain is not worth mentioning. It is not to be taken seriously.
Another flaw in this approach of minimizing or invalidating other people’s suffering is that it makes a foolish assumption. It assumes that all people have the same ability to bear adversity or are at the same level of growth. Someone once posted a picture on Facebook of two dogs, one little and one tall. They had both walked through the same mud puddle. The tall dog had mud covering his feet and ankles. The little dog had mud covering most of his body, up to his neck. What was shallow for one dog was deep for another. In the same way, what might sound minimal to the listener’s ears might be pushing the complainer to the breaking point.
Not taking other people’s problems seriously, however, can also be catastrophic. A few weeks before my arriving at my first assignment as an army chaplain, one of the Infantry battalions had suffered a double-murder and suicide. A junior enlisted Soldier’s child was having some serious and chronic health problems. Since his wife was not the “sponsor” but the “dependent,” she was hampered from getting their child the care she required. This went on for a long time and wore on the Soldier. Other problems also beset him and his family. The Soldier begged his supervisor for time off from a training exercise to take care of his child. The supervisor “blew off” the Soldier’s complaint and threatened him with disciplinary action if he didn’t get back to the training exercise.
The Soldier didn’t rejoin his unit. He went off base to a local pawn shop and purchased a handgun. He returned to his supervisor and shot him dead. Another NCO tried to intervene and was also killed. The Soldier then turned the gun on himself. In this situation, a little compassion could have saved lives.
While this behooves us to respect all people and take their problems seriously, there’s a far more significant point to be made.
Whether people take us and our problems seriously or not, God always does.
In the gospels Jesus gave this invitation. “Come unto me, you who are weary and heavily burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). Jesus looks out at the whole of humanity and recognizes that we are heavily burdened and weary. He knows our problems are real. Sure, Jesus suffered the agonies of the cross and felt the full fury of God’s judgments and wrath. But He acknowledges our pain as well. Jesus will never say to you, “You call that pain? That’s nothing compared to what I suffered on the cross.” No. Jesus sympathizes with our suffering and feels our pain (Isaiah 63:9; Hebrews 4:15).
Isn’t this interesting? Some people use their experience of suffering in a game of one-upmanship, always trying to prove their superiority over others. In contrast, Jesus uses His sufferings as a means of sympathizing with us. He uses His own experience of pain and sorrow as a way of connecting with us when we endure the same things (Hebrews 2:10, 18; 4:15; 5:8-9). Only the strong can do this. The weak stoop to a game of putting down others as a means of feeling superior.
But Jesus’ message to us is one of, “I know exactly what you are going through. I know by personal experience. You’re not alone in your suffering. I am with you always – even unto death. I’ve traveled this way before and I’ll bring you safely through. So take My hand and follow Me.”
Lord Jesus, please take my hand and lead me on the path of Your choosing. You created me and so You know me through and through. You purchased my redemption and conquered death, so I know I can trust You to save me. You were tempted in every way as I am, so I know You feel everything I’m going through. Please receive me into Your loving embrace and give me rest. Amen.