Trouble, as we all know, is highly contagious. I was reminded of this recently both by a television character and by a couple of real-life incidents involving real live people (who shall here remain nameless), and all of them, real and fictional, have a number of similarities, the chief one being their apparent unshakable belief that their suffering is greater than anyone else’s, is incurable, and is probably the fault of everyone else too.
My life is pretty fantastically good, when you get right down to it, so to people who don’t know me very well it might appear that I have no business criticizing anyone else’s way of handling sorrow and pain. But that’s just it: even the most wonderful of lives is touched by trials now and then, and struggle or strife isn’t fairly measurable in the moment. My paper cut seems as dire as your childbirth pangs when I’ve just gotten paint thinner on my hand. I know this to be logically ridiculous in the extreme, but don’t tell me the paper cut doesn’t hurt like boy-howdy at that moment. That would be tantamount to me telling you that since your labor pains will probably be over in short shrift, they don’t compare in any way to another’s battle-for-life with esophageal cancer, so you should just get over yourself. Whatever agony each of us is undergoing is more than enough and not to be belittled. And frankly, since each of us has a history that is tinged here and there with darkness, we do all have a sense, however small, of what it means to accept our griefs and cope with, live with, and go forward with them still present. Real sorrows never truly go away.
And for all of us who can feel empathy, or even more than that, can feel sympathy without having experienced the fulness of another’s troubles, life after infancy (when memory, like the lifespan thus far, is short) can be a perpetual bombardment of such troubles even when they’re not entirely our own.
I, of all people, will readily grant you that some people are far better equipped than others to find ways to survive pain and suffering and to continue living a full life without resorting to out-and-out acting. But that’s just it, isn’t it: barring full mental incapacity, don’t we owe it to ourselves, anyway, to try every possible avenue of becoming whole and happy (and of course I don’t mean that superficial kind of happiness that is either fully false or simply stupid); don’t we? When my personal apocalyptic horsemen appeared at the intersection of a group of the classic stressors (job-related problems, health challenges and the sudden death of a close friend converging on me at the same time) and plunged me into clinical depression, I was fortunate to not only have some of the significant tools (support from family and friends, a great doctor and a good therapist, and ultimately, medication that worked for me) for doing battle with those monsters but also the sense that there was no other acceptable option but to try to do that battle.
I won’t lie; there were times–and will probably be more of them over the years–when I did have to take the tack of that ‘fake it till you make it’ mode, when I simply wanted to quit and lie down and just hope it would all miraculously fix itself, or when I was as sulky and whiny and crotchety and pessimistic and tedious as unhappy people can be. We humans are good at all of that stuff, better than at being sunny and charming. But finally, even in my worst state I knew that was no way to live, and that the important people around me would suffer at least as much as I did, if not more. Thanks to the aforementioned helpers, I am here to tell the tale. More importantly, I don’t dwell in that darkness, even though there’s not much I could prevent or even fix about the troubles that led to such a state of existence. Things just happen. It’s how I deal with them that’ll likely make or break me.
That television character–and the many real-life imitators I referenced–stays so focused on how traumatized and maltreated she feels (albeit by genuinely distressing events and problems) that they become her one-note existence. She has a hard heart because it seems less trouble to close it to others than to be vulnerable to further hurt, but of course the actual effect is that she treats everyone around her like dirt, riding roughshod over their feelings and regarding any trauma or maltreatment they may suffer, often at her hands, as inferior or nonexistent. In turn, after being stomped on repeatedly by her seeming egotism, narrow-mindedness and refusal to set her hurt aside, the people around her disperse as speedily as that unlucky drop of water hitting a sizzling skillet explodes into mist. Those who tolerate her constant vituperation, impatience with their perceived stupidity or lack of sympathy, and her seeming wish to continue forever wallowing in her fury and self-pity, those characters ultimately become uninteresting or even unsympathetic themselves to me; after the ninety-ninth offense anyone sits back and takes without a fight, they tend to my eye to look like either enablers or equally fixed in victim mode.
I think we all have the power to steal others’ health and happiness, at least as much as the reasonably healthy among us should make every effort to take charge of our own. Doesn’t mean perfection is expected, but c’mon, people, if there’s really no going forward with life, perhaps a retreat to a very quiet hermitage would be more apropos than imposing our worst on the rest of the world. Yeah, I said it: get over yourself, Kathryn. Even if it might occasionally require brief periods of kindly deceit, times of returning to fighting off the dark singlehandedly, and the ordinary moments of being a jerk. It’ll mean equal demand on me for repentance, amends-making, and getting back on the wagon. There’s too much life left ahead, I hope, to spend it mired in a grim and terrible past, let alone impose it on others.
The upside of all this is that there is a possibility of turning this kind of thievery to good. Very simply, if I have to I can borrow my equilibrium and contentment from others. Put myself in proximity to saner, happier people than me until I can manufacture my own, and quietly absorb what I can of their good graces. I, at least, don’t want to be the one who steals the joy of anyone else; that only becomes the reason for new sorrows all ’round. Happiness and health can be contagious, too, if we let them. And so we all should, my friends. So we should.