There is a phrase I try to avoid using: “It could always be worse.”
It is a true phrase. It is always true. There is literally never a time when it is not true, and that is precisely why it is so useless. In almost every horrific situation you could imagine, it can always be worse.
A tornado took out your barn and your house? Well, it could always be worse – at least you’re alive! Your mother, father, sister, and son died in a horrible car accident? Well, it could be worse – at least your wife made it through! What, that 9.0 earthquake destroyed most of the country? Well, it could be worse. At least there are survivors.
See? It’s a useless phrase. And yet I’ve used it before without thinking and I suspect other believers have, too – mostly as a way to quantify pain. Because even if you’ve never used the phrase “it could always be worse,” you most likely keep a Hierarchy of Pain in your head, and it goes something like this:
Super-serious pain: Anything involving death. Cancer. Terminal illness. Tragedies. Natural disasters. Amputations. Miscarriage. Sad things that happen to children. Divorce.
Sort-of-serious pain: General sickness, disease, malaise. Stress. Marital struggles. Job problems.
Not-so-serious pain: Interpersonal drama. Minor injuries and illnesses. Worry, fear, anxiety. Day-to-day struggles. Sadness. Confusion.
The instinctive response “it could always be worse” is one of our ways of trying to arrange hurt properly: a “kind” way of saying, “Well, your Grade D pain could be Grade A pain, so that’s something at least!” It’s the same impulse that inspires people online to scream “and there are children dying in India and Africa!” every time someone complains about a hangnail or a “first-world” problem. There is Serious Pain, that attitude says, and then there is Your Pain, which because it is not directly life-threatening is much less important. Now stop complaining.
This affects church ministry in particular, because most church ministries are organized to address what I would call super-serious and sort-of-serious pain. Most churches can get the ministry wheels churning quickly when it comes to a birth, or a death, or a chronic illness, or a horrible traumatic accident. And they do their best to address issues that fall into the sort-of-serious category, especially since those can metastasize and become serious very quickly. But the other hurts – the “not-so-serious” pains – we tend to leave those to take care of themselves, thinking that they’re lesser hurts and therefore not worthy of tending.
And that’s a dangerous attitude to have. It’s dangerous to quantify pain at all. Sure, your ripped cuticle isn’t cancer. And it would be silly and offensive to compare the two. But if the ripped cuticle comes two weeks after you lost your grandmother, and your car is making a funny noise, and your boss wishes you’d show up to work earlier, and everything is going wrong and the skin on your finger is stinging and tears are welling up in spite of your efforts to control them and all you want to do is run back into your house and hide…well, that ripped cuticle can feel pretty overwhelming.
The answer isn’t to compare pain or place it on a relative Scale of Suffering, but rather to address pain as pain, in context, regardless of the source. Yes, we absolutely must kick into gear the moment we hear a word like cancer or death or car accident. But I hope we can also mobilize ourselves to respond with similar compassion to words like frustration and fear and chest cold.
I’ve struggled with anxiety before, and one of the things that my struggle has clarified to me is how big something can feel when you are struggling with it, regardless of how small it seems to the rest of the world. Being in a plane that’s getting ready to take off really isn’t the end of the world, and for most people it isn’t a big deal – but man, for me it sure feels like the end of the world. And I always appreciate it when my husband squeezes my hand or listens to me list my litany of irrational fears, or when my mother prays for me on a flight, because they are ministering to that hurt. Yes, it’s a “small” hurt, comparatively speaking. It’s not cancer or an amputation or a life-threatening accident. But it matters to me, and so does their ministry to me in the moment.
So mind the small hurts. Pay attention to the minor, daily struggles and issues of the people who live and work around you. Their pain might not seem like a big deal, comparatively speaking. And maybe there are bigger fish to fry in terms of ministry. But sometimes those small hurts feel enormous, and acts of love and care that are meant to soothe can speak to a wounded heart in the same way that tending to a cancer patient or making a casserole for a bereaved family might.
Reach out. Hurt is hurt.