Last year, I was at the Easter Sunday service at Norwich Cathedral with a new acquaintance. In the distance, I noticed a lady in the congregation whose face was very familiar. “I think I went to College with her,” I told my acquaintance.
She didn’t miss a beat. “Oh, that’s V. – you know, she had cancer last year.”
And I knew that very second that I would never be friends with my acquaintance. Why? Because I do not want to be friends with someone who can find nothing to say about a stranger except that she’d had cancer. She could have said that V. was a splendid cook, an outstanding gardener, an avid reader, or even simply that she was a lovely person. At a push, “Oh, that’s V. – you know, she had cancer last year and recovered by using such-or-such treatment/philosophy/herbs/breakthrough surgery etc.” Instead, she chose to describe a person exclusively by her affliction rather than by any personality characteristic she might have. As though this woman was defined by her illness and nothing else.
It has been my experience that most people find it much easier – almost unhealthily more comfortable – to relate to another person’s unhappiness than happiness. As a literary translator, I know that it is much easier to convey grief, fear and unhappiness from another language and culture than happiness and humour. Unhappiness travels at the speed of light. Happiness, for some reason, doesn’t. It’s stopped at every corner, questioned, analysed, its visa checked, its motivation examined and viewed with suspicion. Too much happiness is viewed as superficial, twee, unrealistic, whereas unhappiness is frequently described with such complimentary terms as “profound”, “real” and the arts programmes’ favourite, “dark”. Happy endings are automatically considered flawed, while tragic or unresolved ones are worthy of respect. Love stories that turn out happily are chick-lit, but the ones with characters battling each other’s demons are more likely to win literary prizes. When and why did we decide that darkness is worthier than the light?
A few days ago, some neighbours were expressing their sympathy at my husband and me having to move house for the fourth time in as many years, and asked about our plans for the future. “It’s very simple,” I said, flippantly. “I’m going to buy a lottery ticket, win the jackpot, then buy a house in Norwich and an attic apartment in Rome.”
Interestingly, they didn’t comment on the obvious flaw in the premise of my plan. Instead, their faces turned sad and they replied, “Ah, yes, but then when you buy a place you can end up with the neighbours from hell. And then something always goes wrong and repairs are so expensive…” There it was – the zooming in on a tiny crack in an otherwise perfect crystal vase.
“Not too bad…” increasingly seems like the favourite British response to the question “How are you?” and people are surprised when my reaction is, “Oh, dear, have you been unwell?” To me, “Not too bad” implies that things could be worse but, well, they’re not good at the moment.
“A friend in need is a friend indeed” is a saying common to many different cultures, and yet it’s much harder to share good news with a friend than bad ones. People rally around you at bad news, offer help and sympathy with an enthusiasm that (I hate to say this) sometimes verges on a hint of gratitude. They plunge into the pool of your unhappiness and swim in it for hours. Give them a tale of success, independence and joy, and, sadly, they’ll all too often walk around your pool of limpid water looking awkward, almost afraid of dipping their toes in it.
In a café, I overhear a woman at the next table talking to her sister about her forthcoming fiftieth birthday. “It’s a brilliant age,” I volunteer light-heartedly, being two years her senior. “It’s when you find out what you really want.”
The woman beams at me. “Oh, I really don’t mind turning fifty. In fact, I’m quite looking forward to it.”
“Ah, that’s what she says now,” her sister says. “Just wait for her to be really fifty and then she’ll feel old like the rest of us.”
That’s what I call toxic.
More and more, I find myself drifting away even from people I love if their default setting is one of pessimism or their focus automatically on the negative. If I can’t tell them about my joy, then I will not give them the satisfaction of wallowing in my unhappiness. They have their own. I have no inclination to encourage Schadenfreude.
Why do so many of us accept only a vision of a flawed, doomed world? Is there a crack in our mental viewfinder that distorts our perception?
What makes us more attuned to misery than to joy? To pessimism rather than optimism? To despair rather than hope? Why is it often easier to sink under the gravitational force of darkness rather than dare to push upwards through the clouds and stand in the sunlight?
In a world that is a resounding “YES” why do we primarily hear a stream of little “no”s?
There’s so much to ponder in your essay. Even though I struggle with depression, “hope” remains my favorite word in the English language. Even if one doesn’t have love, with hope there is always the potential for love. When I receive good news, my first impulse is to want to share it with a friend or family member. Despite being an introvert it’s more fun if joy is shared. I understand why people feel Schadenfreude. I’ve been guilty of it myself at times–mainly when it involves toxic politicians. There is so much toxicity and division in my country right now. I find it hard to understand how people could want more of the same in their personal lives or in the lives of those around them. Finally, as a person with a permanent disability, I certainly don’t want to be known as “that woman with MS.” I’m so much more than that! 🙂 Thank you for writing, Katherine. I’ll look forward to the next blog.
