Posted by: jevcat | June 10, 2011

The Joys of Shared Misery

“Misery loves company.”  We’ve all said it and most probably we’ve all participated in it.

My Beloved and I have been delighted and not a little amused recently to watch two friends of ours who had not previously known each other becoming friends in their own right over impromptu dinners at our house.  They are both somewhat older than we are, and part of our amusement stems from their instant understanding of each other’s physical challenges and their enthusiasm for sharing tips on ways of dealing with them.  There is a certain ruefulness in our recognition of the power in this for forming a bond.

It was with a bit of a start the other morning that I realized this is not something confined to those of us who find ourselves, somewhat to our surprise, inhabiting the category of “aging”:  while brushing my teeth, I had a sudden vision of myself at 14, a high school freshman, wearing my first real “grown up” party dress, sitting with a group of friends at the dinner preceding our first fancy dance.

Everyone was talking about braces.  Knowing my parents’ shaky finances, our dentist had told my parents that, since my speech and eating were not impaired, I could do without braces (thereby ensuring that my bite would be the object of endless fascination to all my future dentists – I remember one, writing instructions to his lab about an impression he’d just taken for a new crown, puzzling over how to word them so they wouldn’t think it was a mistake).  This left me the only one in my circle who had not worn or was currently wearing braces.

As the conversation continued, my classmates exchanging tales of agony and embarrassing mishaps, my own contributions were limited to comments such as “Oh my!,” “I can imagine,” and making sympathetic noises.  Rarely in my life have I ever felt so left out.  Of course, one’s tales of misery do not always find a receptive audience or, even finding such, compassion fatigue can set in at a certain point for one’s listener.

Years ago, we had an elderly neighbor who would bend my mother’s ear for hours on end with endless details of each ailment and medical treatment.  She would do this if she ran into Mom in the hall or, failing that, call Mom to update her on the latest in her Scoville scale of personal misery.  This once nearly earned me strangling from my mother, as I could tell from her end of the phone conversation that she was being regaled with the minutiae of our neighbor’s recent surgery, and, standing in front of my mother with my voice pitched so it would not carry over the phone line, I pulled up my t-shirt and asked, “Wanna see my scar?”  Speaking of strangling, that is what Mom sounded as though she were doing …

Then there’s competitive misery, something which some folks carry to Olympic levels, and which is not limited to physical difficulties but can – and usually does – include emotional, familial, and other challenges.  I have a couple of friends (fortunately not many) who could be medal contenders in this one.  I can remember when the awareness of this set in, on the phone with a dear and long-time friend, while he talked of all the awful things happening in his life (with, of course, no awareness that some of this was self-inflicted).  It was as though something in me snapped, and I said, “Yeah, well, you know what just happened to me?” and proceeded to elaborate on everything bad that was going on in my own life, dredging up anything I could think of as the two of us played “Can you top this?” for quite a while longer, while a voice in my head was asking me, “Do you realize what you’re doing?”  The answer was yes, but I couldn’t resist.

Eventually he gave up and rang off.   I was left feeling guilty – especially as I knew my own life was really not terrible.  This has not kept me from entering the lists in this sort of competition on one or two occasions since, I’m ashamed to say.  It can get to the point where I feel if I can pile up enough misery of my own, they’ll stop.  Like most passive-aggressive strategies, it only works to a certain degree.

Perhaps all this is partially sparked by the daily lectionary’s having been working its way through Hebrews lately (see especially Hebrews 4:14-16), but it does seem it is only human to want to know one is not alone in one’s trials and tribulations.  It’s not that we wish others ill (well, not mostly, anyway), it’s just that we need to feel someone else understands – and, ideally, can assure us that this, too shall pass.  Wanna hear about my week?

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