Recently I’ve heard people say how hard life is for them. We all have moments of self pity. But I’ve heard too many young people saying it. And it makes me pause. It also pisses me the fuck off. Inevitably when I hear this, I think “You don’t have any idea what it is to struggle” or “You have a job and a roof over your head so shut up” or “You haven’t struggled like I’ve struggled”. But then I stop myself. Because this isn’t a fucking competition. This isn’t “Whose Life Is Worse Anyway?”, where you win some kind of misery prize as a result. It’s not. You don’t.
During a conversation at work a few months back, a Nigerian man who I grew fond of throughout my time there and who just as equally annoyed me, told me of his struggles in coming to this country as an immigrant. His story was a harrowing one. He and his wife had kids to feed and no money upon their arrival. He began as a taxi driver at a time in New York City when it was too dangerous to be one (he was attacked in his cab by a passenger). He came from Nigeria with nothing and no one but his wife. He was fortunate to have the support of a kind -hearted friend from church who told him how to make it in America. So, he heeded that man’s advice, worked hard doing menial jobs, went to school and is now making a six-figure salary while doing virtually nothing all day except calling friends and family from Nigeria. He’s earned the privilege to do absolutely nothing at his job. It’s the American way. He’s a loud, funny, good man who loves his life and also loves the money, house and cars he owns now, and the successful children he raised who are now doctors and teachers and make enough money to send he and his wife on lavish vacations to places like Dubai. His story is truly an embodiment of the American dream. He understands what it means to struggle. And he appreciates the luxuries he’s afforded now that he no longer has to. But he still doesn’t win a prize for that. There’s no award you win for how much you’ve suffered in order to reach where you are today.
One day at work, my boss (a Polish born Brooklyn raised immigrant himself who looks like every white guy you’ve ever met) and this Nigerian man were exchanging stories from their lives and he said to the Nigerian man “I have some things to tell you, I’ve been through a lot in my life”. At this, the Nigerian man laughed. It was a loud laugh. An incredulous laugh. He said, “You? Struggle? What do you know about struggle? You were born in this country?!” And then he laughed again. For all of his goodness (he is a pastor in his spare time), I felt this laughter displayed a condescension and lack of awareness in the Nigerian man that angered me. It angered my boss too. He explained that he too had suffered in watching his father die at a very young age, raised by his mother as the only white kid in a virtually all Black and Latino housing project, in abject poverty. His life, as it turns out, had had many complications and setbacks. Because, well of course it did. Everyone’s life does.
As they engaged in a back and forth about the merits of their personal struggles, I remained quiet. I was normally pretty quiet in that work setting. There were too many men there with too many strong opinions for me to have really wanted to engage in conversations where strong opinions were necessary. It was always a losing battle. But I knew I had a lot to say on this subject. If there’s one thing I really know in life, it’s how to suffer. I didn’t want to say that. I wouldn’t have ever. Instead I told the Nigerian man that “just because [my boss] was born here doesn’t mean that he didn’t suffer in his own way through different struggles.” He listened. I think he took it in. But ultimately I knew he didn’t believe it. Inside I could tell he still thought he had it worse.
And of course everyone will think that. They’ll think “Man, shit doesn’t come easy for me”, “Why is this so hard?”, “I have such bad luck”, or “I’ve been through so much”. And yes that’s probably true. But here’s a newsflash: life is hard for everyone, everywhere, all the time. Sure, some rich person’s struggle will be different from mine. But maybe they’re an alcoholic, or their spouse died or they’re sick from an illness. And maybe my struggle is nothing compared to that child in Syria or Palestine. It’s not. That’s true. But does that make it any less valid? My own struggle is mental. It’s about the demons I battle inside. It’s about the history that has checkered my past and blurs my future. I’ve lost a lot. But I also have never had much either. I don’t have a family really. I don’t have a job right now. I don’t have any direction or career path. I have no guidance. I have no parents. And I spend a lot of time alone, more than I’d like to admit. There’s a lot I’m missing, a lot of holes in my heart. But I have a roof over my head and I have food to eat. And I have friends who love me. So maybe my suffering isn’t that bad. But it certainly doesn’t feel that way. It feels, for me, like my struggle is worse because I’m the only one who’s gone through it.
There’s a tendency to believe our own plight is worse because we can feel and see things only through our own eyes. Like the Nigerian man at my job, it’s easy to believe that your life is so very unique and filled with obstacles no one else can understand instead of trying to see how we can connect to one anothers’ stories, and realize how similar in fact we all are. And maybe that’s where humanity is failing. We are selfish and self absorbed and focus so much on ourselves that there’s rarely any room for anyone else. When viewing life through that lens, there’s not really a chance to see and understand how people other than ourselves are also in this endless struggle known as life. Because yes, life is hard for you but it’s not only you. And it’s not about who’s had it worse. It’s not about who’s hurting or has been hurt more. It should really be about what you can do to make them hurt alittle less. It’s really about understanding that they’ve hurt as much as you have, maybe in a way that’s different from you and in a way only they can understand. But life is hard for them too. No one makes it out alive after all.