I had the kernel of this thought a decade ago, way back when I was an optimistic undergrad, and funny enough I believe at its core there’s still something pretty on the ball about it. If anything, life experiences and the way things have moved in the/my world have reinforced the idea that there’s something to it.
We’re all born into a somewhat unique set of conditions. Some are very unique to our own life, some are shared with a larger group, like a family, neighbourhood, country, whatever. For any one of us, we grow up experiencing our life as it is, with nothing beyond that scope of experience for reference. If you’re a poorer kid, a bad time might be not having enough food for a while; a good time might be receiving some simple present on a special occasion. If you’re richer, you probably never have to go without food; a bad time for you might be getting not the right version of that present for a special occasion, whereas a good one might be getting something extravagant. But in both cases, what’s bad to you is bad to you, and more at large those with whom you inhabit a shared world – we relate to those based on shared experiences, which among communities tend to have a decent amount of overlap. We can only think about the relativity of the conditions once we become aware of the greater potential of possibilities, have developed a sense of empathy (rather, just an understanding of people other than us), and so on. To put it another maybe more illustrative way: whatever the worst experience of your entire life is, it is so until you have a worse one. It’s all relative.
Let’s look at another example: that of people living in more traditional, poorer, less industrialized nations vs. those living in the opposite. Humans are social creatures, and we can deal with a lot of shit with the support of others through close community. A good BBC article talked about how the brain is actually designed to incorporate physical contact with other in its mediation of anxiety, depression, and other such challenges (after all, our closest non-human relatives spend upwards of 10% of their waking time grooming). Now this isn’t to say that all impoverished nations have amazing social support networks full of hug parties; I know they don’t but this is our default state and way of being, which, given human propensity for adaptation, leads me to believe we’d use this available resource to make us feel less shit. So the world at large might be thoroughly crap – bad harvest season, shit weather destroying our houses, insufficient access to health resources – but at least we have each other, and there is strength in unity…unless you’re in some abusive network or are an outcast or something. Very real challenges, very real coping mechanisms.
Then there’s the other side. You have a seemingly-infinite supply of the world’s food readily available, your infrastructure can weather all but the most intense of natural disasters, cutting edge research and technology in the field of medicine…but we are in the midst of a fucking loneliness epidemic. We have created new diseases and other problems for ourselves in our quest to conquer the old ones. On the other hand, if your social web is harmful somehow, you might be better suited to get the hell out. There are people and resources dedicated to helping those escape situations of abuse and so on…not that it always works out. A more fragmented society at least allows for the possibility of a new start, since you can physically and feasibly sever ties with your original world, unlike if you were in a place without these options.
It seems like it’s part of the natural order for us to do things significantly shittily enough so that there’s always something left out, something for us to suffer about, which is so extra infuriating when the solution IS RIGHT THERE! I spoke to a Cuban coworker the other day about her feelings and experiences with the two healthcare systems, and it was just that: in Cuba, most doctors are kind compassionate people whose doors you can knock on for help in the middle of the night. But here, most barely look at you – you’re just a problem to solve, a vehicle for their furthering of their own ambitions.
I feel like this kind of greater awareness can be important for many of us who may believe they “shouldn’t” feel the way they do about living or not, because we’re so often told to be grateful for such and such, to remember how so and so has it worse and it still making the best of it.. Well, those people aren’t you, and sometimes good things don’t outweigh bad. Lots of people in Afghanistan whose country has been in a virtually continuous state of war for four decades still go on, but lots of them quit. On the other hand, plenty of celebrities – rich, famous, beautiful, talented people regularly take their own lives. I was looking up a list of notable celebrity suicides recently, and was doubly shocked by the list, as well as my own reaction – even one such as me falls into the trap of thinking “how could this person possibly want to die by their own hand?”. It seems inherent in us to be predisposed to this kind of thinking.
I read an interesting NYT article earlier in covid about the notion of “disenfranchised grief”, which was basically about how we have a habit of devaluing our own suffering when we come across someone whose suffering more. There was a great example of a women’s cancer support group wherein one woman was thought by many others to have the “worst” cancer…it was worth a read, if it’s still up. It makes one think – while research shows benefits to maintaining positivity in the face of certain doom, at what point do things become “justifiably” bad enough to abandon hope? I’m very convinced it’s up to the individual. Science likes to put on a show of objectivity, but the very nature of existence is subjective. Also science is a human endeavour, therefore subjective to humans lol.
Well, this post has become a long-ass production…I had some extra gripes about the more topical irritation of living in a nation that’s pretty falsely known for it’s great “free” socialist healthcare which only applies to seeing certain kinds of physicians and medical specialists but covers no prescriptions and not all procedures while many of the covered things have excruciating wait times (to the point people are on the brink of dying of untreated cancers due to surgical backlogs), as well as the less topical one of how the social fragmentation of this society leads me to feel extra alienated when I see people out in the world who I either see as happily engaging with others or as someone I’d want to get close to and try and (re)build a life with, but just feel so alienated in either case, especially the latter where I just feel creepy for looking at this person because if a guy is looking at a woman he must be a vile predatory slime and not someone kind and caring but broken and alone, reminiscing about a time he wasn’t and that he might not be again someday…
Well I shoehorned that tangent in pretty good there, huh. Better to get the lot out at once, being the end of my planned writings here. Maybe there will be some unplanned ones in the near future when I am going to have to face up to seeing old friends who’ve been so absent lately I’ve turned a corner and for the first time in life, do not really look forward to seeing at all. Tune in next week!