(This post contains some graphic descriptions of bodily injury, so if that’s not for you, stop reading now.)
On the first ship I was assigned to, the Sealand Florida, one of the longshoreman lost a finger. It may have been two. We were arriving into port, I think it was Houston or Beaumont and suddenly there is a frantic call to the bridge via radio.
Some mooring lines, the ropes that tether ships of exceptional tonnage of large container ships like the Sealand Florida to a dock, can become so tense when stretched that if they should snap, they have been known to cut a man’s leg clean off with machete preciseness. They can carry so much strength that if you accidentally get your fingers caught against a bulwark and the line, your fingers will leave a mangled, bloody mess.
They sent me, the lucky deck cadet down to escort the injured man via elevator upstairs to the medical room. I remember that this particular longshoreman was one of the youngest members on board, not much older than my nineteen years, and that the space where his fingers should be looked like squished tomatoes. I remember he was crying.
In my shock and thinking words were useless, I said nothing as we rode up the several flights. I just prayed and wished the elevator would go up faster.
I still regret that. That I said nothing.
But, what do you say to someone in that situation?
Sorry? I hope you feel better? It’s going to be okay?
The Trauma Olympics is when people assert their trauma as a justification for terrible behavior. It’s when people belittle someone else’s pain because it isn’t as large as their own or doesn’t meet their staunch criteria of Things People Should Be Hurt About.
It’s that friend who when you tell them of a recent heartbreak says Well, you should hear what happened to me, trust me, you don’t know heartbreak…
I mean, she’s over here complaining about her family, but I can tell you my family is much worse…
Sometimes, we even employ the same rhetoric against ourselves.
Sometimes jokingly when we talk about “first world problems” and sometimes not so much, like when we read of some Horrible Act Going On Over There and immediately quiet the sadness, loneliness, confusion, despair, anger we feel in our own lives because we don’t “measure up.”
It’s like, unless some experience reaches some nebulous sphere of terribleness, we are not allowed to talk about it.
It’s the strange reasoning that trauma makes people more interesting, deeper, gives them an “edge”, makes them better leaders.
Of course, there are many people in history, from Maya Angelou to Oprah Winfrey who have inspired millions with their ability to overcome. Through perseverance, brilliance and not a small dash of luck, they give us a window to what greatness can be called forth despite great personal tragedy. They have managed to transform their trauma into something of beauty for all of us to gather from.
Still, Maya Angelou and Oprah Winfrey are not soley the bad things that happened to them. They are joy, they are examples of exquisite living, they are modern day heroines.
I had to crawl out of my Trauma Olympics mindset slowly.
Most of the time, I belittled my pain and assigned myself lower on the scale.
Like many writers, my early childhood isn’t exactly a long stretch of Kodak moments.
And sometimes I felt foolish for “dwelling” on my pain, especially when some celebrity would write a memoir about the tragedies they had overcome; the destitution, the abandonment, the personal scars. Or some sensationalized story would break about children held hostage or the conditions in refugee camps or the deaths resulting from a tumultuous political upheaval or the social/political crises of my own city/state/nation.
I also used to have many friends who expressed hatred towards the “whiners” and “complainers” of the world. It seemed best to keep my mouth shut.
And so I did.
But, my pain neither left nor diminished.
It festered and grew larger, it escaped via depressive episodes and sudden flashes of anger. It came out sideways all distorted and painful. It choked me and caused me to actually dwell in it more.
I knew I needed a way to be with my pain, to step out of denial.
So, I thought of a little story:
Say there are two people in an ER. One has just lost a finger. The other, an arm. They are both in pain, both bleeding. In their respective minds, they do not feel a scale of pain. They just feel pain.
Should we send the person with the missing finger home? Put a band-aid on it and call it a day? Should we shake their shoulder sternly and tell them to look at the person who has it way worse than you? Now, shut the fuck up, please and thank you?
Maybe you are into sadism and said yes to these questions, but if you’re not, stay with me.
We treat both of them. We know they are both in immeasurable pain. We give the person what they need for their respective pain. The person with the missing finger will probably need less surgery than the person with the missing arm. They may heal faster and require less bandages, gauze, and disinfectant.
