For the past little while I have noticed the word “trauma” pop up quite a bit in many of the books, podcasts and articles I’ve been consuming. One day, upon realizing that this word seemed to be trending in my digital world, I texted a friend and said something to the effect of, “If I haven’t experienced trauma in my life, does that make me unqualified to speak on pain? Am I less relatable because I haven’t experienced real suffering? And is it just me or does it feel it’s a competition to see who has suffered the most?!”
These musings sparked a conversation between us, and ultimately I came to the strange awareness that I often feel guilty about not having suffered as much as others. I began to feel self-conscious about the lack of pain I’ve experienced in my life, even doubting my own credibility as a writer. At the same time, it seemed really twisted that I would feel guilty about having a wonderful life. Suddenly I found myself feeling guilty for feeling guilty!
But then, one morning while listening to a podcast, two women were discussing this very idea. One of them said: “In our world today, people participate in the ‘Suffering Olympics,’ and only the person who wins the gold medal is allowed to speak.” That hit me like a ton of bricks, not only because the concept had been weighing so heavily on me, but also because it made me feel a little less crazy, like, ok—I’m not just imagining this phenomenon; it’s a real thing.
We needn’t feel guilty about the unique trials and personal suffering we experience, deeming it unworthy because it doesn’t fit some kind of definition of “real pain” or “the worst kind of trauma.”
Sometime last year, I remember telling my friend Autumn about some of the struggles I had been dealing with, after which I immediately apologized for “whining” so much. I’m sure you’ve done this too—felt like you didn’t have a right to complain about your life when so many people have it so much worse. But her response really touched me when she said, “Lindsay. Don’t diminish your pain; a struggle is a struggle is a struggle.” And hearing her say that helped me come to my senses about the hardships I face. When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense for us to undermine our trials and the emotions we feel surrounding them, as if a pain scale exists and the “pain police” are keeping track of whether our struggles are valid. We are entitled to our feelings, and suffering is NOT a competition. Maybe you’ve heard that saying about how comparing our pain should be just as nonsensical as comparing our happiness. We don’t walk around telling ourselves we shouldn’t be happy because other people are happier, right? Thus, we needn’t feel guilty about the unique trials and personal suffering we experience, deeming it unworthy because it doesn’t fit some kind of definition of “real pain” or “the worst kind of trauma.”
Joy can and SHOULD be our ultimate goal.
I believe there is purpose in pain, but I don’t believe pain is the purpose. I believe pain can teach us a great deal, but I don’t believe pain should define us. And we shouldn’t aim to worship pain, either. So often we think that if we aren’t dealing with something hard, we lack worth or feel we have nothing valuable to offer. It’s the whole tortured artist theme. But the truth is that joy can and SHOULD be our ultimate goal, and I believe that the times in our lives when we are feeling the most joyful are the times that we have the most to give.
Of course, unwanted challenges and unexpected obstacles will inevitably show up, and much of the time we must make a very conscious choice to CHOOSE joy. But being a joyful person is not a crime, and admitting to the world that you had a joyful past or are a happy person should never be a source of shame or guilt. Joy should be something we all seek for ourselves and those we love.
Autumn, as she always does, brought me back down to earth, reminding me that sometimes the joy we feel in life is a direct result of our good choices as well as the choices of those who came before us and paved the way. This sentiment left me thinking about the early Mormon pioneers who left their homes to travel across the country on foot so they could escape religious persecution. Their strong faith fueled their fortitude to endure the trials that occurred as they dealt with the harsh elements, extreme temperatures, loss of family members, and waning food supplies on their journey to the west. Their sacrifices and suffering were endless, and yet they chose to withstand because they knew it would all be worth it.
I thought about how their strength and perseverance made it possible for me to live a life of ease and joy. Their dedication to their faith was passed down through the generations before me, and as a result, my parents taught my sisters and me the value of making good choices. They were able to provide us with an idyllic (not perfect) childhood, while instilling in us strong core values that armed us with confidence to live in a way that aligned with our beliefs, and ultimately pass our knowledge onto our own children.
I am greatly indebted to my ancestors for their choices. In that moment I stopped feeling guilty and started feeling grateful.
If you have experienced real trauma and suffered immensely, whether at the hands of others or as a result of choices you may now regret, remember that there is purpose in your pain, but your pain is not the purpose. Acknowledging our pain and working to move past it is essential to be able to experience real joy. But dwelling in, comparing, bragging about or feeling competitive about pain is not encouraging ourselves or others to focus on the real reason we are on this earth: to experience joy.
We are not competing in a “Suffering Olympics,” despite how it may sometimes feel. You are not more credible than me because you had a traumatic past. I am not more credible than you because I had a joyful past. We will all experience pain in various stages and levels in our lives, and more importantly, we are all worthy and deserving of joy. Our purpose is not rooted in whether or not we suffered and overcame; rather, our purpose is rooted in the choices that we make.
I choose guilt-free joy, now and forever, and I hope you do, too.