Monday, October 30, 2017

#MicroblogMondays: "The Misery Filter"

(This isn't quite a "micro" blog post, but it's what I've got for today, so bear with me... ;)  )

I don't always agree with New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, but his most recent Sunday column was fascinating food for thought. In "The Misery Filter," he argues that:
...Americans tend to “filter for misery” in the same way we filter for political agreement in our increasingly self-segregated social worlds... especially for chronic miseries that don’t fit an easy crisis-resolution arc. We tend to be aware of other people’s suffering when it first descends or when they bottom out — with a grim diagnosis, a sudden realization of addiction, a disastrous public episode. But otherwise a curtain tends to fall, because there isn’t a way to integrate private struggle into the realm of health and normalcy.
I, of course, tend to observe "misery" -- my own and others -- through my own filters of pregnancy loss, infertility & involuntary childlessness -- different types of trauma than addiction or disease, etc. -- but all under the umbrella of trauma (or "misery"), for sure.

Douthat goes on to observe (emphasis mine):
But a strong filter also creates real problems, because it effectively lies about reality to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, hiding the fact that even in modernity the Book of Ecclesiastes still applies. It lies to the sick about how alone they really are, because when they were healthy that seemed like perfect normalcy, so they must now be outliers, failures, freaks
And this deception is amplified now that so much social interaction takes place between disembodied avatars and curated selves, in a realm of Instagrammed hyper-positivity that makes suffering even more isolating than it is in the real world.
I agree that an emphasis on relentless optimism and the carefully curated images we see on social media contribute to the shock -- & shame -- that we feel when something goes wrong in our lives (as it inevitably does, at some point). ("Bright-Sided" by Barbara Ehrenreich --reviewed here -- is an excellent book on this subject.)

Douthat notes how so many young people today are struggling when confronted with crisis or suffering. (Witness the explosion of "safe rooms" and the like on college campuses, and the huge surge in stressed-out students seeking mental health counselling.)  "In America we have education for success, but no education for suffering,"  he says.

"Education for suffering"??  That, he says, is a question for a different column. He closes by saying:
Here I’ll just stress its necessity: Because what cannot be cured must be endured, and how to endure is, even now, the hardest challenge every one of us will face.
I will watch for Douthat's further thoughts with interest. In the meantime, I'll offer up a few thoughts of my own:

On the one hand, I don't know if any amount of education or preparation will fully equip us to cope with crisis/tragedy/misery (etc.) when it hits. I knew that all was not well with my baby, almost from the moment I realized I was pregnant.  That didn't make it any easier when my worst fears were realized and I was confronted with a silent heartbeat at my six-month prenatal checkup.

On the other hand, I think there are things we can do to help ourselves cope, when bad things happen. Sheryl Sandberg, in her book "Option B" (which I read & reviewed earlier this year), believes that resilience is a life skill we can all learn that will sustain us when grief, trauma, crisis ("misery," if you like) enters our life -- as it surely will at some point -- and outlines things we can all do to build this skill.

My own "education for suffering" (post-loss) included devouring all the information I could find on pregnancy loss, stillbirth, death & grief (and, later, infertility treatment, and later still, living without children). It included reaching out to others who were going through similar situations, both online & in real life -- giving as well as receiving support & sympathy.  And (perhaps most difficult), it included learning to be honest with myself, to speak out to those around me about my experiences and feelings and about what kind of support I needed from them.  (I'm still learning on that front...!). 

Beyond building resilience, I think we need to cultivate empathy, in our personal lives, in our families and in the culture at large.  It's something that I think is sadly lacking (and needed more than ever) these days. How do we do that? I think we can start by volunteering our time to help others, by learning to become better listeners, by at least considering new experiences and ideas that might be different from our own -- stepping outside of our comfort zones, at least once in a while. (I would credit my lifelong love of reading -- gaining insight into other lives, times, cultures -- as playing an important role in developing whatever empathy I possess as an adult.)  Doing at least some of these things might help us respond to others in a more compassionate way, and help them feel more valued and less alone.

Grief, sadness, "misery," will come to all of us, eventually.  The sooner we realize this and the more willing and able we are to support others who are in pain, the better equipped we will be to cope and to ask for the support we need when we need it.

Read the original column (the comments are also interesting)and tell me -- what do you think?  What do you think an "education for suffering" would look like? 

You can find more of this week's #MicroblogMondays posts here.  


  1. I found this post, and the links you gave (and then the posts gave) really, really thought provoking. As someone who has suffered from depression and/or anxiety for most of her life, I've always felt like the weird outliner who, on the outside, had the seemingly perfect life, and on the inside felt like a fraud and a fake and wondered why I was the only one who seemed to have to hide her true feelings most of the time. I found that feeling so amplified by social media that besides blog, I've basically chosen to opt out entirely, and that is AFTER I got pretty much everything I've ever wanted... social media was STILL too much for me to deal with. So I find your post, and the articles it talks about, really validating and interesting. I'm going to need to think about all this more. I hope to write a post on it myself at some point.

  2. I've made a mental note to include this in the Roundup second helpings, if Mel doesn't choose it for her list!

    I 100% agree that the filter has lied both to those who suffer, and to those who don't (yet).

    I certainly went through an education for suffering too, on message boards and learning from wise women who went before me, and was able to pass on some of what I learned to others. I was pretty tough on myself at times, as that's how I was raised. So learning about self-compassion and some self-love was ground-breaking for me.

    I love that you picked out empathy as a key thing that will help this world. I'm grateful I have yet another wise woman to learn from, or to let me know I'm not alone.

  3. I'm with Mali on adding this to the Roundup - this post has been sticking with me and making me think. It's such a hard thing to identify how to teach people to prepare themselves for suffering.

    One observation I'd make is that a number of forms of suffering have migrated into hospitals/nursing homes/etc and out of the home itself, so people aren't as exposed to the reality of the arc of extended or terminal illnessess/health issues until it happens close to them. It's easier to not see or ignore than it was in years past. I think Douthat hits the nail on the head about the role of social media as well.

    I totally agree with you that empathy is a huge part to the solution. Empathy doesn't expect anything from the sufferer, instead, it abides with them.

  4. Off to read the column itself, but this post is definitely thought-provoking. I am all for education of suffering. I am all for giving people a heads-up that at some point, something is going to go wrong -- a dream won't happen, you'll sustain a loss, and at the very least something disappointing will happen. Agreed that social media helps people to think that everything is awesome all the time, and so when horrific things happen to them personally, it feels like an impossibility. I see this with my students a lot, that so many parents try to shield their children from disappointment and failure and it results in kids who can't handle a setback. Teaching people that you can find information, community, and support in the face of a personal tragedy and that you will survive it (in most cases), that is so important.