Every so often, I find a piece of writing that causes me to exclaim, “YES” and dramatically, reflexively clench my fists to my chest (luckily no one was around to see). “That’s it.” Yesterday, that piece was The Feast of Pain, an opinion piece in the Sunday Review of the New York Times.
Tim Kreider’s piece is a little cynical, but not hopeless. Misanthropic, but not without certain admiration. At once mocking and commiserating. And absolutely, unapologetic in acknowledgement of, sharing of, and almost celebration of misery.
“This isn’t schadenfreude… as far as I know, there isn’t a German compound, but if there were it’d be something like mitleidfreude, compassion-joy — compassion in the literal sense of “suffering with.” It is the happiness, or at least consolation, of knowing that Things Are Tough All Over, that everyone else is secretly as wretched as I am…”
Kreider shares several poignant and quite funny anecdotes of observing human misery, acknowledging that misery and pain come in varying degrees and at varying times – from gastrointestinal distress in public restrooms to the death of a loved one. In one instance Kreider plays with the auto-fill property of Google search,
“…it occurred to me to see what else might be autofilled, as a sort of unscientific poll or cross-sectional sample of my fellow human beings’ furtive curiosity and desires. I typed in “Why am I” and got: so tired/always cold/so ugly? “Why does”: salt melt ice/my vagina itch/it snow? “Where is”: my refund/Sochi/Chuck Norris? “Why can’t”: we be friends/I own a Canadian/I cry? I felt fondly toward all depraved humanity.”
My favorite passage was a little more serious and something I’ve personally grappled with. It’s the inevitability of trying to frame your own problems and suffering in the context of that of others. How bad is it really for me? Am I allowed to feel this upset? Am I wrong to put the desire to lessen my own suffering above the problems of my friends and loved ones? Above the suffering of whole nations? Am I selfish in my craving of sympathy and compassion for myself?
“A pastor I know, who gets a more privileged vista of human suffering than I do, told me she was sick of the phrase “first-world problems” — not just because it delegitimizes the perfectly real problems of those of us lucky enough to have enough to eat and Internet access, but because it denies the same stupid trivial human worries to people who aren’t. Are you not entitled to existential angst or tedium vitae if you live in Chad — must you always nobly suffer traditional third-world problems like malaria and coups d’état? If we’re lucky, we graduate to increasingly complex and better problems, and once all our material needs are satisfied we get to confront the insoluble problem of being a person in the world.”
All of us see and probably experience some form of misery on a daily basis. I share the misery as I dole out ibuprofen to a friend, watching her pop the pink pills like candy, while clutching her abdomen from period cramps. I know, because the same pills have helped me through that time of month too – been there, done that. I felt compassion as I spoke to the health insurance company phone operator who told me that his wife, too, had (and survived) breast cancer. “She’ll get through it, you’ll see,” he reassured me about my own loved one. I thanked him politely and smiled, even though I knew he couldn’t see from wherever he was in the country. I felt a sort of compassion when during the winter months my brother or friends back at Cornell texted me, “Fuck, it’s -18F in Ithaca right now,” and I texted back “Haha, sucks to be you.”
I also feel compassion for those whose suffering I’ve only read and heard about. Those who have lost loved ones on a sunken ferry, or who have died in political protests, who suffer from diseases with unfamiliar names. It’s a different kind of compassion. More moral, less personal perhaps, but not more or less in any absolute. Because it’s all suffering. Sometimes we’re all miserable. It’s part of the human condition.