Oh Yeah? I Can Top That!

We are a competitive lot, we humans. Even if we aren’t competing in the world or sports, we still seem to like a good contest. I’m guessing that many of you have been taking out those competitive instincts on your loved ones via board games and such during these strange time.

Hopefully, it has been peaceful for you – but I’m sure some of you are chuckling because sometimes board games become war games, even when they aren’t meant to be.

I’m a competitive guy. I like to win, but as I’ve gotten older, and I am more removed from competitive sports, that has ebbed somewhat. It is also possible that I have convinced myself that I’m not so competitive because I tend to lose more often than I used to. (Except Boggle – I remain lifetime undefeated.)

Competitiveness is really a fool’s errand. I like to toss out that “unless you are Michael Jordan, and the topic is basketball, there is always gonna be someone better at it than you are.”

Something I have noticed during the pandemic, is that competition doesn’t even need to be about sports and games. People like to compete about their experience – and not just playing one-upmanship with the things we excel at. We also seem to find some odd satisfaction in “getting the upper hand” when we discuss our woes. “You think that’s bad? Listen to what happened to me!”

(If you ever hear women talk about their war stories of having babies, you know exactly what I mean. For men, mission horror stories often fit the bill.)

For example: Last week I saw that someone posted a comment on Facebook about how disappointed their high school graduate was this year because they were missing out on Prom, graduation, and other once-in-a-lifetime activities.

One of the replies was this: “At least they aren’t heading off to war to fight the Nazis.”

Two thoughts:

  • Yes, this is true. Missing graduation is not like going to war.
  • Seriously? That’s your reply?

I see it a lot, and I understand that it is not necessarily coming from a place of meanness, but it can sure seem that way. To give them the benefit of the doubt, I imagine you could argue that they are merely trying to help the complainer keep things in proper perspective, and realize that maybe what they are experiencing isn’t really as bad as it could be. But is that our job?

I know I am guilty of this at times. And the older you get, the easier it gets, because you have more life experience to slap back with.

An old Monty Python sketch describes it perfectly. (Link to video at bottom of post)

Man #1: My old Dad used to say to me, ‘Money doesn’t buy you happiness.’

Man #2: He was right. I was happier then and I had NOTHIN’. We used to live in this tiny old house, with great big holes in the roof.

Man #3: House? You were lucky to have a HOUSE! We used to live in one room, all hundred and twenty-six of us, no furniture. Half the floor was missing; we were all huddled together in one corner for fear of FALLING!

Man #4: You were lucky to have a ROOM! We used to have to live in a corridor!

Man #5: Ohhhh we used to DREAM of livin’ in a corridor! Woulda’ been a palace to us.

an on it went….

Have I ever done this? Guilty as charged. Usually it is when I am discussing differences in my early years vs. my kids. You know the drill: Walked to school, uphill both ways, in the snow, etc.

Another side of this is when we point out how much worse things could be – hypothetically – even beyond our own experiences, i.e. the Nazi comment.

Why do we do this? Do we find a sense of accomplishment? Does it bolster our egos? Do we feel smart? I have been thinking about this a lot since my friend Dennis Gaunt mentioned this idea on Facebook after one of the recent Utah earthquakes.

From a scriptural standpoint, we are tasked to “…mourn with those that mourn; yea, and comfort those that stand in need of comfort…” (Mosiah 18:9)

How does the mantra “It could be worse,” align with this scripture? Is it comforting? I think not.

For example, my HS senior (Who you might have seen helping me cut my hair the other night) is missing the following:

  • Performing as a lead in the school musical
  • Choir trip to Disneyland
  • Physics trip to Magic Mountain
  • Week-long trip to Disneyworld
  • Attending and singing at baccalaureate
  • Graduation
  • Senior Prom
  • Mission postponement
  • etc.

It is true: He does not have to go to war; He does not have cancer. He is not fighting Covid-19. He is not blind, deaf, and living in a hut in Mozambique.

But so what? It is still a hard and disappointing time for him. Does pointing out what could be worse help him feel better? No. Or does telling him about how his grampa came home from graduation to find a draft notice in the mailbox help him feel better? No.

