Compared to What?

by Joanne Kelly

My Buddhist friend Dhyan sent me this story and gave me permission to share it with you:

Long ago I had a friend named Jack, who was a graphic designer and worked out of his house. He did some logo work for me once upon a time.

I remember the first time I came to his townhouse as a client, I saw a big “Compared to What?” sign over his computer. Naturally I had to ask him what that was about.

Jack was Buddhist and shared many of the same learning experiences I had had. He told me he wanted to remember that the depth of your suffering was directly connected to the alternative to which you were comparing your situation.  When we say something is “awful, terrible, depressing” it is because we are comparing it to another state of being, which we find more pleasing and desirable, and somehow think we are entitled to have.

Jack taught me that the amount of suffering we go through in life is directly related to our tendency to look at our current situation and find it lacking.

I have never forgotten Jack’s over-the-computer-reminder. Nor him, actually, although we have not been in touch for many years. He and his wife gave birth to a beautiful daughter who was born with a severe sensitivity disorder.  Almost all sensation was intolerable to her.  She cried for the first three years of her life, pretty literally, all hours except when she was asleep, and she didn’t sleep much. Either her father or her mother held her constantly for three years and that was the only comfort she had. She finally got to the point where she could tolerate being put down, having clothing against her skin and taking baths (she didn’t have her hair washed for the first 3 years of her life – surprisingly it didn’t look all that bad!). Through it all her parents were incredibly patient.

Jack used to bring his then-4-year-old-daughter over to my house and we would have tea parties under the hawthorn tree in the park. She loved that!  She also loved to climb up into the loft of my house and I was the first person ever that she happily stayed with apart from one of her parents. Jack casually said he was going to go get some coffee one day. She and I were dressing one of my dolls up in the loft at the time and she just said “Okay, Dad, bye!”  This was after several months of our playing together with Jack slowly being farther and farther away – at the far end of the loft, at the bottom of the ladder, down in my living room, and finally out of the house.

Jack had more than the usual opportunities for comparison with others and with other situations and to find his own lacking but he didn’t go there. That made a huge impression on me. He loved his daughter and he stayed very even-keeled about the extreme challenges. By the time she was school age, because of the tender care of both of her parents, her doctors and therapists, she was not only able to attend school, she attended regular school, and by second grade she was mainstreamed successfully.

What can we learn from this inspiring story? If you have a mental illness or have a family member or friend with a mental illness, it can be tempting go through life as if we have a “Woe is Me” sign hanging over our desks. I know I have held that mindset from time to time. But starting today, I’m trading it in for a “Compared to What?” sign.

How about you? What does the sign over your desk say?

Joanne Kelly


Interfaith Network on Mental Illness

Co-founder and board treasurer

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the submitter. They do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the board of directors or members of the Interfaith Network on Mental Illness.