"Top that woe," Christine called it, and I recognized it as an exchange we all sometimes fall prey to pursuing.
You know how it goes. One person has a tale to tell of an unsuspected skin cancer, so someone else "tops that woe" with a tale of breast cancer, and yet another tops that one with the horrible runaway train of disease.
At the other end of the spectrum are those who minimize personal disaster, seeing their own difficulties or suffering as always smaller somehow than someone else's.
Human nature is a funny thing. One parent finds a child's broken arm to be a calamity, while another deals almost routinely with frequent hospitalization for a fragile medical condition.
Dealing with disabilities is like that, too. One person breezes through quadriplegia -- "What? I broke my neck? Well, let's see, I'll have to figure out some new ways to get in and out of my house" -- while another is immobilized by a diagnosis of lactose intolerance.
If you think about it, you'll know I'm not exaggerating much. We have all encountered such extremes in the handling of pain within ourselves or others.
At our worst, there is sometimes a sort of unspoken hierarchy of need in cross-disability gatherings.
"Oh, well," say the wheelchair users, "no sign language interpreters. That's not a problem. A real problem is not having an accessible bathroom on every floor of a large building."
Or "What? You actually need a ramp to get in?" say the diabetics. "That's not as troubling as needing to test your blood sugar levels several times a day."
The reverse is just as often true, of course. I have seen wheelchair users place their own needs for physical access entirely aside, while protesting the absence of Braille meeting materials or real-time captioning for their co-workers who are blind or deaf. Many people with sensory or developmental disabilities have marched, literally or figuratively, alongside their mobility-impaired compatriots to demand more accessible housing or transportation.
Primarily, the issue is one of perception: Each of us perceives difficulty in a unique way. I recently read a statement by the mom of a medically fragile child that puts it all in perspective.
"Pain is pain," she said.
For me, that clarifies much. Which is worse -- losing your hearing as a baby or as a college student? Which is worse -- to need a bone marrow transplant or a kidney transplant? Which is worse -- a broken leg or an amputated one? Or to look at it another way: Which is worse -- the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11 or the bombing of Hiroshima?
It doesn't matter. Pain is pain. Each person needs to deal with it in his or her own way and to try and "top that woe" when it is your woe is irrelevant.
Whether the world around you sees your particular difficulty as large or small, incorporating personal disability or difficulty into the general fabric of living gives us more breathing room, renders us more able to savor opportunity and relish pleasure. Life is just plain too short to waste minutes wallowing in self-pity or negative emotions. I'm thinking it might be more productive -- and satisfying -- to play a social interaction game of "top that joy."
contact Deborah Kendrick: letters(at)citybeat.com