Thank you, Christine. All the best to you.
Perhaps the urge to zoom in on the cracks is intrinsic, as much a part of a person’s make-up as a fondness for Jelly Babies or blue eyes. If so, then it’s pure luck that we are optimists! Sometimes it takes effort to see the bright side but there is usually one to be found. TOTALLY with you on the joy and liberation of turning fifty. I’ve come across the kind of nay-sayer who insists one will feel differently when up against that birthday and I just tune them out. To quote the salty Brendan Behan: “F*@k the begrudgers!”
Absolutely. And then there are the professional guilt-trippers. You tell them you’re going on holiday, or a party, or just bought a new dress, and they reply, “Oh, lucky you! I haven’t been on holiday for 100 years, nobody ever invites me to a party, I haven’t bought a new dress in years.”
Thank you for commenting.
What a nice text! It mirrors some of my own reflections. Happiness invites jalousy – this might explain why happy people do not speak much about it. Which in leaves the field to those displaying their own misery and to those pointing to other’s misery. Actually I am not at all convinced that man is a social being and not a predator. One has to hold to strong beliefs to meet jalousy with kindness, hate with love, pessimism with openness. Love thy next? What an ambition!
I’ve realised rather late in life that “loving thy neighbour” and forgiveness isn’t actually about the other person but about keeping yourself healthy, sane and happy. I remember someone telling me a story about Archbishop Desmond Tutu being asked by a young priest if he loved the then Apartheid South African president. The Bishop replied something like, “Of course, I love him. He is my brother in Christ. But that doesn’t mean I have to like him!”
This is very insightful Katia. I am a stubborn optimist. So we should hang out together! xoxo
I find it’s the glass half- empty or half-full syndrome. I’ve had my share of troubles, but I am overall an optimistic person. But there are people who I call “cranks.” They never find anything positive to say, and they suck the very joy out of life. I’m with you- avoid at all costs!
I’m naturally a pessimistic about my own life, so optimism is something I’ve trained myself to be. However, am genuinely happy when someone else has success or a stroke of luck because I find it energising and encouraging to know that if something good can happen to someone else, then sooner or later something wonderful can also happen to me!
What a great post, Katia, and one that is so painfully true. I know I am always shy about sharing good news, mostly because (don’t laugh!) I’m a believer in the Evil Eye, and so, when I do share it, I tend to understate it’s importance. But, I know exactly what you mean about people seeming to revel in other people’s bad news! And it makes me crazy! It reminds me of one of my late father-in-law’s favorite pieces of advice (a sweet and wise man, indeed): “Never tell anyone your problems. Half of them won’t care, and the other half will be glad you’re having them.” Wouldn’t it be nice if people could just want to hear about the best happening to others? I know it makes my day when I hear good news!
I side with you when it comes to sharing exceptionally good news of my own (I don’t believe in the evil eye cerebrally but, well, after being brought up by a Middle Eastern mother…) But there’s a difference between that and people being toxic and actively comfortable when you’re unhappy, as though your trouble fuel their sense of usefulness and self-importance. Thank you so much for commenting.
Happy Easter, Katia (though I know the Orthodox Easter is at a different time, and I can’t remember whether you celebrate both or not). I know you’ll find it as weird as I do when I tell you that an eminent psychiatrist whose name I can no longer remember amongst the crowd of them making comments and prognostications in the news these days, once remarked that depressed people are actually more realistic than happy or manic people. Go figure! Why? If manic is wrong, then why isn’t its opposite just as wrong in the opposite direction? And what’s wrong with ordinary happy people? I suspect he just didn’t like losing business! Go be happy with H., and I hope you do win the lottery–I can think of few people who inspire the rest of us to joy and good sense as much as you do, and who therefore deserve it.
I’m an Anglican, so celebrated Easter yesterday. I disagree with the psychiatrist you mention. I believe increasingly that reality is influenced by our perception. What we think, that we often become. Thank you for commenting :–)
I think that’s human nature in the 21st century. I know 1-2 acquaintances who also mention people they know in this way—and they are totally oblivious how they speak about them. . . Like this piece very much and glad you reblogged Scribe Doll’s post..
I wonder if people are just becoming lazy, and focusing on misery means they don’t have to make the effort to change their own circumstances. Just a thought. Thank you for your comment.
Reblogged this on Jane Wilson.
Thank you very much, Jane.
There are some who manage to suck the joy out of every situation. I have literally turned out all the lights, ducked beneath a window, and failed to answer the door when they drop by. I don’t reply to their messages, politely decline their invitation (frequently feigning illness), and on one unavoidable occasion lost my resolve and said, “You love to argue any point and enjoy being disagreeable. I’m sorry, I just can’t participate in this conversation.”
Good for you, Jane. Life too hard to be weighed down by these energy suckers, and too wonderful to have them cast a shadow over it.
Thank you so much for commenting.