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Jay Lake
Date: 2011-04-27 05:22
Subject: [cancer] My theory of problems
Security: Public
Tags:cancer, health, personal, process, writing
So, during the continuing adventure of surgery followed by chemotherapy followed by more surgery over 2009-2010, I evolved a new theory of problems. Actually, it's a theory I've had for a long time, but my personal medical situation really underscored the point to me.

Essentially it's this: Everyone's problems are as big as they are.

I would reasonably often have conversations that went something like this:

Friend: "Man, I feel lousy. I have a cold."
Jay: "Man, that sucks. I hope you feel better soon."
Friend: (embarrassed) "Oh, wait. You have cancer. Never mind."

For "a cold" substitute "a flat tire", "a job interview", "a sick dog", etc.

The thing is, the scale of my issues don't mean that anyone else's matter less. Yes, there is the question of perspective. I'm not an idiot, I understand there's a huge distinction between a three-day upper respiratory infection and a year of brutal treatments for a potentially fatal disease. But if you're not the one with cancer, the cold can be a pretty big problem. (If you're on chemo, a cold can be a gigantic problem, but that's a topic for another time.)

Sick or not, I am human too. I care about my friends and am sympathetic to their troubles. Often as not, it eases my mind to talk about some else other than FUCKING CANCER ALL THE GOD-DAMNED TIME. Even if that something else is tough stuff as well.

So, like I said, everyone's problems are as big as they are.

This applies in writing as well. Novelists worrying about their royalty statements are grappling with problems that are just as real to them as people aching to sell their first story. We just call that trading up to a better class of problems. If you haven't sold yet, the kvetching of established writers sounds like complaining about paying taxes on your lottery winnings. But guess what? Lottery winners pay taxes, too.

Cancer sucks. So does a head cold, a flat tire, etc. We all live our lives. I'm just trying to live mine.

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Kenneth Mark Hoover
User: kmarkhoover
Date: 2011-04-27 12:27 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Good analogy with what goes on in writing, too. Every one's problems are specific to them at the time. Doesn't make them less, like you said.
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cathschaffstump: katusha
User: cathschaffstump
Date: 2011-04-27 12:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Yup. It's not a contest.

My friends kvetch about trouble with their families, and when I bring mine up, they're like, "Oh yeah. Nevermind. I'm good."

But they're not good. This is much like what you've talked about here. Size doesn't matter. Yup, a head cold is much better than cancer. But it's still no good.

Take care of yourself.


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User: eposia
Date: 2011-04-27 13:20 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Had conversation on this exact topic with the person driving me to radiation appointments last week... I should probably put my own post up about it but I agree with your theory.
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User: cathshaffer
Date: 2011-04-27 13:25 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I agree with your overall statement, and it works both ways. There are people in much worse condition with illness, suffering more, facing a greater degree of disability and worse prognosis. In the end, the pain olympics is a dumb game to play. (That said, bitching about minor annoyances is maybe not the best habit and hearing about problems huger than your own is a good reality check.)

On the other hand, I disagree that being an aspiring writer who is not published yet is any kind of a problem at all. It's just a project. When I was a freshman in college, did I consider it a problem that I had not already graduated? I know a lot of new writers feel an injured sense of entitlement because their genius has not yet been recognized, but they need to suck it up. Building a writing career is just a matter of putting in time in the chair. Not being paid properly for work you have contracted to do, however, IS a real problem.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2011-04-27 13:51 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
While I take your point, I venture to say that many if not most aspiring writers would consider their rejections a problem.
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User: cathshaffer
Date: 2011-04-27 14:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I didn't. I didn't *like* my rejections, and I still don't like getting rejections, but I don't classify it as a "problem." I have a finished, unpublished novel I'm trying to sell, and there's quite a bit of drama behind it, but even that I don't consider a "problem." It is just a project. Many children consider it a problem that they don't have adult rights and responsibilities. (I know I did.) I am certainly not having any of it, though.
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scarlettina: Daffy frustration
User: scarlettina
Date: 2011-04-27 13:57 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Daffy frustration
Boy, does this sound familiar! You know I lost my parents young. For years, I'd have conversations that went:

Friend: My dad's really been ragging my ass about X.
Me: Man, at sucks. Hope he gets over it.
Friend: Oh wait, your parents are dead. Never mind.

