Comparative suffering, judgment, and more

all the feelings in a pandemic

I saw a quote from Damian Barr awhile back: “We are not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm. Some are on super-yachts. Some have just the one oar.”

We are definitely not all on the same boat. Some of us are weathering this storm with supportive partners, some are stuck at home alone or with less than supportive partners. Some of us are financially stable, some of us are a year into a personal financial crisis.

But the unique situation of all being in the same storm has created a lot of interesting social situations.

comparative suffering

Usually, we’re not even all in the same storm (other than the general storm called life). In this highly unusual situation, we are all a year into a global pandemic, and that invites a lot of “shoulds” around how people feel they should be feeling, or how hard they might have it compared to other people.

Someone on a yacht might look over at the single working mom with no support, rowing tirelessly in her little canoe, and think well she has it way worse in this storm. I at least have a motorized vehicle, and am safe from the elements. So who am I to complain about anything on my yacht? Seeing your own suffering as less than can lead to repressing or ignoring your own feelings around it. Or feel shame for the amount of privilege you have that you are relatively unaffected.

On the flip side, you may have less empathy for those who you deem to have “nicer boats.” Parents in the pandemic may roll their eyes at their child-less coworkers or friends or random twitter people — You have it so easy, you don’t even know it. You can just hunker down, take care of yourself, watch Netflix every night…your house stays clean, you have time to work without dealing with distance learning, I don’t even want to hear your hardships.

But every morning that they’re at my house, my kids wait for me to wake up to give me snuggles. They provide much-needed structure and joy.

Isolation is literally how we torture people, and for days at a time, not months going on a year.

How do you both acknowledge that some people are having a harder time in the storm, while still acknowledging the suffering in anyone’s hardships?

how are you doing?

When people ask me how I’m doing, I often say “I’m good. You know, no active fires to put out…so that’s good.” The standards are lower these days. Part of that is knowing that I’m in a reasonably stable boat — so I feel a need to find a response that feels…not tone-deaf. I want to acknowledge the suffering and loss that is going on in the world. It’s a weird situation where the micro situation (partner, work, family) is quite good, and the macro situation (nation, pandemic, systemic injustice) is quite bad.

I’m working from home, my kids are doing well, and compared to my life a few years ago when I was burnt out, rushing to get two kids out the door, walking them to daycare and preschool, and commuting two hours to SF and back each day, my day-to-day is comparatively not that challenging.

I’ve spoken to other people who admitted to me a bit bashfully that they were…thriving! Freed from their toxic physical workspaces, they were able to dial into zoom meetings, do the rest of their work in the comfort of their home, and have ample time for creative pursuits they’d been pushing off for years. The storm was the perfect environment for them — it forced them to change their routines, freed up time, and created space to thrive.

Someone else I know spent most of the pandemic on maternity leave, thankful for her loving partner being able to work from home, and the complete absence of FOMO that often faces new moms as they watch their childless friends enjoying tropical vacations and non-kid-friendly adventures.

Knowing that others have lost loved ones to COVID, haven’t been able to see their grandparents before they passed, you don’t want to shout from the rooftops, “I’m living my best life!!” and to be honest, when I see that sort of behavior, I cringe at the total lack of self-awareness.

How do you both acknowledge the massive loss of the past year, while also making space for joy and celebration?


Post-COVID, people’s friendships are going to look a lot different. When we’re not in the same storm, if someone chooses to do something you find questionable or might not do, it’s easily to chalk it up to “well, I’m sure they had a good reason.”

Being in the same storm means people are faced with a lot of the same decisions and similar context, and it becomes easy to judge people. Did you engage in unnecessary travel? Did you quarantine and follow local health orders? Did you say you had been careful before we hung out in person, but actually you forgot to mention other risky activities? Did you wait your turn to get a vaccine?

I’m not sure many of the friendships where people landed on vastly different sides of those issues will survive.

Recently, someone told me that another way to think of judgment (which feels negative, like ugh you’re so judgmental) is discernment. Maybe the pandemic created the conditions to see, are these people I thought were my friends…are we really values-aligned? And is that important to me in a friendship?

To me, it’s not important to me that we keep in touch regularly as friends. I have friends I haven’t spoken to in years, but when we re-connect, we pick up right where we left off. I won’t hold that against them (we’ll see if they hold it against me). But if you’ve behaved recklessly or selfishly or put people’s lives in danger, or acted out of integrity, that’s harder for me to get past.

How do you both cut people some slack as so many people are low-functioning right now, and also see that people’s true colors come out in times of crisis?

I don’t know that I have any wise words to end with. These are situations and changes I’ve observed over the past year, and ones that I am still grappling with as well. This post on Comparative Suffering has some suggestions around therapy, gratitude, and social support that are good.

As for myself, I’ve been trying to help out those who may need extra help in this storm, while not diminishing my own challenges and hardships. To let myself feel joy or sadness, without getting caught up in comparison or “should” I feel these feelings. To not do harm to others or put others’ health at risk. And to be ok with letting go of some relationships that I don’t feel are values-aligned.