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Longfellow To The Rescue

Welcome to My Green Vermont - A Blog by Eulalia Benejam Cobb.
By Eulalia Benejam Cobb

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

10 Responses

  1. Oh Lali, that is such a beautiful beautiful post. I agree with your sentiments wholeheartedly, but admit some envy (or perhaps just an admiration and yearning) at your ability to express this.And then, to cap it off, you finish it with a beautiful drawing and caption. Sigh. Perfect.

  2. I rmeember being shocked the first time you mentioned CFS. And thinking about how I felt last summer and thinking, my God, to feel like that chronically with no end in sight (which of course is how I felt last summer until I woke up sometime last fall). And mostly being shocked and amazed at what you did manage to do–last summer I couldn't do anything.

  3. Thank you, Mali. It's generous readers like you who keep me writing.Bridgett, I identified a lot with your descriptions of how you felt, and worried about how you managed with little children. Fortunately mine were in college when I was hit. Can't think what I would have done if they had been younger.

  4. Your CFS makes it possible for you to write and draw and not be \”so busy\” with a to do list. For your adoring fans, readers and friends this is our experience of your CFS. And even it does rob you of the energy to do all you would like, you do infinitely more than most people I know 🙂

  5. I had been wondering where you were this week.I remember being a meditation group, briefly, and really understanding for the first time that everyone suffers, everyone has pain in their lives. It's a hard thing to remember or to believe about people who seem so much better off than you, on whatever level.Social media is pretty cheery, but I find that reflective of exactly what you say—social situations (the real ones—remember those?) call for cheeriness. It is much rarer to be in a place where you can feel free to express the darker stuff. I envy you many things, actually. (But not your CFS, over which I simply worry.)

  6. Dona, I'm sure Longfellow would be pleased!mrb, oh, but those to-do lists can be so addictive. You know, crossing things off as you get them done…makes my mouth water.Indigo, I've often wished we had a meditation group nearby. Could one of your objects of envy be my chard? If so, give me a call and I'll give you all you can stand.

  7. You are a soulful creature is a society that has little time for reflections.Thank you for reminding us all that the exterior is just that and inside the suffering is extremely human. You do have much to envy !

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