How much of others’ misery can you stand? How much of their success?
Television has an answer for us, but more about that a little later.
According to Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs in How to Make Yourself Miserable, it is essential that your life should stay within the “Acceptable Failure Range,” lest you lose your friends. Exceeding that range in either direction — too much success or too much unhappiness — will alienate some people. Or so the authors say, tongue in cheek, in this funny old book.
Although I don’t know of research evidence to support this notion, I suspect there is something to it. It is easy enough to fall into the shadow of a friend who glories in his attainments and reminds you regularly of all his achievements.
If the old saying, “Misery loves company” is true, one must be careful about being too full of yourself and your good fortune around friends.
Similarly, many people fear that others will tire of their tales of unhappiness and woe. They anticipate causing their acquaintances to experience compassion fatigue and shun them. This expectation leads some of the afflicted to avoid discussion of deeply personal injuries, or to speak about them only infrequently. Indeed, our society encourages an upbeat, “can do” attitude and expects us to “move on” perhaps more quickly than we can easily manage.
Faced with unhappiness or life crisis, it is interesting to observe how a person handles it. Some find relief in talking about it and appreciate patient and supportive listeners. Others do not want to speak or think about it, turning to distraction or to a very small group of confidants. Taking your cue from the person in distress is best.
If you can handle difficult and painful conversations, you are a very good friend indeed. And, if there is a practical and specific kind of assistance that you can offer (running errands, preparing meals, driving to a doctor’s office), you will provide more help than if you simply say “let me know if there is anything I can do.”
As a society, we seem to have an ambivalent relationship to disaster. When it happens to someone else, it can be fascinating. No wonder that TV stations use a motto to describe how to determine the first story on the news: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
When the calamity is in Uzbekistan, it is one thing. It is then easy to keep our distance: it is both out there, thousands of miles away; and “in there” — inside the TV set. Moreover, when the media inundate us daily with so many tragedies, each individual one loses its impact.
So-called “reality” no longer seems quite real.
Unless it happens to your brother-in-law and it becomes quite something else.
In the 1950s and ’60s, there was an old TV program called “Queen For a Day.” A forerunner of the ubiquitous reality TV of today, it featured “real people” (only women) telling the MC the profoundly unfortunate circumstances of their lives and usually breaking down while doing so. Ultimately, each contestant was asked what she would like if she won; this usually took the form of medical equipment or household appliances.
An applause meter registered the studio audience’s approval so as to choose the winner. Sort of like a latter-day Roman Colosseum, the virtually all-female spectators determined who among the lady “gladiators” got a “thumbs up.” The program was some form of “see if you can top this,” with each contestant effectively hoping to surpass her competitors in terms of desperation and heartbreak, often describing diseased children and extraordinarily bad luck.
Once the “Queen” was crowned and perched on a makeshift throne (to the tune of “Elgar’s Pomp & Circumstance March #1, which you know as the processional music to which you graduated high school), she received not only the requested item, but a carload of other things, perhaps including a vacation.
One can only imagine what the losers felt like, having once again been consigned to the anonymous trash heap of human misery. Perhaps they thought, “Wasn’t my life bad enough?” Almost certainly, failing to win added to their already long list of disappointments, despite a few consolation prizes.
The TV writer Mark Evanier called this program “one of the most ghastly shows ever produced,” further finding it “tasteless, demeaning to women, demeaning to anyone who watched it, cheap, insulting and utterly degrading to the human spirit.”
Of course, there was nothing demeaning about the misfortune itself. But, the fact that these women had to parade it in front of a national audience — a group of strangers — all in the hope of some material reward (however, necessary), was lamentable. Indeed, the discomfort of the contestants was not disguised.
Many of today’s reality TV “stars” require no such financial incentives to lay bare (sometimes literally) whatever is most personal in this more shameless moment in the history of civilization.
Having said all that, should you dare, you can watch various episodes on youtube.
The image above is John Collier’s Queen Guinevre’s Maying (1900) sourced from Wikimedia Commons.