I read an article many years ago that explained how people, especially women, tend to show empathy, compassion, and build friendships by sharing similar experiences in storytelling. For instance, a woman may share the story of her difficult childbirth. A listening woman may share her own similar story to build on common ground and display empathy, showing that she understands because she had a similar experience. However, personal experience has proven that this method of relationship building can backfire. A person may assume instead that the second storyteller is telling their own story to draw attention to themselves and away from the first storyteller, or to illustrate that their experience was worse—implying that the first storyteller should not complain. Or, accuse the other person of being a “one upper” of the worst possible kind.
People don’t realize they are doing this, but are usually trying to connect with others around them. In this post I want to discuss how this plays out when we talk about the suffering of others, and try and relate our own experiences to theirs. Silent suffering
First, it’s important to admit to ourselves that all suffering isn’t equal. We all suffer, to be sure, and suffering causes us distress. Our distress during, and in the aftermath, of some experiences may be mild to acute. A few of us may escape life with relatively little suffering. For others, particularly traumatic experiences will cause suffering for the rest of life. War veterans and rape victims may be diagnosed by healthcare professionals with PTSD, from the after effects of the trauma they experienced.
Second, as humans, we put things into categories and we even rank them. For example, we decide what a crime is and then rank crimes, assigning penalties accordingly. We say that murder is worse than possessing drugs. We may assign the death penalty for homicide, but not for smoking marijuana or even crack cocaine. We feel it would be unjust to rank them both the same even though they are both crimes.
We also decide what suffering is, and rank it. International human rights often pivot around suffering. For instance, a person could suffer if forced to marry against his or her will, therefore it violates human rights because of the potential harm. Further, matters of international law such as war crimes are often decided by the level of suffering inflicted on others. Atrocities like the holocaust are atrocities because of the level of suffering inflicted on humanity.
Third, humanity recognizes that extraordinary suffering means something different from the average distress experienced from merely being alive in the world. Therefore, because of the level of suffering inflicted on the Jews during Hitler’s reign of terror, it is particularly offensive to say, “I felt like I was in Nazi concentration camp,” when in fact; you weren’t in a Nazi concentration camp. This discrimination is important, not just in matters of law, but in civil society and in interpersonal communication. Definitions are important if we want to have real empathy and understanding for one another. Something can be uncomfortable, make us temporarily miserable, and we may hate it and have had a bad experience. We may say something was traumatic in hyperbole. But in some conversations, particularly internet conversations, this kind of hyperbole isn’t very useful.
I’ve noticed increased usage of “TW” on many blogs, including some Mormon blogs (particularly Mormon feminist blogs). People want to say, “I’m hurting! It wasn’t fair! It was painful! It makes me angry!” Everyone wants to be heard, and wants their pain acknowledged by others. But words matter. PTSD, trauma, and Trigger Warning (TW) have specific meanings, just like Nazi concentration camp, and genocide do. It would be dismissive of the serious suffering of others to claim not liking redheads is the same kind of discrimination as not liking black people. Blanketing all suffering with words like PTSD, trauma , or co-opting Trigger Warning (TW), before discussing unpleasant experiences or topics does the same kind of disservice to those around us who truly suffer. Wrong usage of these words leaves little room for the empathy to encompass all wounds, and it stifles conversation. In other words:
“Triggers are a pretty specific psychological phenomenon. They are not the same as being reminded of things one does not like. When the term becomes too general it stifles regular conversation because the phrase carries with it, in common usage, the idea that we should respect the severe psychological responses to otherwise ordinary exchanges, and should modify our behavior accordingly. In the case of a severe response, this seems justified. In lesser cases it seems like a word used to make people stop talking about something you don’t want them to talk about.”
Humanity affords us the sanctity of suffering, allowing us a quiet reverence for one another in that suffering. But words mean something; when we blanket all suffering the same by using words unique to particular kinds of suffering, like holocaust, lynch mob, PTSD or trigger warning, that sanctity is lost—and the genuine empathy humanity requires of us is lost.