Not too long ago I saw a meme come across my social media feed stating, “90% of your life is a reflection of your habits”. It went on to say that your weight, health, financial stability, and happiness are up to you. While I value self-responsibility this post felt, well, privileged. I get the same feeling from spiritual gurus or self-help experts who turn around and gaslight followers who fail to find relief–the sufferer just didn’t try hard enough.
I get to witness the journeys and sufferings of people from all walks of life. Some individuals are depressed, despite their best efforts. Some struggle to maintain financial stability despite having two jobs, saving, and having a strong work ethic. Some suffer from health problems despite efforts to exercise and eat a balanced diet. I think it is important to realize that despite our best efforts suffering still happens. In fact, suffering is a universal human experience.
I attended a Survivor Celebration with 24 Hours in the Canyon Cancer Survivorship Center a few years back. Ethan Zohn spoke at the event. He won the TV show Survivor, he has run marathons, and he is a former professional soccer player. He also survived cancer twice. At the end of his talk someone asked a question about diet and exercise, preventative health. As I remember it Zohn stated, “Look, I did everything right and I got cancer twice”. I can only imagine how validating it was for everyone in the room to hear.
I think it is important to pause here and acknowledge that there is a benefit to blaming ourselves or others for suffering. If we can pin our suffering on something we did or did not do the world feels a little safer. We may feel more in control. But having witnessed the suffering of hundreds of people, it just doesn’t work that way. Suffering exists even when we do everything “right”.
Jennifer Baldwin in her book Trauma Sensitive Theology (2018) discusses the privilege of non-primary traumatization. She states, “The ability to allocate resources into areas of life other than survival and recovery is privilege”. Privilege happens when I assume that the differences in me and you are a result of my character or efforts; when I do not take into consideration all you have done to survive and recover. I might assume that I am less affected by a similar experience because of my own efforts, without considering the immensely important influence of support systems and resources that I had access to. I might assume that I am less affected by depression simply because I do all the “right” things. On the other side of this, I may blame myself when I suffer. If I am anxious, maybe I’m not doing it right, maybe I should pray more. I may assume I should be able to just think my way out of this. When this doesn’t work I feel more shame.
It is important to consider the privilege of wellness because it changes the way we treat ourselves and others in suffering. What if instead of judging, comparing, or minimizing someone’s experiences we instead assume that they are doing the best they can? That there is more to the story and perhaps they are surviving the best they know how? Perhaps all their energy is spent surviving, inhibiting other areas of growth.
I care about intentional interventions. I believe we do hold some responsibility for our wellness, but to assume that suffering is a lack of effort or intention is harmful. We know that healing is difficult and painful. We know that trauma may result in immobilization and secondary gains, making change risky. So, if you find yourself judging someone in their suffering, practice being the compassionate witness instead. Simply acknowledge the suffering and be kind. No rescuing or solutions are necessary. To love someone is to see them fully. Stay curious. Take care of you.