On competitive misery

In the year 2000, Mclusky released their album My Pain and Sadness is More Sad and Painful than Yours. I used to listen to that album a lot. 20 years on from its release, what was once a sarcastic album title was far more prescient than its sardonic title suggests.

Competitive suffering is apparently everywhere. Whatever the issue, whatever the context, you don’t have to go very far to see people subtly, sometimes not so subtly, making known that their pain and sadness is more sad and painful than yours. Sympathy is viewed as a zero-sum game. If you are receiving some sympathy for your problems, that feels like there will be less sympathy for me and my problems. So, I need people to know that I have suffered more painfully than you so that I can win the little game of victim top trumps.

The fact is, we all want to be noticed, respected and loved. If we can’t get the necessary attention from what we can do, we will seek it by making ourselves special because of what we can’t do, or we’ll suggest what we can do – that most people can also do – is particularly special because I have had to do it with my debilitating circumstances (whatever they may be).

We live in a world now in which being a victim is a position of power. It is a lever some of us are uniquely placed to pull. In my case, if I am so inclined, I can flick the mental health switch. Now, lots of people suffer mental health issues so nothing particularly unique about that. But if you know my story, whilst I’m not suggesting there aren’t others who have had things worse than me, I know I can get a pretty high score on that particular top trumps category if I want to pull the lever. But, of course, I don’t really want to do that because it is, frankly, a very manipulative thing to do. I don’t mind talking about my struggles with depression, but I really don’t want to be sharing it in order to get your sympathy or to use it as some sort of woe-is-me power play.

And, of course, in a community like mine trying to do that is utterly ridiculous. I could tell you a pretty grim story about my struggles with depression that, in the right circles, would get me a reaction that I can dine out on for a while. But it doesn’t really carry much weight when it is stacked next to my friend who suffers from a debilitating physical illness that will eventually kill him and who, himself, has had a particularly hard life that involved prison and the loss of his children. Nor does my story stack up so well against the dozens of stories of asylum seekers who have had to flee their homeland in the most desperate of circumstances and who have gotten to the UK only to find their circumstances not all that bright. Neither do my struggles come close to the countless mental health issues that are more deeply ingrined and serious than anything I have faced and are worse than most other stories of mental health I have come across.

These sorts of things are only within my church. I could recount all sorts of circumstances that are just beyond the imagination of most of us that are replete in my community who do not come to church. I might, by some measure, be able to count myself among the working class or on the cusp of it, but compared to most people in my community, my upbringing was positively cushy. I had two parents at home who loved me, I generally had enough food to eat and heating on in my home. I think there was only a couple of years in which my childhood was ‘deprived’ in any way and I was too young to really get that was the case. For the most part, my life really has not been all that hard. I won’t be winning any victim points stacked up next to most of my neighbours lives.

But even if you can somehow objectively measure these things, and you do manage to win the trophy for most hard-bitten, traumatic life on the planet, what do we gain through such competitive suffering? We might assume that we’ll get a bit of sympathy and attention. But, of course, if we keep pulling that lever we won’t. We will simply find people get frustrated that every time they are suffering, we press the button to make our suffering known. People won’t give us the feel-goods, they will come to believe that we are simply uninterested in them and their problems because we want to story top them every time they share what is troubling them. In the end, it doesn’t even do what we would hope.

There is plenty of this sort of competitiveness about. We can attempt to play comeptitive positive attributes i.e. look at me, I’m the best at… Or, we can play competitive misery i.e. look at me, I suffer the most because… But in the church, these things should not be so. We are called to bear with one another. We are meant to be a body that rejoices and grieves together. We aren’t clled to competitive anything other than outdoing one another in love. And we aren’t really loving anybody by one-upping each other in our attempts to win sympathy. We don’t weep with those who weep but end up undermining those who weep by insisting our suffering is worse than theirs.

And there can be all sorts of motives behind our doing it. We could be jealous of the sympathy somebody else is getting and seek it for ourselves. We could be affronted that somebody, in our view, has objectively suffered less than us and we want to set the record straight that some people have suffered far more seriously. We might simply feel that people haven’t looked at us lately. But whatever the reason, competitiveness – however it manifests – is not loving, it is not kind, it does not credit the gospel and it doesn’t even achieve – just like most sin – what we hope it would in the end anyway.

We once had a member of our home group, no longer with the church, who was expert at this. I think the nadir came when, during a study where we were looking at the work of Bonhoeffer – having recounted about persecution and explained how he understood well what he was talking about in the end – his hanging at the hands of the Nazis was brushed aside as better than this person’s particular suffering. It was astounding in its lack of self-awareness. Sadly, every week the group was hijacked by competitive misery. In the end, the sympathy that was being sought simply never came as people grew increasingly weary with what became obvious was not a sharing of suffering with a genuine desire for support but an ungodly, competitive desire for attention and an unwillingness for anyone else to be permitted to be seen or heard.

We need to avoid this sort of competitive misery. We need to work hard to push away the ungodly desire to play suffering top trumps. The fruit of the Spirit is not this, but joy and peace and love and kindness. Such competitiveness is not the Spirit at work in us, but the old man. In Christ, we need not wallow in our victimhood but have victory. By the Spirit, we need not one-up others with our misery, but may face trials with joy. Let’s keep in step with the Spirit, remember our victorious standing in Christ and reject such competitiveness, instead seeking to build one another up in love.