There are two versions of the hardship-olympics that I see at play on Facebook on a daily basis, both are equally obnoxious and pointless. The first is when someone sharing their latest woe (eg, “my car won’t start and I need to go pick up my kid from kindy”), is responded to by the hardship-olympian (“just be glad you have a car and kids, I’m too poor to own a car and I’ve been trying to have kids for years!”) The second sort are the passive aggressive status updates that follow the hardship-olympian reading someone else’s woes but choosing not to respond directly (eg, “don’t you hate it when people moan about their car not starting, but you’ve never even owned a car to complain about!”) Both sorts are a claim that the first person lacks perspective, and that the hardship-olympian is the enlightened person with “true perspective.”
All it really achieves is treating the other person’s life and emotions like they’re unimportant, and should be kept to themselves. It also makes the hardship-olympian look like an ignorant self-righteous individual, because you can just as easily attack their own “look at me” complaint. For example, with “how about you stop complaining about your friend having a car and a child, at least you live in a country where women are allowed to drive cars and you have a partner to try to conceive with.” There is no natural end to the hardship-olympics. (Even “at least you’re not dead” can be countered with “I’d rather be dead than experiencing endless suffering.”)
The hardship-olympics are huge in the autism social community. It’s obvious at the internal level; where those with children experiencing severe autism try to put those with milder symptom “in their place” (“at least you can talk, my child is non-verbal”). But it is also ever-present in the Mummy Wars, where if a “normal” mother ever dare complain about, for example, taking her child to soccer, she is told to be glad her child can even leave the house.
I get it, I really do, because I feel the frustration too. A lot. But I realised very early on that those other mothers live in a different world than I do, a world they are unaware of but can’t be held morally responsible for their lack of awareness. Before I had kids I was unaware of the hardships of motherhood, and before I had a special needs child I was blissfully unaware of what it was like to be part of a community where disabilities are the norm and not the exception anymore (and an awareness that in reality, they’re never really an exception so much as an inevitability the longer you live, the more things you experience, and the more people you meet).
The latest all-purpose “get some perspective” attack, is referring to the children in Syria to put someone else in their place. And the most common use of it over the last two days, has been an attack on anyone who dares to mention or have an opinion on Miley Cyrus’ twerking episode. “Stop going on about Miley Cyrus, there are children dying in Syria!” This is just another version of the hardship-olympics; you’re trying to tell someone their perspective, opinion and experiences don’t matter, because someone somewhere has life harder.
Here’s the problem with such grand-scale “get some perspective” attack: They’re making the same errors over and over, that apply as much as to autism hardship competing as to Miley Cyrus opinions: (1) You’re assuming an inability of the person you are attacking to care about more than one thing: Guess what, they can both care about Miley Cyrus AND care about the children in Syria! (2) There will always be someone or some place in the world that is worse off; right now Syria is on our radar, but those standing on their righteous podium about Syria need to be aware that there are plenty of other countries and people facing daily suffering too, and by the same reasoning, neither do those hardships mean that Syria doesn’t matter. Suffering and caring are not competitions. I could just as easily attack people who care about autism and disability issues, by telling them they should stop that rubbish and focus on Syria. (3) The idea that we must all be deadly serious all the time. That it is some personal failure to take a momentary interest in something not serious or not important. People are allowed to have diverse interests and shifting priorities from hour to hour, or day-to-day; judging them on what they like or care about this very second, is just ridiculous.
There are times when the hardship-olympics, or the Miley Cyrus versus Syria issues, do matter: When there are limited resources to go around. If you’re trying to figure out whether funding should go to those with severe or mild needs for autism, then it may make sense to focus time and efforts accordingly, but even then it wouldn’t negate the issues faced by those with different needs. Or if you think a newspaper sacrificed headline space to Miley Cyrus when it should have been talking about Syria; depending on the type of newspaper, that may indeed be a fair critique, due to why the newspaper exists and what priorities we expect to be highlighted when we pay for the paper. But neither of those sorts of more legitimate concerns are at play in forums like Facebook and in everyday conversations, where it is actually OK to deviate from constantly focusing on the worst events and experiences the world has to offer. It’s actually OK to care about your own children, it’s OK to worry about your mother’s cancer, it’s OK to wonder about Miley’s ethics; it does NOT make you a bad person. The person attacking you for daring to care about something different from what they do, for daring to live your life and worry about those closer to you; that person lacking compassion and the perspective of a real friend, is closer to a “bad person” in my books.
Why do I care enough about this to write a post? Is it because someone attacked something I said or wrote on any of these topics recently? Not at all. I see it happening between my friends all the time lately, but even that nuisance factor doesn’t go to the heart of why this upsets me enough to blog on it, it just pushes it to the forefront of my mind. The reason I care so much is because I’ve seen what this “forced perspective taking” has done to some very sensitive people who I’ve known throughout my life. I’ve seen them in tears because they feel guilty for even worrying about something that matters dearly to them – because they think that made them bad people in others’ eyes and evidences their selfish flaws. I’ve seen people be too afraid to talk openly about and seek help for their troubles, because they think their troubles don’t matter more than everyone’s elses and they’re just being self-involved or stupid. I’ve seen and heard people second-guess whether they and their views matter at all, because they get told they don’t and that what they think doesn’t count in the grand-scheme of things.
I’ve had enough of seeing the most sensitive people being told they dare not care about themselves and their own lives, because someone else somewhere in the world has it worse than they do. When you get close to burn-out and need help and reassurance, you’re told to think of the children in Syria instead, as if that’s going to solve your problems or make your day better. All it does is push you closer to burn-out, and someone fragile and needy can’t do anything to help Syria anymore than the people yelling at them that they should.
Syria matters. Autism matters. Motherhood matters. A broken-down car matters. None of these things mattering, negates the others. It’s OK to care that Miley Cyrus doesn’t twerk very well. It’s OK that you exist, and that you sometimes have feelings and experiences that aren’t as bad as your neighbours. Someone suffering more than you doesn’t make them a better person than you, and someone yelling at you on the internet for not suffering enough to matter, is not a better person than you either. A friend who hears about your inability to pick your child up from kindy that day, offers to help you out, they don’t take the opportunity to belittle you.