A few weeks ago Natasha and I were sitting with several friends enjoying the last of an unseasonably warm November outside at a pool hall (that location is only relevant for the readers of the blog who know that I once was Harold Hill, which number now includes you). A lot of the discussion was in regards to the recent election, especially the many difficulties that the new administration would likely cause marginalized people.
“It’s just so frustrating,” said one of our friends, a brilliant adult sexuality educator who recently returned to school for an advanced degree. “I hear these cis het white male types complaining about how their parent’s check might come a little late this year, and I want to scream ‘This is your only problem?’” She continued to describe how blind to privilege many of her classmates were, and how they really had no reason to complain at all.
The conversation went on for quite a while before we bid our fond farewells – I told that friend specifically that I am extremely glad I know her, because she brings interesting and thoughtful ideas to the table. When we got in the car, though, Natasha and I both expressed the same thought: “She has never had to worry about health insurance.” Our friend is Canadian, you see, and they figured out this stuff a while ago.
There is No Misery Olympics.
Well, there might be, if you’re Monty Python. But the idea that someone’s suffering is less or more is false, because suffering is both subjective and optional. And it’s not just that you can’t know how much someone is suffering – you also do not understand their backstory. Many people who appear to have the most “perfect” lives deal with psychological or physical abuse, neglect, or even just the constant stress of having to maintain that particular level of affluence.
On the other hand, according to happiness researchers,
“Subjective well-being encompasses three different aspects: cognitive evaluations of one’s life, positive emotions (joy, pride), and negative ones (pain, anger, worry). While these aspects of subjective well-being have different determinants, in all cases these determinants go well beyond people’s income and material conditions… – The World Happiness Report, emphasis added
Instead, they ask the “Cantril Ladder” question:
“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?
Obviously, two people could both say they felt they were at rung 7, while being in completely different life circumstances.
Most of the time people use these kinds of studies to prove that “money can’t buy happiness” or somesuch. Another way to look at it, though, is that you can’t know how much a person is suffering based on their external appearances.
Of course, what my friend was really frustrated by was at the lack of understanding those young affluent types were showing of all of the advantages and fortune they enjoyed. In other words, they were blind to their privilege – as are we all. Privilege is something that everyone enjoys in some way, and it’s hard to recognize because it’s literally built into the world around you, like air.
“But I can see and feel air!” you might say, to which I say: No you can’t. You can see the effects of air (wind), you can see air when it has something floating in it (smoke), you can feel it when you do something to it (breathing). Aside from that, though, you don’t spend much time thinking about air in your day – unless perhaps you suffer from asthma, at which point the lack of air makes it pretty important.
Privilege is the same way. You only tend to notice it when it is floating in front of you (such as the people our friend was talking about) or when your access to it suddenly changes (such as the shift of racial demographics in the U.S.).
Which means that if you are complaining about someone else not being aware of their privilege, the odds are that you are also ignoring a pretty huge chunk of your own.
That’s not a fault. It’s human nature! My friend was describing how people just like me had few, if any, problems that needed addressing. She was mostly right, except where she wasn’t: many people who look just like me are discovering that their access to health care is likely to be vastly reduced. It’s the literal definition of life-threatening, but she never considered it, because it’s not something she has to worry about.
In this world of everybody putting out their highlight reels – both of how great things are and also how awful they are – I’m going to put out a suggestion that we all try and remember that we don’t really know jack about how much or how little others suffer. And maybe practicing a little compassion, even just on the level of “Well, I guess it’s important to them, even if I don’t understand it” can go a long way towards working on the things that actually improve lives.
Arguing about how full or empty the glass is doesn’t quench anyone’s thirst.