I don’t know about you, but I have used the expression ‘in the grand scheme of things’ many times in my life as a way to put into perspective my own discomfort. ‘In the grand scheme of things’ our daily inconveniences seem nothing compared with the populations with no food or great poverty. ‘In the grand scheme of things’ the extra burden of today is small compared with the daily burden of others. ‘In the grand scheme of things’, having to stay at home is nothing compared with those health care workers on the front line.
‘In the grand scheme of things’ works as a mechanism of consolation. Self-generated and free, at the expense of somebody else’s problem. It works.
But, as useful as it is for our self-conviction that our problems are minor, it opens the door to the arithmetic of suffering. And this is dangerous territory.
I learnt this in the trade. In my early years as a clinical psychiatrist, I soon understood that the official classification of mental suffering was flawed. We catalogued some anxiety disorders as minor compared (‘in the grand scheme of things’) with, say, schizophrenia. My clinical reality told me otherwise. Some schizophrenics were out of touch with reality, undoubtedly a terrible situation, but they may not have even been able to feel their own trouble and disconnect. However, that young woman who could not leave the house because of extreme paralysing anxiety, was officially classified as a minor trouble. The metrics seemed to be flawed and unfair.
Maybe that is why today I have a natural dislike for the advocates of moral equivalence or comparative suffering.
We seem to possess some strange power of measuring other people’s lives. Our language has also created similar tricks. For example, when we talk to somebody who has suffered a loss, we say: ‘I know how terrible this may be’ or (even more assertively) ‘I know how you feel’. No, you don’t. Even if you had gone through a similar tragedy before, you can’t compare suffering A with suffering B.
Suffering is at least as subjective as physical pain. Professionals like doctors or physiotherapists will ask you: on a scale of 1 to 10, what is your pain today?’ The professionals can only trust you. That is the only thing they can do. Your answer by the way, only starts to have some value when asked again another day, and another day. You going from 9 to 6 is good, and going from 3 to 7 is bad. That’s it. That is the science.
Suffering does not have a thermometer. It does not come in half a litre or 1 litre. It’s neither pink, nor black. It’s not 8, or 7, or 1.
Since we are natural incubators of feelings, not content with suffering just a bit (‘in the grand scheme of things’), we add a bit of salt and pepper in the form of guilt. The worker that now has to work from home feels guilty that others have to expose themselves to the vagaries of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Feelings don’t have thermometers either. Could you imagine, ‘I love you 4.5’?
Feeling compassion or empathy is one thing, adding the comparative arithmetic is not good. In this Covid-19 crisis, the best we can do is to respect each other’s feelings, feel unrestricted sympathy, empathy, and leave the tape measure in the drawer.