I once lived in a sweet neighborhood surrounded by nice neighbors who pretty much kept to themselves and didn’t annoy me too much. Around the corner from me lived a few members from my ward. I couldn’t see their houses from my front door but I had to pass the gauntlet of Mormon friendliness to get to my home.

One beautiful sunshiny summer day, one of the sisters from our ward came over to talk to me. I was in the driveway painting a stack of interior doors in a desperate attempt to turn my 1970s house into an early 1990s version of House Beautiful with a can of $10 paint.

This sister greeted me and we chit-chatted for a moment, all the while I was thinking, “Please leave. I need to finish this before the kids wake up from their naps and this coat of paint dries with streaks.” Finally, she got to the point of her first -ever friendly drop-in. “I was working in my house, feeling very down and frustrated with my life. I thought of all my problems and how hard it all is. Then, for some reason, you popped into my head. I thought about you and your sweet children and how impossibly hard it must be for you to have a husband in school and working full-time while you are left at home with three very ill and disabled children. That is such a challenge! I realized my problems are nothing compared to yours. I think you are wonderful and I just wanted to you know that.” She finished with a smile and hugged me. Then she turned around and headed back to her house.

As I leapt back to the doors set up on sawhorses for efficient painting, my first reaction was, “Wow! That was super nice of her to say!” Then a few seconds later, my brain kicked in and it came to me in a horrified rush. My sweet neighbor was telling me I was her Man with No Feet!

You know the story. You shouldn’t complain about your shoes hurting your feet. You should be grateful to have feet. Think of the Man who has No Feet. Translation: Someone always has it worse than you. I was her Thank Goodness I’m Not You Person.

I had had my share of pity by then. In a way, Rob and I volunteered for it by agreeing to be the poster family for the importance of Newborn Hearing Screens to test for infant hearing loss. We had gotten the tender shoulder pats saying they didn’t know how we did it. We had people saying they were praying for us. We had also taken our share of questions about why we had continued to populate the earth with defective children (we only had three, for crying out loud and our third was our Immaculate Conception) and why didn’t we just institutionalize them, instead of constantly talking about the challenges of being a hearing-impaired family. That didn’t even count the questions about how we handled the kids allergies and immune problems with Alternative Medicine. And the publicity about the Irlen Syndrome as another diagnosis for dyslexia-type learning challenges. At one point, after we landed in Reader’s Digest [1] (you know you’ve arrived when Reader’s Digest wants you), a snarky teacher at our kids school said she had been teaching Special Education children for over 20 years and no one ever did a magazine story about her. I wanted to kick her in the shins.

Back to the Man With No Feet. Until my neighbor so kindly told me I was living the nightmare she was glad not to have, I had not considered my life to be that bad. I knew families with kids who were really, really sick and very disabled, so in a way, I had my own Man with No Feet. At least my children could walk and would someday grow up just fine. Some mother’s aren’t that lucky.

At the very least, when I read old issues of People Magazine while waiting in another doctors office, I was practicing Man with No Feet every time I saw an unflattering photo of an celebrity and thought, “I may be fat and frumpy, but at least I have the common sense to not wear THAT in public.” or “I may not have money or fame, but at least I wasn’t arrested for smoking crack in a brothel while my spouse was at home with the kids.” Both are Man with No Feet kinds of responses.

I am not sure of all the technical terms that should be used to describe our reactions to other people’s problems/tragedies/life circumstances, but I do know that none of our responses should be any version of Man with No Feet. Not “Boy! I can’t imagine dealing with that!” not “You have such a challenging life, don’t you, dear?” not “I think of you and want to cry.”

How about a nice, sincere, “Is there anything I can do to help?” while you hand over a heaping plate of gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, egg-free, peanut-free (I hope I got all the major food allergens there) chocolate chip cookies. Or just say nothing and pick up a damn paint brush and help me get these doors done before the paint dries.

1. Couldn’t find the main article without paying for it, so you’ll have to settle for a summary.