As the mother of a one-month old, I’m awake in the middle of the night a lot. Sometimes I have about enough brain power to check Facebook, sometimes I’ll do crossword puzzles (I’m convinced that, like fluency in a foreign language after a few glasses of wine, crossword skill increases with fatigue). Sometimes my thoughts simply wander here and there.
Last night’s topic of mid-night intrigue–I could have relished my first child so much more if I had the relaxed attitude of having my third. Also, I could definitely enjoy this third delicious babe if I wasn’t so exhausted by his older brothers.
This kind of “if only” thinking doesn’t only plague tired mothers going on over a month without more than 2 hours of consecutive sleep. It’s really just a plague of being human. As prominent psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl wrote, “a [person’s] suffering is similar to the behavior of a gas. If a certain quantity of gas is pumped into an empty chamber, it will fill the chamber completely and evenly, no matter how big the chamber. Thus suffering completely fills the human soul and conscious mind, no matter whether the suffering is great or little.” Basically no matter how much or how little the quantifiable amount of suffering is, that amount of pain will fill your suffering balloon.
That line of thinking reminds me of the stress I experienced during graduate school (I had no sense of humor about how unimportant my thesis was…). As I became a mother, reflecting back to graduate school made me roll my eyes at my youthful self. Then, I was laughing at myself for thinking one child was hard when number two came along. And then number three… well, you get the drift.
No matter where we are in our lives, the challenges we experience fill our suffering balloons. Knowing that can be helpful in allowing us to unhook from the relativistic comparisons to our past or future selves, and from comparisons between our own suffering and the suffering of others.
Maybe it’s what we do with that balloon that matters most. We can, for example, choose how we understand our suffering and learn to make of it something useful. As Frankl wrote, “in some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning.” So, if your meaning is to procreate until the cows come home, don’t worry so much about how easy or hard it is to have one or three children. And if your meaning is to spread the word of balloon suffering, don’t get caught up in the fact that you didn’t come up with the brilliant metaphor. After all, you’re too busy procreating to come up with novel ideas.