You know when you go to the doctor with pain and they ask you what your pain is on a scale of 1-10? That is always a hard question. In the context of one-upmanship, we need to remember that your scale of what is a “10,” could be completely different that my version of a “10.”

For example: I am pretty confident that what I would consider “Level 10 Pain,” would probably rank around a “Level 4 Pain” to my E.C. (She has had some doozies.)

Sure, if I were hurting she could tell me about how much worse she has experienced, but no matter how much she told me, it would not diminish the amount of pain that I would be feeling. Not a bit.

I have written about sympathy and empathy before, so I’m not going to dig into that here. Suffice to say that neither are in play when we are trying to top one another’s tales of woe.

To quote my friend Dennis, “In fact, those of you who HAVE experienced worse should be the first ones to offer words of comfort and empathy, without any sort of judgment. When people are hurt or afraid, the LAST thing they want/need to hear is that you once had it worse. That sort of dismissive attitude does precisely zero to help.”

Now as I was looking for a scriptural parallel, I ran smack into a road block that seems to contradict everything I have said so far. Allow me to explain:

When Joseph Smith was suffering in the Liberty Jai, he reached out to the Lord and told him about his and the saints suffering. The Lord’s response? A smackdown of ultimate one-upmanship. The Lord essentially said, “Brother, it could be a lot worse, and it’s not nearly as bad as I had it.”

“… if the very jaws of hell shall gape open the mouth wide after thee, know thou, my son, that all these things shall give thee experience, and shall be for thy good.

The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he? (D&C 122:7-8)

How to explain this apparent lack of empathy? I suppose that since Christ has TOTAL empathy, and has “suffered all things,” HE is the only one who can authoritatively put things into perspective whenever, and to whomever, He chooses.

For the record: I’m not Jesus. You’re not Jesus. So, the way I see it, neither one of us are qualified to act as if we have any room to compare. Christ has experienced the ultimate “Level 10 Pain,” and we aren’t even on the scale.

Better to focus on what Christ taught us: The Golden Rule comes into play when those around us are suffering. “Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them.” (Matt. 7:12).

Do I like it when someone minimizes my struggles or pain? Nope. Then I probably shouldn’t do that unto others. Sounds easy, but the reality is, I don’t always think through things before I speak – or type.

If you share with me your personal disappointments, anxieties, or woes, my responsibility is to try and mourn with you and comfort you. Not diminish what you are feeling, or “set you straight.”

I need to remember: It’s not about me. It’s about you.

Right now we have plenty of hardship and many new challenges ahead of us. Many are suffering, many are frightened. This unique situation presents us each with the opportunity to learn how to better “succor the week, lift up the hands which hang down, and strengthen the feeble knees.” (D&C 81:5)

When I diminish your pain, I diminish my worth. When I show true concern and empathy, I become more like my Savior.

When it comes to kindness, I’m obviously way better at it that you are. And Boggle. 😉

Stay safe, healthy and kind.

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  1. Amen.
    Also I always chuckle when i hear my husband start a sentence “I remember when…”

  2. Thanks for directing my thoughts to the Savior’s comment to Joseph…particularly helpful in these times, looked at in the way I think you intended.

    When He said “The Son of Man hath descended below them all. Art thou greater than he?” at first blush it doesn’t sound very…Christlike. But He is the Savior, so there must be more to it than that. What occurred to me is that perhaps He was directing Joseph’s attention to the best (and only) source of support he had, with the understanding that He alone could really understand Joseph’s pain. And the reminder that, no, he’s not greater than that, and so can be confident in leaning on the Savior for the support he needed.

    As can we all.

  3. As a therapist, it’s called accepting people where they are and working with them with “unconditional positive regard” (that was from Carl Rogers). Not everyone is a therapist, obviously. But we can call on our better selves to offer kindness and understanding to those that are feeling the effects of the changes in our society right now. Thank you for encouraging withholding judgment as we work to listen with compassion.

  4. Many abuse survivors have a habit of saying, “Well, it wasn’t as bad as…so why am I complaining?” We’ve had our pain diminished so often we think we should ignore it. However, ignoring it doesn’t change the fact that what happened was awful. True, it may not have been as bad as what happened to someone else, but we still have to live through it, work through it, and learn what we’re able from it. You’re right.

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