Suffering is not a norm.
Is it possible for Communities of Color to balance their cultural history without normalizing suffering?
Last night, I was at dinner with a friend from the Latinx community, and we began to talk about our lives and our current struggles. Inevitably, we had barely caught up on our struggles before we started qualifying them with one another and comparing them to the struggle of our parents.
For all immigrants and third-culture kids, it’s pretty safe to say that most of us understand suffering and have grown up with stories of our parents’ struggles – politically and financially.
It’s important for us to recount these stories and to understand and value our family history, especially when these are the stories that are often left behind by history books, movies, and novels.
However, is there a point when retelling these stories normalizes suffering?
As much as it is important to use the struggles of our parents and ancestors to motivate us, it can be extremely isolating and devaluing to compare your own life and struggles with the ones of past generations.
So many of us are told that we should stop complaining about negative comments, or bullying in school, or struggling with our education or peer groups because our parents had it worse. I think that there is a valuable lesson of human perseverance here. But I also think that repeating the idea that “other people have it worse” can be incredibly unproductive.
These ideas can even leak into conversations of mental health.
In my personal experience with depression, I have experienced it both as a result of grief and emotional abuse, and as a recurring illness. When I was 16, my grandmother passed away, and her sudden death and all the family drama surrounding it brought me into one of the deepest depressions of my life. She got sick and passed away in the span of 3 months – between August and October.
For about 6 full years after this experience, I would struggle with depression during those months like clockwork. Nothing had to happen, and it wasn’t brought on by a different traumatic experience every time. In fact, it often came up when everything else in my life was relatively normal and stable. It can make you feel completely crazy when your brain and body are telling you that nothing matters, that we all die anyway, and that life is full of suffering.
The first time I opened up to my parents about depression and the way I was feeling was when I was 16. The response I received was a literal slap across the face and a lecture on how there was nothing in my life to be depressed about. How my parents always had it worse, and that my life was perfect.
My life has never been “perfect,” and neither has our parents. However, playing into this “Oppression Olympics” does nothing for the wounded.
When our parents replay their own stories of suffering and peril for us, they are spreading the message that what happened to them is normal. They are telling themselves that that is the bar from which we live our lives.
No one’s idea of normal should stem out of a traumatic event.
Children should not feel that their suffering and pain is invalid simply because it looks different than the suffering of our parents. It’s time that we understand suffering – emotional, political, or financial – can look different for everyone, and that suffering is painful without devaluing it. We need to meet this suffering with deep empathy and greet our children with a deep sense of belonging.
Do you have any stories of suffering like this? Share them in the comments below!