A friend of mine recently learned that a woman he knew had been killed in a car crash. He did not know the woman well, but he knew all her friends. Within hours of her death a pall of grief had settled over them. The woman was beloved and had done many good works; she was young and full of optimism. For these reasons people grieved even more, and my friend was caught up in it. "I saw myself getting out of my car and being struck by a hit-and-run driver, the way she was. I kept thinking that I should do more than send flowers and a card. As it happened, I went on vacation the week of the funeral, and I actually found myself unable to enjoy myself just thinking about the shock and pain of dying that way." In the midst of these reactions, my friend had a sudden realization. "I was going along getting gloomier when it hit me: 'That isn't my life. She isn't me.' The thought felt very strange. I mean, isn't it good to be compassionate? Shouldn't I share in the grief all my friends were feeling?" At that moment he stopped comparing himself to someone else -- not an easy thing to do because we all gain identity from parents, friends, and spouses. An entire community has taken up fragmentary residence inside us, composed of bits and pieces of other personalities.
Our style of suffering is learned from others. To the extent that you feel stoic or weak, in control or victimized, desperate or hopeful, you are adhering to reactions set down by someone else. Deviating from their pattern feels strange, even threatening. In my friend's case, he broke out of a pattern of grief only when he realized that it was second-hand. Before that, he wanted to feel what was proper and expected. He wanted to fit in with the way others saw the situation. As long as you compare yourself to others, your suffering will persist as a way of fitting in.