Monday, February 22, 2010

Personal Wagons

In recent years, I've had a particular lesson hammered home many times:

Life isn't perfect . . . for anyone. 

That's simply a fact, no matter what someone's life looks like from the outside. No human being will escape this life without their share of trials, unwelcome surprises, and burdens. 

But somehow, we either forget that, or we don't realize it, or, often, we simply don't believe it.
I've had people say to my face that I must have no clue what stress is like, that gee, I should be so grateful for having such an easy life . . . all because they see just a little piece of my existence from the outside.
While I might not have experienced their particular trial (one such commenter was divorced, and no, I've never been through that), I do have trials of my own. Everyone does. Just because I don't proclaim mine from the rooftop in neon lights doesn't mean they don't exist.
The same goes for other people. I continue to be stunned when I hear about long-time friends who have gone through this or that trial, really big things I never knew or suspected. But I shouldn't be surprised, because no one is immune to this thing called mortality, and most trials aren't obvious to the casual observer.

Instead, our private burdens are just that: private, personal and between us and the Lord.
About twelve years ago, when I had a 2-year-old and a baby, a neighbor apologized for not calling earlier about something, explaining she'd had a crazy, stressful day. I said, "Don't worry about it. I totally understand being stressed out."

Her reply: "No you don't. I have four kids. You have two."

In shock, I stood there with the phone to my ear with no clue how to respond. She had no right to assume anything about my life and its stresses, regardless of the number of children I had at the time. (So now that I have four children can I say I understand stress? Puhleese.) To this day, I can't think about her with warm fuzzies.

I had something similar happen recently, only it wasn't cruel like that other situation; it was simply an offhand remark from a friend who didn't know what she was talking about. I was with two friends, and they were commiserating about the problems their teenagers were wreaking on their families. One turned to me and said something like, "None of your kids are like this. Aren't you glad that the only thing you have to worry about is promoting your new book?" It was all I could do not to cry. As it was, my eyes stung, and I made some flippant remark before leaving.

Yes, I know I am very blessed. I know I have some things many others yearn for (among them: a publishing contract. Trust me, I don't take that for granted). But that knowledge doesn't mean, by any stretch of the imagination, that I don't have trials. Daily ones. HARD ones. I just don't broadcast them. I'm willing to wager that any blogger who appears to "have it all" . . . doesn't. NO ONE DOES.

Some days, I envy bloggers who can dump their problems freely into posts. I can't really do that, because this blog, while very much an honest part of who I am, is only a slice of me. That slice is the professional writer/editor, and sometimes the mom. This isn't a forum where I put my problems out for the world to see. But that doesn't mean they don't exist. I believe it's unfair for anyone to compare trials. 

"What I'm going through is so much harder than what she's dealing with. She has it so easy." You know what? You can't know that. Only God can know the burden each person pulls in their wagons. They may have dozens of trials you haven't ever considered.

And even if you happen to know what all their trials are (which is unlikely if not impossible), what is excruciatingly heavy for one person to bear might not be so hard for another, but that doesn't discount the suffering the first person is going through. Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, once compared suffering to a gaseous substance. He said that a gas will fill up any container it is placed into, regardless of size, and suffering is the same: no matter what type of suffering we're dealing with, the pain fills the person completely. 

This means that if one of my daughters has trouble with her school friends, it might rock her world just as much as something so-called "bigger" rocks mine. As her mother, a more mature adult, I can look at her problem and see it as trivial or small (it would be small if I were to magically be a fifth grader again with the maturity of a 36-year-old). But to her, it's not trivial. It is a heavy burden, and the pain fills her completely.

As I said, this idea has been on my mind a lot in recent years, so I suppose it shouldn't have been a surprise when it showed up in Band of Sisters. Several of the women in there assume things about one another and about their individual struggles, or supposedly the others' lack of problems. But the reader sees behind the curtain and knows that each and every woman in the story has a heavy load she must pull in her wagon, even though each burden is of a different stripe. 

In real life, we don't have the luxury of seeing behind one another's curtains, but perhaps we can be more compassionate and give one another the benefit of the doubt. As they say, if you assume that everyone you meet is going through a difficult time, you'll almost always be right.