Still, they need healing.
But maybe: the arm injury was actually a lot simpler and clear-cut in healing than the finger. Maybe the finger needed a bit more intricacy in healing, maybe the recovery was bumpier.
We won’t know until we commence the healing.
Sometimes, we may be on the other side: our arm is gone and we see someone screaming about a “little finger” and we get a little (or a lot) irate. What the fuck, we think, it’s just a little finger? Look at me! Can’t you see how I hurt?
This reaction is understandable to the fullest. It can be grating to hear people overstretch their hurt. It hits on something.
This angry person is also me.
I have been the person fighting back eyerolls in sharing circles when Certain People share their experiences. Afterwards, I’d feel a twinge of guilt but mostly I just wanted the person to shut the hell up and pass the mic to someone who experienced much worse.
Lately, I started to ask myself, what had made me so angry. If I purport to believe in the suffering that the Trauma Olympic causes, why was I so quick to denounce another’s pain so swiftly?
I rumbled with this story. I did my best not to fight it. I questioned why I saw people who had more intact and pristine childhoods as “boring”. I stayed with that dull irritation I felt when privileged people, especially white people, shared their own stories of humiliation and hurt.
Slowly, an answer started to form.
(And I mean slowly, this shit took years…)
I was angry because I was terrified I would not be heard. I was angry because I felt there was a scarcity of empathy and these other people were eating it all up. I was angry because I was jealous of the way their safe childhoods buffered them against some of life’s hurts. I was angry at the way their privilege assuaged their hurts and that many of them would always find a listening ear.
By playing along with the Trauma Olympic internally: dismissing my own pain, isolating myself, quieting my own inner turmoil; I was priming myself to do the same to others.
By denying my pain, I could also stop the grieving process that inevitably occurs when we face our full selves. I could shelf this inner work and get back to externalizing my hurt, projecting it onto other people.
Also some of it was truth: black women are hardly thought as full, complex humans with the ability to cry and feel pain. Many times we are less listened to, even by those who share our color and community. We are expected to have shitty lives; in fact, this is often part of what makes us into Strong Black Women.
To be a carefree, or less hurting black woman is to be suspect.
As I write this now I understand that this Trauma Olympics participation needs to stop. I cannot halt the way it is played in our greater society (and oh, it is definitely played up a lot), but I can watch for when the same tendency strikes up in me.
I honestly believe it starts with recognizing and being with our own pain. With finding trusted people (sometimes professionals) to work this shit out with. I also realize that not all my friends are going to get to hear my story.
Sometimes our closest friends just won’t get it. Maybe you’re just more sensitive than them. Maybe they honestly are in such cavernous denial about their own pain they could never see yours. Maybe they are more of the be-merry-for-tomorrow-we-die types and hearing about your abject loneliness is just going to be a “downer.”
Whatever the reason, be careful who you decide to trust your heart with.
It is a tender thing and not everyone deserves it.
As for me, I am tired of this game. I am tired of playing it inside of my own spirit and I am tired of trying to enlist others to play it for me.
I don’t have to make my finger injury an arm injury to matter. And I know that my pain doesn’t make me special or deep. There are plenty of shining human beings with ACE scores of 0. And there are terrible people walking this earth who have been hurt so bad its hard to imagine how they survived. Their ways of being may make sense in light of their circumstances, but as adults we can only blame our harmful behavior so far.
I really hope you can find some space to heal and face whatever it is that plagues you. I think that we don’t even need to try to be good people and make hasty departure from the Trauma Olympics.
By gently and patiently healing ourselves, we become people who are naturally more expansive and compassionate others.
We know our hurt on such an intimate level, neither overstating it nor ignoring it, that is very difficult to imagine inflicting pain onto others.
With practice, with daily growing wisdom, we arrive at a new place of knowing.
I wonder about that longshoreman from time to time. That day, I had to go into his room to fetch his wallet and personal information so the Captain could alert his partner as to what happened. I remember looking at her picture and wondering how she would take the news. When I handed his wallet to him, he was already filled to the gills with Vicodin and thanked me in a surprisingly calm, sleepy voice.
This time, I had more words. I said you’re welcome.