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When People Say, 'You Can't Understand Until It Happens to You'

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“No one can understand until they sit in this chair.” I heard this statement one day while watching an old episode of “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.” Being a sci-fi buff, I regularly revisit old episodes of this and other galaxies. Today, as I sat watching this episode, that line hit me right between the eyes. As I watched this TV show, I realized I had thought something like this many times myself:

You can’t understand until you’ve lived in pain every day.

You can’t understand until you’ve lost someone you’ve loved.

You can understand until you’ve had this operation.

You can’t understand until you’ve been this tired.

You can’t understand, until you’ve heard that you have _____________.

With each new change, each new diagnosis, each new pain, each new struggle, I have found myself thinking and feeling this. It is an honest thought, but sometimes misleading, and it was usually a thought I had when someone tried to identify with me in my struggle. It is a true statement in that any of us cannot truly understand the struggle of another without walking that path ourselves, but in another way, it dismisses their compassion by saying that unless you have lived it, you can’t possibly get it.

Sometimes, in my pain, I have become so focused on my struggle, that it is all I can see to the exclusion of everything else. It becomes so large, that it is easy to dismiss the understanding and help of another without even trying, because how could they possibly understand what I am walking through. Locked in my own world of struggle, sometimes I feel understanding can come only with experience. While in some ways this may be true, too often, it has been my excuse to hold others at bay and justify my isolation from those who truly care about me.

Don’t get me wrong, sometimes people make ridiculous comparisons of my chronic illness to things that are nothing like it, for instance:

So, you have insomnia, yeah, I get it, last night I did not sleep well.

I know what arthritis feels like, today I woke up so stiff.

I get really shaky sometimes, so I get what you feel like with Parkinson’s.

I have aches and pains – is that what having rheumatoid arthritis is like?

On and on the list could go, and while every struggle is unique, different, and important to the one going through it, we often make the mistake of holding some struggles as more important or difficult than others. We compare and rank which is worse, and in that mistake, either overinflate our suffering or minimize and dismiss another’s.

No matter which side you are on, this should never happen. I can understand something is hard without walking through it, and I can express that without minimizing another’s struggle. I can accept others’ understanding, without dismissing their struggle and focusing only on my struggle. When we do this, we not only find acceptance, understanding, and community, but we validate the struggle of another and give them the community they need as well.

Each person’s struggle is unique, and while we may not fully understand the struggle, we can understand that it is hard, painful, and difficult. When we acknowledge this, without dismissing it, we can strengthen one another for the fight we each have, and honor and support each other as we walk the path before us. Our understanding is not dependent on walking the same path, but it is dependent upon our ability to show compassion and care for another walking a difficult path. We may not sit in the same chair, but in some ways, we all walk our own challenging path for which we need support, care, and understanding.

Getty photo by Portra Images.

Originally published: January 18, 2022
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