Roxy said...

Great blog. I hadn't heard that Victor Frankl quote in a long time. Looking forward to your next book.

Luisa Perkins said...

Very well said. I love you.

Happy Mom said...

You said it, sista!

LOVE Victor Frankl.

I will never understand why, instead of supporting each other in our difficulties, we feel the need to compare, and denigrate. Is it because we haven't been through the really big trials yet? The kind that knock you for a loop, humble you to the dust and forever change your perspective.

There's nothing like trials to give you compassion for others.

Julie said...

This post gets two thumbs up and a "here here".

Stephanie Humphreys said...

Well said. Whenever I think someone's life looks perfect, I try to remind myself that everyone has trials and I can probably live with mine a lot easier than I can live with theirs.

Lara Neves said...

As usual, perfectly stated. I'm still a little shocked at what your friend said to you. Sheesh. And yes, you have my permission to say you officially understand what it's like to feel stress. And if four kids are when you're finally allowed to be stressed, I guess I have stressed myself out completely unnecessarily lately. :)

Compassion and understanding go such a long way. We all have our hurt and our sorrow, and we would do well to always remember that.

Kimberly Vanderhorst said...

I wish we could all firmly grasp the fact that other people's suffering does not diminish our own. That empathy is a gift not only because of the care we extend to others but also because of how shifting our focus can lighten our hearts.

Thank you for this poignnt reminder Annette, and for the small insight into your big heart.

Unknown said...

It was thoughtless of the woman with four kids to assume that someone with only two has no worries. But I do think that it speaks to what we all hope is one truism about life: We get better at navigating rough waters, the more time we spend in the boat. This is why we never want to avoid trials altogether; they build up our capacities for enduring what lies ahead.

Life is never supposed to be easy, but we do get better at facing difficulties -- and we achieve it by facing them.

Jodee said...

I have a quote I read in a religion class at BYU that I have on my mirror. I think about it everyday.

"We must judge the people arround us as we do the mountains, by their peaks and not their valleys."

I believe that likewise we must never forget that all mountains have valleys and all people have sorrow.

Krista said...

I'm sharing a quote very dear to me:
"Be kinder than is necessary, for every one we meet is fighting some battle." -unknown
I can relate.

Stephanie Black said...

Very, very well said, Annette. We NEVER know everything that is going on in someone else's life or what private trials they face. To assume that someone has no trials because her life looks so perfect on the surface is SUCH a false assumption. Thanks for a great blog.

Sarah M Eden said...

It is a shame some people are so insensitive. I had a woman tell me once that I couldn't possibly understand the trials of motherhood because I (and I quote) "chose to only have two children." First of all, the fact that she used the word "chose" clearly, demonstrated that she knew nothing about me and my trials. Secondly, at what point was there a magical number of children that allowed a person to "understand the trials of motherhood"? What a dweeb.
Hats off to you, Annette, for putting into words what so many of us have felt on numerous occasions.

Heffalump said...

As hard as life might seem sometimes, I certainly wouldn't trade problems with anyone else. My life and my trials are mine, and I'm okay with that.
I think people often compare too much. They compare themselves to people they think are better, and they compare their personal problems to people who may not seem to have any to them. It's sad really.
Thanks for making me think today!

Blondie said...

You know I think the opposite is sometimes true too.

People shouldn't discount their own trials when encountering someone enduring seemingly greater adversity. Like you said, trials are individual and we all have varying capacity to deal with them.

I have endured a few trials in my life that by their natures have been more public. I have been blessed to have countless people show great compassion and empathy towards me during those times. But I am saddened when people assume that their trials are insignificant just because mine seem to be greater. I have often heard things like "I couldn't deal with losing a parent." or "I could never handle being an Army wife." They dismiss their own suffering--whatever it may be--because they perceive that what I'm going through must be worse. Many times these comments are made by people with their own batch of troubles that I know I wouldn't be able to handle! The truth is that my trials are just that, MINE--handpicked by the Lord for me to endure. Everyone has their own yolk to bear.
It's never helpful to compare--no matter what side of the adversity you stand on!

