I\’d been feeling discontented with my lot recently, resenting the limitations imposed by my condition (chronic fatigue syndrome), watching friends my age and older rush around accomplishing goals, crossing items off their to-do lists, and keeping up a pace that I cannot even dream of matching. Then by chance I came across these words of Longfellow:
\”If we could read the secret history of our enemies we should find in each man\’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.\”
I don\’t believe I have enemies, or hostility that needs disarming. But often I look at the lives of people around me and think, \”what would it be like to feel the way she must feel, able to count on a reliable supply of energy from day to day, to take on projects knowing that her body will see her through them?\”
Envy has a nastier edge than what I feel, which is more a longing for other people\’s seemingly endless supply of energy, and a dissatisfaction with my own wavering limitations.
I know that I am not the only one to feel this way. I can imagine that some people might look at my life from the outside, and feel something akin to envy. But that is because they wouldn\’t know my \”secret history.\”
We all mostly keep our secret histories to ourselves. It is what social norms demand. People who disclose their \”sorrow and suffering\” at inappropriate times are rightly shunned as bores. We are much more likely to make friends and have a good time if we put on a brave face and talk about cheerful things.
These social norms are especially stringent on the internet. I don\’t follow many blogs, but on the ones I have seen writers mostly abstain from whingeing and project a positive, upbeat image. There may be some who do whinge, but I suspect they have few readers.
As for Facebook, could there be a perkier medium? People communicate their dissatisfaction with politics, contemporary culture, and environmental disasters mostly by linking to relevant sites, but these are public issues, not personal sorrow and suffering.
These, as far as I can see, are banished from Facebook, where acceptable topics include parties you\’ve been to, food you\’ve eaten or are about to eat, drinks ditto, trips you\’ve taken, and cute things your children/grandchildren/pets have said or done. The skies over the land of Facebook are singularly unclouded. As for Twitter, everybody knows that birds don\’t tweet when they\’re feeling sad.
This is probably just as well. Who wants to read bulletins about people\’s unrequited loves or career frustrations? But the cumulative effect of Twitter, Facebook and many blogs is to give a false impression that the population consists mostly of people who careen merrily from one fun thing to another.
In all this cheerfulness, there is no room for secret histories, no way for us to sense each other\’s sorrow and suffering. The only sorrow and suffering we sense is our own, and this increases our feelings of isolation and dissatisfaction.
There are tragedies in people\’s lives that become apparent on short acquaintance: the death of a child, disabling or disfiguring disease, financial ruin. But we all know plenty of people who have experienced none of this, people whose emotional weather appears to be mostly sunny, with only scattered clouds. People whom we envy.
These are the people that Longfellow is talking about. Because if you probe deep enough, there is in every human life a secret sorrow that is no less piercing for being hidden. We will never know what load of unfulfilled longings and devastating defeats other people carry. We will never glimpse, inside our fellow cocktail-party goers, the weeping child, the cowed teenager, the betrayed spouse.
No matter what we look like, we are all vessels full of unshed tears. This should make us feel less alone in our miseries, but also open our hearts to compassion, and disarm hostility.
|Bisou, who has no secret history|