I hope that no one will view this as a piss and whine GTKY node, but I have something to discuss here. It is an interpersonal problem that sometimes arises between myself and others, and I think it is caused by some rather weird societal value system.
The problem, as the node title states, is people who confuse suffering with authenticity, or for those of you who listen to early 90s hip-hop, Realness. This type of rhetoric takes many forms, from people who pretend to be poor, to people who are constantly engaging in one-upmanship in conversations about travails.
Bob: Damn, I had a bad day. I just got hit by a bus!
Phil: Well, I just got ran over by a train!
I don't know why people do this, I think for many (including, sometimes, myself), bringing up our own problems is a way to sympathize with people, to show them that we can understand their problems. On another level, I think that certain statements, such as "my father has cancer" are such coversational sledgehammers, that to respond to them by saying something like "I am sorry" just sounds ridiculous. A person who doesn't understand these things, and can't verbalize them or compare them to their own situation, is left out of the arena of communications, and feels helpless. They have to prove they are also real, and to prove that, they have to bring up their suffering.
There are two problems with this as way of relating to people. The first, is, quite simply, if we really are going to have a contest in suffering, most of the people I know (and most of the people reading this right now) are losing. I don't know, but I have been told, that there are places in countries like Brazil and Kenya where street children sniff glue all day until they die because they are too poor to eat, and know that they are going to starve eventually. Compared to that, what kind of problems do I have? That I have had a weird fever for the past three weeks that makes me sleep all evening, instead of attending Kung-Fu class? I don't have problems, not real problems. Most of the people reading this probably don't, either.
The second, and real problem with this tactic of conversational one-upmanship is that it confuses suffering with knowledge of human nature. Again, I don't fault people for this, there is some parts about human life that you will only be able to understand when you are poor, working very hard, trying to support a family, or dealing with a bad event. But some people overdo it, and I think the reason for this is that they believe that the more extreme and weird the suffering is, the more "real", the closer to human nature, the experiencer becomes. At the age of 22, I am going to say that I do not believe this to be true. Someone who has been raped, beaten, addicted to heroin, and had their right foot amputated doesn't neccesarily know more about life then the person raised in a loving (even sheltered) family, who happily plays around with their friend, and has a fun time in college or at work. The weird and the extreme is not the revealer of human nature, the ability of everyone to be happy and kind to each other is what reveals human nature.
To return back to the issue of why people raise their own problems over and again in conversation, a third option is that they think that by suffering, they deserve something.
This is not at all a wrong thing to believe. For example, most of the time when someone is sick, they do indeed deserve to have the people around them treat them a little better, by doing such things as getting them food and water, lowering their voices, or what not. However, some people seem to change this into believing that suffering somehow accumulates a special type of Karma in the Akashic Record that they can use later on. If they have suffered, then they can redeem those suffering points for someone patting them on their head and telling them that they are good. It is sad that people have to resort to such tricks, everyone should be patted on their head and told how good they are regularly.
Part of having grown up (to the small amount that I have), is that I no longer think of things in terms of who abstractly "deserves" what, but rather in terms of what happens and what consequences will come about because of it. For example, I could argue that because I have been sick, I deserve (in some abstract sense) an extension on my math homework (which of course, is nonsense, healthy enough to node, healthy enough to solve triangles). That exercise is really gainless, however. The more pertinent fact, if I were to ask for an extension on my homework, is that both the math teacher and I are looking for a common goal (teaching me trig by the end of the term) and that we should therefore approach this in a way that our actions work towards that goal. Thus, we are dealing with actions and results, instead of trying to "prove" that something is "deserved" by someone.
I hope that everyone will forgive me for the rather conversational scheme of this node, but I thought these issues should be raised.