This still happens even today and, wow, do I hate it. I'd rather support my friends through tough times than have them dismiss their own troubles because I'm the Walking Dose of Perspective. I do understand.
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User: shelly_rae
Date: 2011-04-27 14:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Perspective? We don't need no stinkin' perspective!

There's another line too though. The line between being over self-involved and oblivious to others. If folks are obsessed with their own issues and then thinking about yours (or mine, or the folks in Japan's) troubles puts theirs into perspective that can be good too. I don't want to live as an example to others. I want to live. Sometimes that means my existence points out it's not important to sweat the little things. I'm ok with that.

But when folks get so self-involved that they can't look around at all? That's a problem.

I know what that tattoo means to you, it's a sign of cancer that you'll take on purposefully as opposed to the scars and the other pain. But it'll also mark you just like a pink hat.

Some folks make everything a contest. Some contests we don't want to win.

rambling off.
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slweippert: Me July 2010
User: slweippert
Date: 2011-04-27 16:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Me July 2010
Thanks for posting this. :)
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Jim Keller
User: jimkeller
Date: 2011-04-27 16:19 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Thank you. This is a marvelous perspective, and I plan to incorporate it into my daily life.

The corollary to it would be that the same techniques you use to put the "little" problems into perspective when faced with a "big" problem may also work to put the "big" problem into perspective. That I'm going to have to try.
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That Which Fights Entropy: me with scarf
User: amberite
Date: 2011-04-27 18:32 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:me with scarf
I often see people saying, guiltily, "...but that's a first world problem," about everything from gender transitions to grocery bills, and I think "Well, you live in the first world, and it's not like anyone would tell you to NOT deal with your problems..."

I hope I didn't offend, the other day, by my offer to help with practicalities. I'd like to get to know you better, and I always fear taking without giving, in my interactions with people - regardless of whether they have cancer, or just have other friends they're more interested in seeing.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2011-04-27 20:06 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
No, you didn't offend. Quite the opposite. I'm still pretty overwhelmed and am not quite keeping up...
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User: brownkitty
Date: 2011-04-27 19:10 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Kind of yes, and kind of no.

Just my perspective, apply whatever qualifiers to this that you feel are appropriate, but: when I complain about something, what I'm really trying to do is feel better by offloading a little bit of the pressure onto someone else. So if I complain to you, that feels to me as if what I'm trying to do is to break my problem into little pieces and throw the pieces at you. Kind of like a poo-flinging monkey, and you're the one the poo would stick to.

Yes, there is some problem comparison going on. However, that's not all of it, not even most of it. I do not want to make your problems any worse, any more intense, any more noticeable, by adding a piece of my weight onto your load.

This is why I haven't asked my mother-in-law for help with my chemistry homework. She teaches chemistry, she enjoys teaching chemistry, she lives several hundred miles away and would love to hear more from all of us.

But she's dealing with chemo for multiple myeloma. She needs her strength. I don't want to take her strength for something that, in the end, is relatively minor. And there's not much I can do to share my strength with her.
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User: klwilliams
Date: 2011-04-27 20:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My best friend had the same response when friends would complain about a cold then say, "Oh, but you have it so much worse." Everyone's pain hurts. I'm just sorry that you, like my friend, have a suckier pain right now.
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User: keikaimalu
Date: 2011-04-27 21:03 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I absolutely agree, Jay, but with one caveat, which is hard for me to articulate. Bear with me.

When I am dealing with something particularly difficult and emotional, I can get pretty raw. When I'm raw, I can get sensitive to moments of hypocrisy or insensitivity, or, sometimes, the wrong word at the wrong time, innocently spoken. Things can rub me the wrong way that wouldn't ordinarily.

I don't want my friends feeling like they can't talk to me when I'm going through something. More often than not, it's a welcome distraction, and it makes me feel more normal and productive, which helps me feel less lousy. But once in a while, in a careless moment, a friend can say something that stings, or that pushes buttons that are abnormally close to the surface.

I think that's a common human phenomenon, which is part of why people backpedal when they realize they might be treading on thin ice (to mix metaphors). No one wants to be guilty of insensitivity when dealing with someone who is, well, dealing with something.

So I understand the impulse.

Having said that, though, I hate being treated with kid gloves, or feeling like I'm such a monster that people need to walk on eggshells around me. And it's rare that someone does say that wrong word at the wrong time. But it happens, once in a while.
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