What Difference Does That Make: Empathy, Pain and Understanding

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Sometimes we are inclined to minimise others’ pain. Sometimes others are inclined to minimise our pain, to tell us that everyone suffers — in which case it can be helpful to ask, “What difference does that make?”

Catch-22

In year 11 (5th form) in high school, I discovered Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. I loved it for its insight, its kaleidoscopic and phantasmagoric feel; I loved it “in all its spinning reasonableness, like good modern art”. I read it five times that year.

Throughout Catch-22, Heller uses repeated phrases — the most famous being “Catch-22” but there are several others such as, “in all its spinning reasonableness, like good modern art”. The one that struck me at the time, and that is still precious to me is, “What difference does that make?”

This question is uttered by the main character of the novel, Yossarian. He is in the US Air Force during World War II flying bombing missions. Yossarian discovers that people are trying to kill him — he is sure about this — people fire anti-aircraft guns at him. Another character doesn’t understand Yossarian’s problem — and says words to the effect, “But Yossarian, they’re trying to kill everybody”. Yossarian’s reply is, “What difference does that make?” This is, I think, very insightful.

Individuality

As remarked, almost, in The Life of Brian [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], “We are all individuals”. By this I mean that there is space between me and you, we have different physiology, attitudes, relationships and so on. For me this is the source of the joy of life (it can also lead to misery and suffering). Getting to know others, establishing satisfying relationships, collaborating on projects and perhaps creating something together that is far more than we could do alone; all of this wouldn’t be possible without our individuality — without differences.

I don’t want to overemphasise our individuality. We also share many things: language (so that you can read what I write), physiology, desires, fears and needs (and no doubt much else as well). And these things in common help us recognised our individuality. Knowing that we all have faces we get better at recognising different ones. At the moment I am much better at recognising different people than different octopuses — it wouldn’t be until I put in the time to know what octopuses have in common that I would start recognising individual octopuses.

What we have in common and our individuality are related.

Pain

One thing that our individuality means is that something can happen to me and it will not affect someone else. If I hit my thumb with a hammer, I feel the pain and others may not. At which point it usually doesn’t help to be told something like, “But everyone feels pain when they hit their thumb with a hammer”.

This doesn’t often happen with physical trauma. But it can be a different story with emotional experiences. A child who hates school can be told that everyone has to go to school. A person who hates being bullied but can be told that all workplaces have bullies and petty politics.

To these kinds of comments I think Yossarian’s reply, “What difference does that make?”, is very apt.

Minimizing

“What difference does that make?” cuts through other’s attempts to minimise someone’s pain or suffering. It raises the question of what can be done.

My guess is that when we try to minimise another’s suffering it is because we are uncomfortable. Perhaps we have empathy for them and so feel pain also — which may be very unpleasant, and who could blame us for wanting to be rid of pain? Perhaps the kind of pain they have is uncomfortable for us — if we are a concert pianist we may not want to contemplate for a second that our hands could be damaged. If it is emotional pain we may be uncomfortable with the emotion — in Anglo-Saxon cultures for instance, from what I’ve observed, men can be uncomfortable with sadness, and women uncomfortable with anger — or the situation that provoked it. (If I was assaulted often by my father I may not want to hear about someone else’s experience of the same thing.)

Listening

What I’d like to suggest is that if we can listen to the experience of someone in pain then this will likely help the relationship. This may be a split second — like saying, “Ow”, if you see someone hit their thumb, or even just flinching and not saying anything for a moment — or a very long time — if it involves listening to someone sort out a difficult situation.

To share experiences of delight and pleasure is marvelous. To listen to someone in pain can also deepen a relationship. What I’m suggesting is that to minimise someone else’s pain will likely not help the relationship and may even damage it. When I am told things like, “But everyone has to do that” or, “Everyone feels like that”, I usually feel some anger or resentment. I can’t recall once when it has benefitted the relationship.

This means that I may need to sit with my discomfort as well as the other’s pain. This means that I may need lots of support to do this. And being in touch with my own feelings and reactions — that is not minimising my own reactions either.

Do you think there are times when you’d like to say like Yossarian, “What difference does that make?” Let me know in the comments when you think this question could be useful to you — even if you don’t utter it out loud.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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