The most unusual and widespread social behavior has piqued my attention recently. It is decidedly a first world problem, practiced flawlessly by those whose lives are so protected and stable (compared to most of the world) and just plain good that they can afford to make it marginally worse.
I’m talking about us.
It is widespread across all races, genders, geographies, and ages. And who knows, maybe it’s always been like this, and I’m only now noticing. I’ve wondered that if maybe we pointed it out, and named, it, we could stop it.
Perhaps this has happened to you lately, and you know exactly what I’m talking about. Consider:
You recently moved across the country with a toddler. Needless to say, you are exhausted. Beyond exhausted. You are at your wits end and really just want to freeze time so you can hide in a closet and breathe in silence for a minute or two. You tell this to your new friend, and she responds by saying “oh! Just wait until you have THREE kids and you’re trying to move. That’s like having 10 toddlers!”
Now, while this might be true, that’s not the point! I mean, all you wanted was a little empathy!
While “whose grass is greener?!?!” is a longtime favorite game of ours, “my grass is more brown!!” seems to be the new darling, as if we get some kind of award or social praise for having it harder than the person sitting next to us. As if pain were a zero sum game, and you only get empathy from others if you’re winning at how awful your life is.
For simplicity, I think this behavior needs a name.I will call it up-worsing.
It’s the “hah! I WISH I could do what you do!” comments to each other, disguised as a compliment, but really just a feeble attempt at pointing the attention back the other way.
It’s the “just wait untils….”
And the “you don’t know what ___ is until…..”
And the “you don’t know how good you have it!”
My grass is brown, you say, tired and discouraged.
“My grass is full of bugs, and littered with weeds.” Points out a neighbor “At least you don’t have weeds!”
“And at least you have grass!” Chimes in someone else. “I would KILL for a backyard!”
“At least you don’t have holes all over your yard!” she says, “I can’t keep my dog from digging!”
“Wow, I couldn’t afford a house with a backyard at all–be glad you aren’t stuck in a tiny apartment” says another.
You see, all we really wanted was a little understanding, and instead we get up-worsed. And in return, we up-worse right back. When really all that’s happening here is a whole community crying out for a little emotional connection, instead, we slam the door of understanding back in their face.
And while sure, maybe there is some objective way to determine who REALLY has it hardest, what’s the point?! No matter what our challenge might be, we’ve sure all got them, and all we really want from each other is an “ugh, that’s awful! I know exactly how you feel! I am so sorry!”
Up-worsing someone is looking at their broken arm and saying, “ha! That’s nothing compared to my TWO broken legs!” How odd, that when life is lush in general, we find ourselves in a constant and subtle game of silent mental arguments over whose grass is more brown? When really, pain is pain. No matter where it comes from or how intense it is, it still hurts, and we all just want a Band-Aid and a popsicle and a kiss on the forehead to make it feel better.
It’s understandable why this happens…we’re just seeking empathy. We want some compassion, a little understanding, or…it’s true…a little help next time! Luckily this is an easy behavior to stop once we’ve recognized it and given it a name. Up-worsing our friends, our families, and our neighbors does nothing but impede friendships and exacerbate the other person’s need to be heard. When our loved ones express frustration, or complaints, or pain, why don’t we just give them the popsicle? Cry with those that cry, comfort those that stand in need of comfort! Pointing out that you are in more pain that someone else effectively does nothing to make that other person’s pain go away. It makes it worse. We’re kicking people who are already down! The funny thing is, we’re all laying down there in the same dusty patch of brown grass and dirt together, taking turns kicking each other, instead of just standing up and walking over to the garden.
Let’s stop getting some kind of morbid satisfaction from thinking our lives are bad. Because EVERYONE has bad bits, and fortunately, everyone has some really awesome bits too. So, I propose that we replace these subtle jabs with something very simple: validation. Just a little sympathetic sigh, a kind word, and a sincere and listening ear. It’s amazing how quickly people get better as soon as they know that you know they are hurting. There is more than enough good in our collective lives to raise everyone up just a little bit higher, regardless of how brown the grass is, or isn’t, under our feet.