In Part I, which was published last week and you can access here, I examined whether a person struggling with what they are labeling “survivor’s guilt” are actually experiencing shame. My conclusion, based on the definitions, my own experiences, and some research, was that there is a combination of both. One element that I believe renders a person in my scenario perhaps different from others is that cancer is simply something that no one can control, not the patients, not the doctors, not the researchers; we are simply at the mercy of our genes and our cells.
And so because of this complete lack of control, I concluded with this question: “And so what do we do when we encounter these situations where we encounter the bad luck of someone else and compare that with our own relatively good luck?”
I do have to emphasize the word “relatively” since no one in this scenario has experienced objectively good luck. At the same time, human beings automatically compare themselves and their experiences with others. And I’ve heard of quite a few people who have reacted strongly to those who have had better experiences.
Let me divide up this discussion into two different categories — the first is if you are on the relatively good side, your luck is better; the second category is if you are on the side of relatively bad luck encountering someone who has had a better experience.
First category, you encounter a person who has had a worse experience than you:
- I think there is a strong argument to do nothing, say nothing about your experience because there is a possibility that sharing your relatively better experience will only make the person feel bad. When we are in a better position than others, we need to avoid any appearance of flaunting something that isn’t of our own doing, our better blind luck.
- On the other hand, your “better” experience could provide hope to the other person depending on how you communicate, especially if your “better” experience might be related to some activity they could replicate or if your “better” experience has to do with time, that the other person just needs to hold on for better days. Be careful here and don’t share too much without the other person soliciting input.
- It is important to note that if you decide to communicate with someone who has had a worse experience than you, be prepared for a strong reaction. There are those who have a strong reaction to seeing that someone else has had better luck than them as it makes them feel bad about themselves and there is no real way to anticipate what kind of reaction will occur.
- If you are a person in a family where you won the gene lottery and your family member did not, please remember to keep your guilt/shame reaction out of/away from your relationship with your suffering family member. Don’t ask or expect the family member who has cancer or a greater likelihood of cancer to care about your feelings or provide support. For more information, please see this post I wrote about the Ring Theory.
Regardless of how you as an individual reacts to those who have worse luck than you in the context of cancer, I believe we should all default to compassion. One of the best definitions of compassion I’ve found is: “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” If we begin with this in mind and allow compassion to guide our responses, I think it may become easier to know how best to respond.
Now for the second category, when you are the person who has had the worse experience:
- Think before you react. It is a normal, human reaction to be jealous of those who have an easier or better shared experience; at the same time, when that better/easier time is something out of that person’s control, that person isn’t the right target.
- Watch and learn. It is good to see how someone who is in a better position treats others. Take note of how they treat others or how they behave for future reference.
- Ask questions. It’s always possible that the person who has had a better experience was able to do so because of something they did or didn’t do. Gather information to see if there is anything you can replicate.
- Celebrate the achievements of others. Even if it hurts, even if it feels completely wrong, focus on the positive, on how the other person has had a good experience. As you practice gratitude and support others, your own experiences can be put into perspective.
And now it’s your turn … have you ever been in a position like this? If so, how did you handle it?