When people who are sick complain about their illnesses–whether it’s physical pain, fatigue, or depression–one of the most common responses we hear is, “Just think about the starving children in Africa.” Just imagine if sick people responded to our (healthy) friends the same way? Consider the following non-sequiturs:
–Friend calls me crying because her boyfriend broke up with her and I say, “Well, at least you don’t have bipolar disorder.”
–My friend tells me she’s just been fired and I say, “At least you don’t have a disability.”
–A relative worries that she won’t be able to make the rent this month and I say, “At least you don’t have an autoimmune disease no one can pronounce like myasthenia gravis (MG).”
I had a particularly lonely experience last Christmas when a family member found me crying. I was crying because I remembered all the Christmases of years past before I got myasthenia. For years, I cooked six-course dinners for my high school friends–usually fifteen of us. I did this even after college. I still remember the last Christmas before I got sick as if it were yesterday. We had this sock hop set in 1962–complete with balloons, a soda shop background, and my favorite twist music. A few of those friends stopped talking to me after I got MG in 2008. As I blogged about in 5 Reasons People Abandon a Sick Friend, sometimes we lose friends after we get sick. One of the hardest parts about being sick is how it rearranges our social lives. If you were “the planner” before your illness, sometimes social events don’t happen (even if it’s just meeting up for lunch) because no one else is going to take the initiative. In other words, if you won’t do it, it won’t get done. Planning is hard to do when you’re perpetually tired. As I tried to explain this, my family member said, “Just think of the starving children in Africa.” Kind of a strange thing to say, I thought. Then, I posted about this on Fashionably ill’s Facebook page and I learned that so many readers have heard the exact same thing. I have five illnesses: bipolar 2, polycystic ovarian syndrome, MG, psoriasis, and asthma.
There are many problems with the expression, “Just think of the starving children in Africa.” Let’s explore a few.
4 Erroneous Implications:
No 1: That one person’s pain is not legitimate or worthy of sympathy because another person is in pain: Yes, of course, it’s terrible that there are people starving all over the world. No one disputes that. But does that mean that a sick person isn’t allowed to cry or vent? Does that take away our pain? Another person’s pain does not make my pain less valid just as my pain doesn’t nullify anyone else’s suffering. Years ago, my friend Bret told me that suffering cannot be quantified. His brother died in a motorcycle accident and I had recently lost a friend to suicide. Bret said that there are different kinds of tragedies–for some people, a breakup can be a tragedy.
No 2: That sick people are ignorant of other people’s suffering: Sometimes, being chronically ill makes me care deeply about others’ suffering even if it’s nothing I’ve ever experienced. For instance, after the June 17, 2015 massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church, I organized an event to send cards to the families of the victims and the survivors. Why did I do this? Because I know what it’s like to experience grief and to continue suffering. I wanted those people to know that long after the media has moved on, they will not be forgotten. That someone is still thinking of them. The first year I got sick with MG, I had a lot of visitors. After that first year, there was a sharp decline in the number of visitors. I want do to what little I can do to ease the suffering of the victims’ families because I know what it’s like when the rest of the world moves on and you still have to live with your loss.
No 3: That sick people don’t want to help others: Sometimes, I wish I could do more for others but I am so tired. One Christmas, pre-MG, I led a family project with the nonprofit, Bright Hope International, to help people with HIV and AIDS in Uganda. Every year, Bright Hope sends boxes with antiretroviral drugs to patients in multiple African nations. That Christmas, we were decorating and packing twenty boxes. I remember one of my young nephews asking, “What is AIDS?” That led to a meaningful conversation. The whole project was exhausting but worth it. I thought I would lead one project every Christmas but that’s not happening now.
Every Christmas, when I see the family drowning in wrapping paper and department store boxes, I wish I could do something to help people less fortunate than we are. But I can’t. There is a sense of helplessness that comes with illness. I visited a reader who has fibromyalgia and cancer in the hospital. She said her suffering has made her more understanding of people who are different than she is. Another reader with MG said that she’s constantly living in survival mode with doctors’ visits and tests; because of that, she doesn’t have time for the news. We all mean well but sometimes, we we just can’t do more.
No 4: That Africa is one country: Africa is not a country–it is a continent with with 54 (recognized-sovereign) nations and 1.1 billion people! We need to stop talking about Africa as it if is one nation filled with nothing but diseases and poverty; this is a myth. There is a lot of cultural, ethnic, and social diversity in Africa. Yet we keep hearing people-including politicians like Vice President Biden and Rick Santorum–refer to Africa as one nation. No one refers to Ireland as “Europe” or confuses Japan with Asia.
So the next time someone tells you, “Think of the starving children in Africa,” tell him, “Suffering comes in different packages but empathy is (or should be) universal.” Or just ask him if he knows that Africa is actually a continent.
–Your Stylist, Jessica Gimeno