We are all trying to wade through a sea of uncertainty as the world brings us new challenges every single day.

If you read my previous note, you know I’ve struggled with navigating the privilege I’ve felt throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve felt guilt over grieving my expectations for 2020 as events continue to get cancelled and social distancing orders get extended. I’ve gone down rabbit holes of reading negative things all over the internet about selfishness and guilt; allowing myself to wallow in self talk such as “Suck it up. You’re fine.” and “You don’t deserve to feel hurt through this.” I’ve wrestled with fear and anxiety. I’ve felt all of this, while knowing so many others are experiencing far worse than me.

After much introspection, I came across a concept that turns all of this on its head — we have to stop ranking suffering.

We have to stop ranking suffering.

There will always be someone with more pain, with more suffering, or who is worse off than you, within the COVID-19 pandemic and outside of it. Pain is pain. Hurt is hurt. This was difficult for me to grasp. How is my pain just as valid as a nurse’s, doctor’s, first responder’s, or a struggling small business owner’s?

Pain is pain. Hurt is hurt.

It wasn’t until I was able to accept the idea of infinite empathy that I was able to stop comparative suffering. If we give ourselves the space and freedom to feel suffering, it doesn’t reduce our ability to show empathy toward those on the front lines battling COVID-19. Empathy is not finite.

Empathy is not finite.

We don’t have to share someone’s exact experience to show empathy. I don’t have to know exactly what it’s like on the floor of an E.R. where beds are scarce, supplies are limited, and sickness is rampant. What I need to understand is that this experience causes pain. It causes fear. I am also feeling pain and fear. Sure, our experiences are definitely not the same, but the emotional outcomes are similar. Acknowledging and accepting that I am feeling pain and fear does not reduce my ability to show empathy or compassion for others feeling similarly. If anything, it increases my capacity to do so.

We have to stop comparative suffering. We have to give ourselves the space to feel pain, grief, anxiety, etc, whatever the mix of emotions might be. In doing so, we open ourselves up to being able to fully empathize with others. Doing this is not selfish. It is brave.

There is certainly no magic formula or perfect resolution for how to navigate the complexity of the story history that is currently writing. This is not to reduce the selflessness and experiences of those on the front lines who are battling COVID-19. This is simply something to be cognizant of as we lean on each other to navigate this uncharted territory.

Pain is pain, and empathy is not finite.

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I’m going to give this another quick callout — if you haven’t had a chance to check out Brené Brown’s work, I cannot recommend it enough. If you aren’t into reading, she recently released a podcast called Unlocking Us.

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