“At least…” is a slippery little sentence starter. It’s not so devious in the middle of a sentence when it’s used to talk about a tangible quantity of something, such as: “I’ve eaten at least half of that Costco-sized bag of potato chips.” But it’s also one of those qualitative expressions that, when worked in right at the beginning, can come across a few different ways.
It’s often used conversationally with the intention of expressing a degree of gratitude or to acknowledge some degree of good fortune. In this usage, it’s often delivered with a sigh and a shrug: “At least you’ve got your health.”
It can also be used with a smirk and a raised eyebrow to throw some ruthless shade. “At least I’VE got a job. At least SHE can get her ass out of bed to walk the dog in the morning.”
We’ve often heard it used to compare our situation with those of other kids and families in the medical world. In general, people are trying to make us feel better. “At least it’s not malignant. At least you’re out of the hospital. At least she’ll be able to go to school.” It’s all definitely on the gratitude side of things. We have, objectively, been in some pretty dark places since diagnosis. It is good to not always be there. We are grateful for progress and healing and all the love and support that has gotten us where we are. We like to acknowledge this.
But (talk about a loaded sentence starter…) I have chosen to omit “at least…” from my vocabulary. (As a sentence starter…I can still brag about eating at least a half a bag of chips.)
As a next step and in specific reference to situations like ours, I’m going to go ahead and ask others to maybe consider doing the same. Here’s why. It’s not nice or helpful to shit on someone else’s situation to make yourself or even someone you love, feel better.
Here’s the thing I’ve learned while existing in some pretty dark places. When you’re in one of those dark places, you feel alone. You feel like the world is falling apart and unfair and you are angry and sad almost all of the time. You inevitably run into other people who are in their own dark places. Sometimes their dark places overlap with yours and sometimes they look and feel very different, but the common thread is that none of them are good. They are all dark. No one wants to be there. No one chooses to be there.
Over the last couple years, we’ve met and gotten to know people and situations in several different hospital wards, from the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU) to oncology, to brain injury and rehabilitation. I can say, with absolute confidence, that no two experiences have been alike, but they are all shitty. I call them (not originally) “shit sandwiches.” It’s what they serve in the dark places. Exclusively.
I can only speak to our personal experience in a children’s hospital and dealing with our own child’s condition, but I feel this applies to a lot of different situations. Bear with me.
At some point, everyone gets a “shit sandwich” to eat. Some people get several and some people are forced to eat them on and off throughout their whole lives. Our shit sandwich came with a pediatric brain tumour and a stroke and severe food allergies to work into the mix. It’s a meaty patty for a shit sandwich and it’s hard to swallow. However, I have to acknowledge that our shit sandwich also came with some fancy toppings. It came with financial stability and accessible health care. It came with family and community support and compassionate places of employment. It came with a side of friendly and communicative health care practitioners, and we got to add our own special sauces of education and past life experience that helped us wrap our heads around our situation as it was happening. Our shit sandwich is BIG, but there a lot of toppings on there that make it digestible.
In the dark places we sometimes frequent, we meet people who might have subjectively less meat on their sandwich; a smaller tumour, a concussion, or a single, less complex diagnosis. But not everyone has the fancy fixings to help each bite go down.
They might live hours from family or friends for treatment, or their child’s losses may be more likely to be permanent. Their condition might be more treatable, but more likely to return. Missing work might mean losing a job, with the resulting financial turmoil, as a side to the terror and anguish of watching their child fight to live and function.
It’s tempting to try and compare shit sandwiches…since we’re all eating them at the same table. “At least…” is an easy way to do that. “At least our daughter got her speech back. At least she has vision in one eye. At least she can go to school. At least she’s happy and doesn’t remember life before all this.”
It’s a good thing to be thankful and it’s even better to celebrate the wins, but “at least…” pities and sneers at the misfortunes of someone else because it is always a comparison with something that “could be worse.” My life sucks, but yours sucks more. It casts shade on someone else who is already sitting in the dark place, eating a shit sandwich. I don’t want anyone using my daughter as their shitty baseline for comparison (“At least my child can use both their arms. At least my kid doesn’t have a brain tumour.”), so why would I use someone else as that baseline for comparison myself?
There is no sympathy, no love, and no support in “At least…” as a sentence starter. It is inherently judgemental and comparative, and there are certain things in life that you just cannot compare, and that you should not judge. If your goal IS to be judgey…then have at ‘er, but the people chowing down in the dark place already feel all manner of judged.
You may find yourself with an unpleasant meal in the dark place at some point in your life, and you will feel empathy for those around you, because you can feel their pain and their fear, even if it isn’t the same as your own.
Your “At least…” may be some else’s reality, or it may be their reality in the future. They don’t need to be reminded how bad it tastes. Even if they can’t hear you say it, it becomes an undercurrent in the culture around them. It’s pretty obvious when something in your life is someone else’s worst-case scenario, and you never know when you might be served the same dish, or one that’s even more unpalatable.
The day before my daughter’s diagnosis, I stood in my parents’ kitchen, spewing off my own “at least…” about her food allergies. “At least it’s a manageable condition. At least schools and other parents acknowledge it and make accommodations. At least it isn’t cancer…it could be worse.”
“At least…” tempts fate in the most terrible way. If you’re the type to knock on wood or covertly toss salt over your shoulder, stay the fuck away from “At least…” Statistically speaking, we all end up sick, or hurt, or with some kind of disability at some point in our lives. Don’t unnecessarily put yourself (or those you love) in the pocket of hubris. You are not above or beyond any of it.
If you want to say something positive to someone who is dining on shit sandwiches in a dark place, just say it. Be real. Be genuine. Be in the present.
“You have a strong family.”
“She is doing well.”
“I can see his progress.”
“I’m proud of you.”
“It’s so good to see you.”
“This fucking sucks, but you’re doing everything you can.”
That’s the hot sauce and the fizzy drink to help it all go down. People in the dark place are taking things moment by moment, day by day. Don’t bring the past or the possible future to the table, because diners in the dark place know that there are no guarantees and no gains that can’t, potentially, be lost. It’s exhausting to always try to be positive and looking back or too far ahead can be overwhelming. We’ve got our hands and plates full already. Just help us get the current serving down.