”Other People Have It Worse”: Modern Stoicism and Self Pity

Does knowing that someone else has it worse than you really ease your suffering? As I thought about this, I was seared with a memory from years ago. I had just broken up with my first girlfriend. “It’s okay Nathan. There’s plenty more fish in the sea.” The Confucian advice was from my well meaning dad. I just sat crying into my rice as my mom and sister exchanged glances and shook their heads. Another memory flows from its subconscious dregs into my mind — a recent friend of mine became a pastor in a rough area. Being from a more privileged background, the suffering and disorder he encountered was overwhelming. One way he continued to keep himself going was by minimizing his difficulties. After all, how can he complain when so many of his flock have it worse?

Thinking through this matters because suffering is real. In fact, it may the most real part of life. Life is suffering. Unless you close your eyes. So how do you find comfort? How do you counsel? And how do you understand what you will inevitably go through at some point in life? Without understanding suffering you may find yourself broken, shipwrecked, and damaged beyond recognition. You may become someone you never knew.

This was the case for many wives and children waiting to welcome their dads home after the Vietnam war, only to receive someone who was dad half the time and a raging alcoholic the other. This is the case for every single guy and girl after a break up or divorce. Who will they be now? The gym provides little answer.

While reminding yourself of the triviality of your suffering keeps self pity and pride in check, its objectivity doesn’t help you suffer well. It doesn’t give you the resolve to overcome it or to ease its sting. Suffering is costly. It eats you up the more you have it. Everyone has a breaking point. At its worse, such a stoic saying simply denies it and leads to the pretense that “I’m fine. And you’re fine.” And therefore nobody is.

It is written somewhere in the Psalms that those who sow with tears will reap with shouts of joy. As I listened to pastor Tim Keller preach from this Psalm I realized this: that what comforts and heals and changes you is not knowing that people have it worse but that no one had it worse than Jesus. This man was a man of sorrows. But his sorrows were for you. His life was one trial after another and ended in agony – forsaken by God and condemned to die nailed on a tree by men. And it was all for the joy set before him.

Just as he wept for the death of his friend Lazarus, he wept bittersweet tears on that cross for us. His pain was undiminished. But his resolve was firm. And his joy was magnified. Because he knew it would reconcile humanity to God and ultimately fix this broken world. The darkness of alienation from God and men was worth every tear if it meant we could share his joy.

So when I suffer, without denying what I experience, I can remember that Jesus had it worse. I can continue to live, sowing tears and knowing that not one will fall to the ground and be wasted. Each drop will be reaped with joy. And though we don’t quite know what suffering will do to us, we know that we will be like him and see him as he is – one who suffered and triumphed and laughed over life even in death. This is the hope of redemption and the immeasurable glory that no suffering can overcome.