Rebecca Irvine said...

I really enjoyed reading this post and wholeheartedly agree. I wish it was easier to stop comparing ourselves and our difficulties to others.

Meggen said...

Here, here! Blondie and Annette, great insights into both sides of the adversity coin! Love you!

Kristina P. said...

I find this happens so much in the blogging world. We assume so much about people but we never really know what's going on behind closed doors.

Wonder Woman said...

Fantastic thoughts and post, Annette. It's just so, so true.

I'm excited to read Band of Sisters.

Danyelle Ferguson said...

Amen! Very well thought out & worded, Annette. The comment I hate is, "I don't know how you do it. You're super mom." You know, just because I have a kids with disabilities and still have an active family life does not mean I'm super mom. It means I'm working my butt off and they don't see all the melt-downs and everything else I go through. They only see the good stuff that appears on the outside.

You're an incredible woman and mom, Annette. I'm so glad to call you my friend.

Cheri Chesley said...

And it's because we can't see behind your curtain that we understand how wonderful you are for being the person you both are in spite of and because of your troubles.

The hardest part of family gatherings is that one particular member of my extended family has a driving need to compare. Our kids' successes. Our families' successes. Even our particular trials. When I played the game, I never came out on top. If I was struggling with something and just needed to vent, she'd basically tell me nothing I was going through was as bad as whatever she's faced. So I stopped playing. Sadly, part of that fall-out means we visit less.

I blame society, but mostly because it's easy. What troubles me most about women is the need we seem to have to compare ourselves to one another. Now I can say there's a ton of stress on women and mothers to be "perfect," but remember when we could just be friends?

I'd prefer to just leave it at that.

Loralee and the gang... said...

Thank you for this. Knowing that other people have problems too, definietely put my problems into perspective. And the reminder that my kids' problems, however small they may be, are big ones for them. Perfect timing.

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Annette, I'm sorry this happened to you. It's so sad when people judge others and think that they are better than others because either they don't have as many trials as you or have more.

I've known people who are dismissive about me in certain ways and think that I have it made. But no. I've worked HARD where I am at and there are still many things that need continuance.

((Hugs)) I really appreciate you coming out and sharing your thoughts with us.

Mel Chesley said...

Well said! Sadly, I used to be one of those people who sat there and wished I could go off with someone and my life would be perfect. Only because my situation at that time verged on nightmarish.
Later, as I moved on and got over not only myself but that dream as well, I met someone I thought I could call friend.
When I chatted with her and we talked about things we were going through, she finally asked why I had to keep competing with her. I stopped and stared. Then I asked what in the world she was talking about. I wasn't trying to compete, I was trying empathize with her and help her understand she wasn't the only one who went through bad, stressful things. Ever since, she's disliked me very much. Apparently she'd been brought up to think everything she would go through in life, no one else would ever understand. She was unique and special and her hardships ... well who knows what she thought of those.
But I've said it time and again, while no one on this earth will ever know or truly understand what others feel or go through, all we can do is relate an understanding, but never say we have felt/gone through the EXACT same thing.

Jenny P. said...

I think I could have written this post! I had a very similar situation happen not so long ago, when someone looked at me, and after listing all the things she thought I had going right, said, "Do you actually know what it feels like to have a REAL problem?"

I had no idea how to respond. This person had no idea what trials I have or haven't been through... it just hurt, you know? At the same time, she is currently going through such a difficult time, I'm sure her perspective is heavily clouded by how much suffering she feels she is enduring. I'm trying to be compassionate and more tolerant when it comes to my relationship with this person... circumstances require that I see her often, so... I'm trying.

Great post, Annette, and great perspective.

Nancy Campbell Allen said...

That's so very true, Annette. Really good blog. We need to be reeeeely careful with the things we say/assume about each other.

Thanks for this frank look at the whole thing. I agree.

Julie Wright said...

This is why I love you, Annette. Beautiful post. Thanks for the reminder.

Cranberryfries said...

