“It is easy to tell the toiler
How best he can carry his pack
But no one can rate a burden’s weight
Until it has been on his back”
― Ella Wheeler Wilcox
“How are you?” I asked.
“Fine,” she answered.
Clearly, she was not fine.
Her eyes were red, she looked like she hadn’t slept in a day or two, and her clothes were wrinkled.
Why wouldn’t she just share what was bothering her?
It was out of my control, and all I could do was try to be available if she wanted to talk.
I’ve been in her shoes. When you feel life’s stress on your shoulders, it can be overwhelming. The load can be heavier than a well-stocked backpack, and no one wants to put that on someone else’s back. But as Ms. Wilcox aptly points out, until you have had a burden on your own back, it’s very difficult to rate its weight when someone else is carrying it.
Three years ago, the words above landed on my paper, and I left them sitting on the page until now, until I recently noticed how many people are dealing with heaviness in their lives that seems so much greater than my stubbed toe from three months ago that I finally have decided is broken.
My toe hurts. I don’t go around telling everyone that my toe hurts, but it does, and in some moments, it is all I can think about it. It is not nearly as meaningful or painful as what you might be experiencing, but it is my pain in those moments. Until you’ve had a broken toe, you can’t appreciate what a pain it can be, but once you have, you know.
Back to the people who I’ve been thinking of lately. You aren’t going to know when you pass them in the grocery that their child died too soon, or that they have a spouse at home who is in a fight for their life against some disease.
Maybe you are that person. People won’t see you at the traffic light, sitting for an extra few seconds wrapped up in thoughts of how to tell your kids their father has left them. They’ll just assume you aren’t a very attentive driver, which might be true but is not the whole story.
It’s not uncommon for us to feel as if our struggles and concerns — the loss of pay, the friend who hasn’t called, the late fee we’re going to have to pay for not paying our bill on time — are monumental, only to feel ashamed of how minor they are when we hear of someone else’s “real” problems.
Listen up, with 7.7 billion people living in the world, and 331 million in the United States, there is a good chance that someone else has problems you’ve never experienced, but none of their problems negate the pain you are experiencing, no matter how inconsequential you believe it might be.
When the app says your package was delivered, but there’s nothing at the front door, it affects your day as you take the time to ask around the neighborhood in hopes of finding the missing delivery, only to discover that the app was wrong, and it won’t arrive until tomorrow. It’s not the same kind of problem that someone who is watching for the lines on a pregnancy test to appear (that’s how it used to be, at least) is experiencing, but it’s still a problem. A very real problem.
Why write an article on people and problems? Because as John Watson (aka Ian Maclaren) wrote in the 1800s, Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. (No, it wasn’t Plato who wrote that)
I’m concerned that two things are happening today.
- We overlook the fact that most people whose paths we cross are fighting hard battles, wearing heavy packs, that are affecting the way they feel/think/behave. We too often expect everyone to be happy and full of joy, when most people are looking for permission to not always have to wear a brave face.
- We learn of other people’s struggles and are quick to minimize our own as not worthy of our sadness/frustration/anger. We tell ourselves and often others that we shouldn’t make such a big deal over something so small — hoping that they won’t view us as a whiner.
Be kind to the people whose paths you cross and to the person who walks with you every step of the day (yourself). Look into the eyes of people you meet. They might not tell you that they are homesick, that they are lonely, or that they are afraid of not having something to eat. Their snippy response might feel rude, but there’s a chance that they had a flat tire on the way to work.
The young person who forgets to hold the door for you might not mean to be rude; they are just preoccupied with their fear over failing a class. And in any one of these scenarios, that person might be you, and no one deserves your kindness as much as you do.
Let people off the hook.
Even when we’ve carried a similar burden ourselves, we cannot know what another person’s pain feels like. Save your judgment of “It could be worse,” (of course, it could), and just offer a little kindness — to others and to yourself.
Susan Black Steen is a writer and photographer, a native Tennessean and a graduate of Austin Peay State University. With a firm belief that words matter, she writes and speaks to bring joy, comfort and understanding into each life. Always, she writes from her heart in hopes of speaking to the hearts of others.