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?