So well said.
a) I am reminded of this every time I sincerely visit with a friend. I think "Gosh I never knew you had SO many things going on."
b) I LOVED your example of a childs struggle in the eyes of a mother. Something I will try to keep in mine when my kids come to me with their problems instead of telling them to get over it.

Jessica G. said...

Amen, sista!

(But I have to admit that I relish the looks on people's faces when they discover I am bionic, despite my mild-mannered appearance.)

Rachel Sue said...

I loved this. Because sometimes I think I am that girl that says something stupid. Just because I don't think before I speak.

And sometimes I am the girl who can't believe that the girl sitting next to me who has been married less time than I have, who has a younger child, is calling me irresponsible because I happen to be 4 years younger than she is.

Kathi Oram Peterson said...

Looks like your post struck a cord with a lot of people, including me. Thanks for writing such an articulate and eloquent post. I remember one time when I was going through a difficult situation and my brother told me I just didn't understand how things were in the "real" world. Sooo what world was I living in? Oh the things people say when they're trying to help. Hmmm. Makes one wonder.

Melanie Jacobson said...

I think that quote from Viktor Frankel is such a perfect way to explain it. Suffering, what it's cause, does fill us up. I don't ever compare my tragedies to others and I think that I don't have the right to feel bad. It would make me really mad to think someone was trying to invalidate my experience by doing the same thing to me.

Anonymous said...

One of my favorite sayings is that if we were to pool all of our trials into a pile with everyone else's, we'd take our own back. That said, I still think we should be compassionate about those other trials--the seen and unseen. You're right, only God knows the depth of those wounds and no one really knows how fresh the scar. The things I can't handle, I see other's do with aplomb but just because they can handle that one well doesn't mean that something else is killing them from the inside.

I guess I just want to say thanks for reminding me to see deeper and be kinder. I admire you for so much. Thank you.

* said...

Yep, I wish more people thought before opening their mouths. I have plenty of friends with zero children who have just as many life struggles as I do, just different flavors of them.

PS: Frankl's Man Search For Meaning is one of my favorite books.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Excellent, excellent post. Thank you for sharing your feelings.

My mom likes to have contests. If you tell her about a trial you're going through, it has to be worse than the one she went through back when she was in (whereever) doing (whatever) or you get no sympathy. I don't think we all want constant sympathy, but I do think we all want to feel as though we are validated because we're doing our best. And no one can measure that best for us. We're the only ones who know how hard it's been.

Melanie said...

The lord knows our sufferings. He has atoned for it all and rises above it with hope, joy and a compassionate heart. We aren't supposed to wear it on our sleeve. We don't even carry it all. We are to carry a smile and show thanks in ALL things. You obviously get that. It's a journey for me. Remind me the next time I complain:)

LisAway said...

Thank you Annette. This is so good and true. I've always felt very blessed and that I have such an easy life, so I've mostly assumed people have it harder than I do (not that marriage and dealing with my own weaknesses as a mother isn't extremely hard, but health and other issues have never been a problem). Now I've been having a taste of some of those kind of trials, I hope I'll be more helpful to people and try to forget myself more often. And I can't believe some of the things other women have said to you and some of the commenters here. It's seriously shocking. I really feel we're all in this together, whatever our trials are and that we should be able to unload and find understanding (as long as we're not just whining or gossiping). Anyway, thanks for this. Now I definitely want to read the book.

Josi said...

I might know just the tip of some of your trials, and because of that I find you so inspiring. The fact that you are dealing with hard things, and yet still developing yourself, mentoring others, and pushing forward is exactly the way the Lord hopes we'll deal with the things that come our way. When my friend Anne was battling cancer, one of us in book group made the comment of "Well, I shouldn't complain about that, I mean look at what you're dealing with" she shook her head and said that her trials never discounted the hard things other people were going through. It was a good reminder...from someone who was carrying a mighty big cross. Love ya, Annette, and I'm glad to have your example in your life.

Heidi Boden said...

