Oranges and chimpanzees

I’m writing this post while Ronin’s back in surgery, part deux.

Technically this surgery is an angioplasty to widen the main, left and right branches of his pulmonary artery. It isn’t as involved as the initial repair, but Ronin will still have his chest reopened and his heart stopped (again), so it’ll mean a lengthy stay in the OR. We’re hopeful that this will be the last surgery necessary so we can resume some semblance of normalcy back at home.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to write a bit about “oranges and chimpanzees.” It’s been on my mind for a little while now, but you know… life.

A lot of what I talk about and write about, a lot of what I’m asked about, and a lot of what everything seems to be about lately has been what’s going on with Ronin. And although I’m not apologizing for sharing testimony of the valleys and peaks of this season, I do want to take the time to highlight how much it’s made me aware of the universality of suffering.

We’re all going through something. Our somethings might look different, and comparatively some might seem silly when contrasted with others. But as my husband puts it, “You can’t compare oranges to chimpanzees.” (Believe it or not, I did not originally choose to marry this man for his Ben Franklin-like aphorisms.)

It’s probably obvious, but what Poor Raymond is saying is that it’s foolish to compare our circumstances – as if we’re examining to see who’s got it worse and who’s deserving of the most sympathy. Seeing our baby go through all of this has been extremely difficult, but it doesn’t outweigh anyone else’s troubles. The gravity may be different, but suffering is suffering, the pain is real, and we should be giving each other compassion regardless.

It reminds me of a passage from The Choice by Dr. Edith Eger, a Holocaust survivor who is still sharing her wisdom as a psychologist in San Diego. Here are Dr. Eger’s words:

“If you asked me for the most common diagnosis among the people I treat, I wouldn’t say depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, although these conditions are all too common among those I’ve known, loved, and guided to freedom. No, I would say hunger. We are hungry. We are hungry for approval, attention, affection. We are hungry for the freedom to embrace life and really know and be ourselves.

My own search for freedom and my years of experience as a licensed clinical psychologist have taught me that suffering is universal. But victimhood is optional. There is a difference between victimization and victimhood. We are all likely to be victimized in some way in the course of our lives. At some point, we will suffer some kind of affliction or calamity or abuse, caused by circumstances or people or institutions over which we have little or no control. This is life. And this is victimization. It comes from the outside. It’s the neighborhood bully, the boss who rages, the spouse who hits, the lover who cheats, the discriminatory law, the accident that lands you in the hospital.

In contrast, victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happens to us, but when we choose to hold onto our victimization. We develop a victim’s mind – a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own sailors when we choose the confines of the victim’s mind.

I want to make one thing very clear. When I talk about victims and survivors, I am not blaming victims – so many of whom never had a chance. I would never blame those who were sent right to the gas chambers or who died in their cot or even those who ran into the electric barbed wire fence. I grieve for all people everywhere who are sentenced to violence and destruction. I live to guide others to a position of empowerment in the face of all of life’s hardships.

I also want to say that there is no hierarchy of suffering. There is nothing that makes my pain worse or better than yours, no graph on which we can plot the relative importance of one sorrow versus another. People say to me, “Things in my life are pretty hard right now, but I have no right to complain – it’s not Auschwitz.” This kind of comparison can lead us to minimize or diminish our suffering. Being a survivor, being a “thriver” requires absolute acceptance of what was and what is. If we discount our pain, or punish ourselves for feeling lost or isolated or scared about the challenges in our lives, however insignificant these challenges may seem to someone else, then we’re still choosing to be victims. We’re not seeing our choices. We’re judging ourselves. I don’t want you to hear my story and say, “my own suffering is less significant.” I want you to hear my story and say, “If she can do it, then so can I!”

One morning I saw two patients back to back, both mothers in their forties. The first woman had a daughter who was dying of hemophilia. She spent most of her visit crying, asking how God could take her child’s life. I hurt so much for this woman – she was absolutely devoted to her daughter’s care, and devastated by her impending loss. She was angry, she was grieving, and she wasn’t at all sure that she could survive the hurt.

My next patient had just come from the country club, not the hospital. She, too, spent much of the hour crying. She was upset because her new Cadillac had just been delivered, and it was the wrong shade of yellow. On the surface, her problem seemed petty, especially compared to my previous patient’s anguish over her dying child. But I know enough about her to understand that her tears of disappointment over the color of her car were really tears of disappointment over the bigger things in her life that hadn’t worked out the way she hoped – a lonely marriage, a son who had been kicked out of yet another school, the aspirations for a career she had abandoned in order to be more available for her husband and child. Often, the little upsets in our lives are emblematic of the larger losses; the seemingly insignificant worries are representative of greater pain.

I realized that day how much my two patients, who appeared so different, had in common – with each other and with all people everywhere. Both women were responding to a situation they couldn’t control in which their expectations had been upended. Both were struggling and hurting because something was not what they wanted or expected it to be; they were trying to reconcile what was with what ought to have been. Each woman’s pain was real. Each woman was caught up in the human drama – that we find ourselves in situations we didn’t see coming and that we don’t feel prepared to handle. Both women deserved my compassion. Both had the potential to heal. Both women, like all of us, had choices in attitude and action that could move them from victim to survivor even if the circumstances they were dealing with didn’t change. Survivors don’t have time to ask, ‘Why me?’ For survivors, the only relevant question is, ‘What now?’”

Oranges? Chimpanzees? It doesn’t matter. What a beautiful reminder that we all face situations beyond our control, but we all have choices in how we respond. I admire that Dr. Eger’s answer to “What now?” has been to take her traumatic past and choosing to use it to help others heal.

How are you choosing to respond?

4 Comments

  1. Dear Hayley, as you, Dan and I have chosen the what now. We are praying for the strength and healing from the Lord. We are also so grateful for the help you have with you other littles. We pray for their peace as well.

    1. I’m grateful for all the amazing things – big and small – they’ve been able to witness throughout the last year. Thank you so much for your continued prayers for Ronin and his big sisters.

  2. My dear you have a great way with words that the Lord has blessed you with. Don’t stop sharing these amazing blogs. You have been given wisdom from the Lord. Let your light shine through the keyboard. Love you sweet friend

    1. Thank you for being such an encouragement to me, in so many ways. I love you.

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