Since I’ve been dealing with a lot of emotional thunder and lightning, and some uncomfortable relations with friends, I’ve had occasion to think about the limits of communication or understanding. How much, one asks, can we help or hurt each other with language?
Here’s what I mean. I’ll say something emotive and charged like “I am miserable because of such and such situation that I cannot change”, or “I despise myself because I do such and such thing that is abhorrent to me”. People respond in varied ways. The most common thing for people to do when confronted with someone else’s troubles is to tell the story of their own, partly as a counter-example or comforting success story at times, partly as a mantra or spell to guard themselves from misery also. Examples are: “I had a similar situation and I did this and this and this and I’m better!” or the less useful “I also have a life that sucks that is totally different and I am compelled by my brain stem to tell the entire story now.”
Quite often the response is an Infallible System for Curing Despair: a self-help book, the virtues of exercise, religious devotional advice, or some other bit of packaged goods. Woe to the sufferer who rejects the Infallible System: that way madness lies. If the System doesn’t work for you, try harder.
A variant of this response is the “Here’s what life is like, my friend” response which consists either of mutually bitter denunciation of the entire project of existence, or “the trick to it all that made me happy”. Sometimes these two are bizarrely combined in a kind of anti self help recipe: here’s how to be unhappy the way the Pros do it! Go on, it’s the inevitable path for you, my friend.
Some people attempt humor, with varying results. The extreme of “You’re slitting your wrists? Horse walks into a bar..” is to be avoided, but there’s some success in making an ironic play out of the tragedy. Since this is my own approach to life’s Death & Taxes moments, I always at least appreciate the sentiment even when it’s obviously in poor taste.
The oddest responses, though, have been the oxymoronic attacks. Quite a few people have responded to my own sad little yawps with anger, resentment, or a kind of growling animal self-pity. Since a lot of my own complaining has consisted of flailing at others, I’m neither surprised nor particularly offended at this. But there’s a strain of it that makes me wonder what one person’s misery sets off in another. Several people said — not in so many words — “You don’t really feel this way” in a very emphatic, angry manner, as if to suggest that the despair another person was experiencing was a kind of fantasy or play-acting. Another of the angry responses boils down to “Stop wallowing in it” or “Haven’t you fixed this already?” especially after I’ve been vocal multiple times about a problem I’m having. Other people seem quite put out that my own dysphoric ramblings have affected their own mood adversely, and have told me in no uncertain terms to take it elsewhere.
When I look at these responses, and then look back at my own ways of dealing with the expressed misery of others, I am convinced that psychological distress in others is mostly perceived as a threat. There’s almost a sense of contagion about it, as if one could catch The Unhappy by dealing with the sorrow of others in a meaningful way. I recall my own inability, for example, to be helpful to my mother after my father’s death. I just wanted her to stop freaking out! So, I couldn’t say or do much of anything, because I was too bound up in my own fear of her grief.
On balance I believe that the desire to express our unhappiness to other humans is quixotic. We want comfort, but it’s nearly impossible for others to know what to say or do, and even harder for them to act on their best impulses.
The sufferer seeks out an idealized parent, but reaches a fellow-sufferer. The response, whether canned or silent or self-serving or angry, falls short.
A lot of animals abandon their wounded herd mates. Are we much better? Sometimes, maybe. It’s probably best to hope so.