Annette - I feel like I just want to call you right now and talk for three hours about all that you wrote. Thank you for voicing adversity and trials in a real, honest way. I definitely share your experiences and have not appreciated the comparing to my trials that they must be easier just because I've learned to smile through them or I don't have what others are experiencing, thankfully. I had a R.S. pres in Kentucky that would say "Each to their own pile of crap!" And everyone does have their fair share. It takes a strong person to demonstrate meekness and compassion. For me, the best way to combat the comparisons is to serve. Service enlarges the heart, broadens the mind and expands feelings of charity for others and ourselves.
Annette - love you!

Karlene said...

Wonderful, wonderful post. Thank you.

Amanda D said...

Very well said. You are spot on - different people deal with different things with different levels of comfort. As women, we just need to remember that everyone is doing the best they can.

Chantel said...

My mother shared some perspective on this when she went with her sister to an Alzheimer's caregiver support meeting. Hearing about other peoples struggles with this, she said, "I'm glad I have my parents. Some people can't imagine caring for two parents like this, but some of the other situations seem so much harder to me."

Her parents were hard to care for. But they were hers, and she loved them, and that made the trial fit her. She rose to the occasion beautifully. Love you, G-ma and G-pa! Tell me some good stories when I see you again!

Cheryl said...

Amen, Amen, Amen, and...wait for it...Amen.

Seriously, Annette, this post rocks. I still remember the one you wrote about the woman who had no children being angry at you and the other mothers for complaining about how hard being mothers can be. And then that woman had children. And she understood. In fact, I still use that as an example from time to time. I believe I will be using your post here as well (with props to the author, of course).

Love you and miss you. We need to do another get-together sometime. I have something in the works! I'll email you...

Jillybean said...

Great post Annette!
Something I needed to read today.

Erin said...

What a great, great post. And very true. Thank you.

Tammie said...

Thanks for sharing this, Annette. Your words ring true that we shouldn't compare our trials to others trials. I have been told more than once that my life is easy and I don't know stress because I am single and don't have any children. Tough times and stress come just as often to the single people and the moms with only two kids!

Sherrie said...

Well said and so true. Awesome post Annette.

Rebecca Blevins said...

I believe that's the first time I've heard that quote, and I won't forget it. It describes the pain perfectly.

Just because I don't proclaim mine from the rooftop in neon lights doesn't mean they don't exist.

I agree. And although I shy away from proclaiming all my woes publicly, I'm learning that it is important to share some--otherwise how are we to help ease other people's burdens?

I was gone from my blog for a long time last year. Mostly because I was in a lot of depression from my pregnancy and health issues, my emotional stresses were too much for me to handle myself. So instead of reaching out I drew in. Not the best thing, but it was self-preservation.

Not being judgmental of how our lives compare with other people's lives is tough, especially when no one really knows what it's like to walk a mile in their shoes. Some trials are far more visible than others.

Amber Lynae said...

The sea of woe tosses every boat. And the strength with which it tosses each one varies as much as the size and capabilities of each vessel.

I will strive not to judge the other boats on the horizon that appear to be in smooth water. I will just try to keep mine from capsizing.

Susan said...

Annette, I love this post. I am really sad that I won't get to see you every Saturday morning anymore. I enjoyed our class so much. I would like to post a link from my blog to yours, so it will be easier for me to keep tabs on you! ha ha.

Sorry I didn't get to say goodbye to you last night. I felt really bad. I wanted to congratulate that lady who sang the Forever Three song, and then I didn't really see you after I was done talking.

I just wanted to tell you that your reading was awesome, made me cry a little, and I can't wait to read your new book. I feel very lucky to have been taught by you!

Chas Hathaway said...

AMEN! So true - so true. There will never be a time in our eternal existence when comparing trials is of any use at all!

It's the same issue with those who are strong in the gospel vs. those who struggle to keep the basic commandments. Those who really struggle to become temple worthy sometimes mistakenly think the strong, active, faithful members of the church don't really know what temptation and redemption are like.

If we compare ourselves with others, all we are really doing is throwing out all true context, history, and personality to believe what seems convenient at the moment.

We're all struggling to get through this life in one piece, and we're all struggling to become like our Heavenly Father. Comparing trials and spirituality is useless and naive.

Great post!


Cranberryfries said...
This comment has been removed by the author.


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