By Harmony Harkema
I sat at a table with two women. One of them mentioned how much my youngest daughter has grown over the past few months, how much she must have changed while my husband was away for his job. He was gone for four months.
“Yes,” I mused. “Yes. She changed a lot. Those were some of the hardest months of our lives.”
And they were. We were separated by thousand of miles and several time zones. I was parenting alone, more than 600 miles from family and friends, and working full time. My husband was in a foreign country, surrounded by strangers, doing a challenging job and working plenty of overtime. My daughters, ages four and one, missed their daddy. Our spirits were upheld by the slender threads of daily video chats and calls, and lots of texts. In the midst of it all, I endured a rather traumatic medical scare and a whole host of procedures as doctors sought a diagnosis (which turned out to be positive). It was a stressful, lonely time.
But when I said that, when I said, “Those were some of the hardest months of our lives,” one of the women I was sitting with turned to me with a big smile on her face and said, “Well, at least you didn’t have to deal with [insert tough situation of your choice here]. That would have been much harder.”
It took me a moment to analyze why her words stung. They made me feel like she was invalidating my experience, invalidating my pain. It wasn’t as bad as this or that. It wasn’t as hard as so-and-so’s situation. I didn’t have terminal cancer or an ailing parent with Alzheimer’s or a child with a crippling condition.
Making me feel invalidated was not, I’m certain, her intention. She may have been trying to show me the silver lining. She may have been trying to give me the glass half full view. It made me wonder how often I’ve done the same thing to a friend in pain, a friend who’s been through battle.
Something came home to me afresh through this scenario. We all own our stories. We have a right to our pain. We have a right to our grief. We have a right to wear our battle scars, not to feel we need to hide them away because someone else has a greater right to display her scars. And our experiences, our pain, our unique life stories with their ups and downs and wounds and scars all matter equally to God. We don’t need to stuff our feelings because our situation is not as “bad” as someone else’s, or because it could be worse. Hard things are hard things, whatever they are.
In turn, our friends have a right to their experiences, their pain, their battle scars. They have a right to tell their stories, to have their feelings validated. If we want to serve them, we can resist the urge to point out that their troubles could be worse. We can choke down the need to counsel them about what they should be thankful for. Instead, we can simply come alongside and listen, the way Jesus did. We can say, “Yes. I hear you. Your feelings are valid. Your story is worthy of my compassion.” This posture can help a friend heal. It can be like water to her thirsty soul.
In this day, in this culture of comparison and keeping up with the Joneses, we need to validate one another. We need to provide one another with a safe haven in the hard times, whatever those hard times look like. There is always someone whose story is “worse,” but that doesn’t make the story matter more. Every story matters. Every scar matters, especially in the eyes of Christ.
Harmony Harkema has loved the written word for as long as she can remember. A former English teacher turned editor, she has spent the past seven years in the publishing industry. A novelist and blogger in the fringe hours of her working mom life, Harmony also has a heart for leading and coaching aspiring writers. Harmony lives in Memphis with her car-loving husband and two small daughters. She blogs at harmonyharkema.com.
Photograph © Abo Ngalonkulu, used with permission