The relativity of suffering

How can we cope with being aware of all those big problems in the world while there are so many „small“ problems in our own lives that seem completely irrelevant in the big picture? How does suffering compare and how should we divide our attention and energy? And how do we understand people who live that dilemma different from us and accept it without judging them? Here I want to explore the relativity of suffering in this world.

How I come to think about this

A friend of mine, let´s call her Naomi, has a boyfriend in Kyrgyzstan whom she got to know there during an excursion from university. They are together since a year in a long distance relationship. So far, he visited her once in Germany and she is going to come to Kyrgyzstan for two months quite soon. Yesterday she came to my place and said she was having trouble with her boyfriend, let´s call him Aarash, and she is doubting the whole thing.

From conversations so far I knew that he grew up in a completely different culture than her, having an Afghan family and being raised as a Moslem. His family doesn´t know he has a girlfriend as they first don´t understand the concept of relationships and second would see it as a sin. To relate, his sister has been promised to an older guy since she was five, and that is the level of „traditional culture“ the family is moving on. Compared to that, Aarash is liberal, studying politics at an American university, drinking and smoking and having sex against the Koran, caring for womens´ rights.

Different problems

But still, he is having lots of problems, trying to immigrate to the US to work there, not being able to visit his family, witnessing what the Taliban is doing to his home country. He is a lot closer to all these big problems we hear on our news daily. Women being forced to wear a hijab by the Taliban, war consequences, his family living in an immigration camp since 40 years.

My friend Naomi studies nature conservation, she´s a left-green feminist, as you could say, similar to my whole bubble. It´s quite normal here that people are gay and trans and queer and that they have open relationships, go to climate protests such as in Lützerath and talk about political topics concerning climate change, feminism and racism etc. But apparently, that happens on a completely different scale than in cultures as Aarash´s. According to Naomi, he told her that he wouldn´t go to a protest for Lützerath with her or for the right for women to be topless in public, but would instantly protest for womens´ rights in Iran or Afghanistan. That is because he sees these big problems and says that compared to that, it´s irrelevant to him whether women must wear a bra or not, while other women have to wear a hijab.

How does this relate?

Women in London protesting for womens´ rights in Afghanistan and safe asylum routes
Women in London protesting for womens´ rights in Afghanistan and safe asylum routes

So naturally, Naomi now is quite torn between these positions, having her own strong values but doubting the relativity of these problems. Lately, I quite often heard her getting upset about people who try to live their life here as liberal and open as possible while at the same time ignoring or not caring about the bigger problems in the world. I guess that´s her own sense of being torn, not knowing what is right or wrong and just standing between these two cultures that are so immensely different to each other.

She sees good things in both of them and understands the positions, but she´s in a phase where she is also doubting a lot of her own positions and Western lifestyle in general. When previously she couldn´t understand why women want to wear a hijab, now she can comletely see it and sometimes thinks it would be better than walking around in hotpants. In general, she reads and learns a lot about Islam and is super interested in the religion and culture.

Necessary struggle

As much as I see her struggle and suffer, I sometimes think it is super valuable for her to go through this now, at such a young age. It is something that is everpresent in this world and we in Western societies happen to distance ourselves from that a lot. Our environment is mainly built for our entertainment and comfort, and if we want to dive into „big“ problems we have to do so voluntarily and under great mental effort, which leads most people to just avoid thinking about the rest of the world. But as much as our environment is trying to hide all that stuff from us, as much does it in fact belong to our reality. It is the reality of this world, just not our felt reality in our safe and warm spaces.

And even if it is super hard for Naomi to be confronted with all this in such closeness (which is still quite far compared to Aarash), in some sense she is closer to reality than the rest of us are and it is gonna be a super valuable lection in coping with struggles. It feels quite wrong to say I´m sometimes „jealous“ of her, but I have the feeling that each of us will have to go through struggles that put us infront of „big“ problems in our lives. Such as when family members die. And if someone has never experienced something like that, it is gonna be super hard to put that in relation to all the super nice stuff that usually happens.

"Man´s search for meaning" ("Trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen") by Viktor Frankl provides some thoughts on the relativity of suffering
Man´s search for meaning by Viktor Frankl on the relativity of suffering

What a psychologist says

I recently read „Man´s search for meaning“ (Trotzdem Ja zum Leben sagen) by psychologist Viktor Frankl, which is about his experiences in a concentration camp during world war II. There he describes experiences that are super far from our lives and that we probably never will have to go through. And he also asks this question, how do normal people, who usually live normal lives as housewifes, salesmen or farmers cope with this sudden immensity of suffering? How can you integrate this in your life experiences so far and in your world view? He has this quote about the relaitivity of suffering that came closest to the answer I was looking for:

“To draw an analogy: a man’s suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little. Therefore the „size“ of human suffering is absolutely relative.”

Viktor Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning

That doesn´t say how to handle pain, but for me it somehow helped to understand it. In fact, it does help to handle small pain, as I can just tell myself that it´s not that big and just feels like it (which of course isn´t healthy if it´s just meant to suppress an emotion). But it explains how everyone is always so hooked up with their own problems and why it is so easy to forget about problems outside of that space. Whether that makes it easier not to be angry at people who don´t care about bigger problems, I don´t know.

What to do

For me, I will go on thinking further about that dilemma. I think the best I can do is just listen to people who do have „big“ problems, or just other problems than me. Not to close my eyes when I am confronted with all the suffering in the world, and to actively engage with it whenever I have the energy. Further, to look at our society and its mechanisms of exploitation of the world at the one side and the illusion of safety and comfort it wants to create for us on the other side critically. To take a step back from it as often as possible and see what it does to me on the experiential level. And to get active and engage with the topic and try to do some good in this world.

When I have some new thoughts or experiences on the topic, I will add them here. This post is not an answer to the questions from the beginning, but I hope it can inspire some processing. I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic, or book recommendations, experiences, etc.

Until then, much love!


Here are some links to related topics (German):


Freiwilligenarbeit im Tierheim


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