Wednesday, January 14, 2009

How Dare You Be Unhappy?

(alternate title: In Defense of Bitching)

I don't normally bitch about advice columnists, but today's Dear Abby really bugged me. And since the reasons it bugged me are likely to be obscure to most people, I might as well lay them out here.

DEAR ABBY: I don't know what to do anymore. It seems like I hate everything, but I don't think I'm depressed.

I hate working, but love my salary. I hate my co-workers, but realize they're probably no worse than any other workplace. Nothing excites me, nothing motivates me. I don't like anything in particular and have never known what I wanted to do with my life. I don't want to be married or have children. I often wonder what the point of living is. I feel like I'm living every day just to get to the end of life.

I'm sure I'm not alone. Please help me and others out there who seem to have lost hope. -- NOT HAPPY IN CANADA

DEAR NOT HAPPY: Whether you recognize it or not, you may be depressed. As anyone who has read this column knows, there is medical and psychiatric help for depression, which sometimes has a physical cause.

However, as I have read and re-read your letter, I am struck by the listlessness and boredom it conveys. Perhaps you would be happier if you dwelt less on yourself and the emptiness you feel, and spent some time helping people who are less fortunate than you. Leo Rosten once wrote that the purpose of life is to matter, to be productive, to have it make a difference that you lived at all -- using the talents that God has given you for the betterment of others.

Please consider what I have said because you are spending far too much time thinking about what you're missing, and frankly may need a verbal kick in the fanny.

See, on the surface it doesn't look so bad. Ze's dissatisfied with life, and she's telling hir to try something new, broaden hir horizons and otherwise break out of hir rut.

But that's not all that's going on here.

Look at the words she uses to characterize our letter writer's mental state --- and remember that this person is already in quite a bit of pain, and has probably already worried the question of "what's wrong with me?" to death several zillion times before even writing her --- the letter writer is being selfish! Ze's dwelling on hirself, thinking too much about what ze is missing (and, by extension, what ze wants out of life and what's standing in hir way).

The always-enlightening Arthur Silber has a very old essay dealing with the suicide taboo in American (and possibly all of Western) culture. It is worth revisiting in light of the column I quoted, and the strange reaction all of American culture seems to have when a person unashamedly expresses unhappiness.
No subject is more misunderstood, even today, than suicide. ... Almost every time I discussed my suicidal thoughts with friends, it turned out to be a disastrous mistake.

It is a measure of the deep misunderstandings and unthinking moral commandments so prevalent today that a number of people have said to me over the years something like the following: "Oh, don't even think about it. It's wrong. It's selfish. Think about the pain you would cause all of those who love you, including me. Don't you see how cruel it would be? Besides, it's so weak. How could you give in to such feelings?"

...Several things should be noted about such remarks. The easy part is what we might term a general ethical point. It is more than a little absurd to say --- to someone who may be seriously contemplating wiping himself out of existence for all time --- that he's being "selfish". ...

...Here's the hard part: note what is missing in those comments. What is missing is simply this: any acknowledgement of the inexpressible anguish and pain experienced by the person who seriously considers suicide. Do you have any idea how intense and unbearable such pain must be for a person to view suicide as a viable option for more than a moment? If you don't, I suggest you think about it for a long, long time. And then think about it some more.

The truly significant part is the following: this [i.e., denial of the pain people contemplating suicide are in] is exactly the mechanism that [psychologist Alice] Miller describes. People who make comments like those (and most people have similar views) are cut off from their own pain, and they are therefore unable to empathize [with], or even recognize, pain felt by others, even when such pain is agonizingly extreme. When you make real to yourself the degree of pain someone must be feeling to think about suicide, it is simply astonishing that anyone would believe for one moment that pointing out the pain of others would be a compelling argument. In addition, there is another truly destructive element that such an approach introduces: that the person thinking of suicide should feel guilt for even considering it, much less doing it. Implying that anyone in enormous psychological pain should feel guilty about having such feelings in the first place is not precisely a useful therapeutic approach. But people often accuse those experiencing deep depression of being "cruel," "weak" and "selfish" --- and they apparently have no appreciation at all for how deeply wounding such accusations are --- particularly at a time when the person hearing them is at his most vulnerable, and possibly in grave danger. This issue cannot be overemphasized: to the extent that a person hearing such accusations views them as valid, he will feel guilt, and he will experience even greater pain --- and the possibility that he may actually kill himself thereby increases. While they delude themselves into believing they are "helping," many people thus commit great harm. (italics his, boldface mine)
To Arthur's (and Alice Miller's --- he goes on to quote from her discussion of Sylvia Plath's suicide) excellent analysis, I am going to add a bit of feminist interpretation. Blaming an unhappy person for the unhappiness they are feeling is a way to convert whatever is making them unhappy into a personal failing. Once their unhappiness has been safely relegated to the realm of characterological defects, the person has to keep their analytical, critical gaze firmly focused inward. They do not --- as they might if they were left alone --- go on to blame the patriarchy, or criticize capitalism, or the wage economy in general, or any other aspect of a global culture that does, indeed, tend to breed unhappiness in most people.

The "other people have it so much worse than you!" gambit will also be instantly recognizable to most feminists: a common antifeminist retort to criticism of Western patriarchy is to bring up Islamic or third-world patriarchy. Since the feminist who is speaking has the freedom to speak at all, the argument goes, she has nothing to complain about, and is indeed a selfish, spoiled princess for wanting more rights when other women have so few.

Shut up, be happy in your place, and be grateful you aren't one of them down there, is what the message boils down to.


abfh said...

The letter bugged me too, but not entirely for the same reason. I wouldn't go as far as to assume that the writer is having suicidal thoughts or is in a great deal of mental pain just because (s)he is unhappy and has been wondering about the purpose of life. Being unmotivated, unhappy, and confused does not necessarily equate to being suicidal or in major mental anguish.

But I agree with your analysis to this extent: Dear Abby is failing to recognize that we live in a very complex, confusing, and often unfair society, which can cause people to feel that they are unable to make meaningful choices and that they lack a purpose in life.

She is speaking from a position of privilege because she is wealthy and always had a clear life path. She took over the advice column from her mother and never had to deal with the sort of uncertainty that the letter writer described. Her "verbal kick in the fanny" comment does indeed come across as the arrogance of the privileged class.

Alderson Warm-Fork said...

I totally agree, so all I can really add is my personal experience. Someone I know has been suicidal for a very long time, and often either is accused or accuses themselves of being 'selfish'. The ironic thing is that much of this person's problem is an inability to be genuinely selfish, to know who they are, identify what they want, and unashamedly act on it. They find it much easier to be either self-destructive or to sacrifice themselves for others.

There's this idea that being 'bad' equates to selfishness, and being 'good' is caring about other people at the other end of that continuum. But actually, being genuinely, efficiently, selfish is usually one of the most beneficial things you can do for other people. A lot of bad stuff happens when people refuse to recognise their own needs, insecurities, or problems, and try to use other people to solve them.

This is also, of course, a gendered thing: there's a big tradition of women being praised and idolised for their 'selflessness' in caring for men and children, their sweetness and innocence, which encourages them to suppress their needs, use other people as substitutes, and often inflict a lot of pain on those others. Who then blame women in general for being a 'nag' or a 'stifling' mother, castigating it as selfishness.

'Selflessness' sounds lovely, until you read it a different way and it sounds like the most horrible thing imaginable.

Lindsay said...

I didn't think the writer was necessarily suicidal, either; I just thought Arthur did a good job of showing why, in general, telling people who are unhappy to get over themselves is stupid and cruel.