TITLE: Zero-Sum Game
DATE: 2/23/2005 03:47:00 PM
Read This Goddamn Thing. (That's pretty much all a blog is about, isn't it? "Read this goddamn thing. That I just read. That I found important. So you of course will find it important also and if you don't then piss off.")
Got this via Mimi Smartypants, it's on a blog I've never heard of, and ask me if that matters.
Here on the Internets, some or other bloggers have been criticized for talking about their troubles when others have it worse. This is an all-too-familiar routine on many blogs—the ol’ My Pain Beats Yours So Shut Up number. It goes a little something like this:
1. You shouldn’t be sad because your child has a scraped knee—my kid had to get stitches.
2. You can’t be upset about your kid’s stitches; my child is sick.
3. My child’s disease is worse, therefore you don’t deserve to bitch.
4. Shut up. My child is sick and I’m sick and also I’m writing this on a computer made out of cardboard because that’s how poor I am.
5. At least you’re alive. I’m writing this from my grave. Stop whining. Stop it. Booooo.
6. God, can you shut up, dead person? At least you’re not suffering. My life is a never ending festival of torment. Also I have hives.
(Please note: I’m not trying to make fun of anyone’s suffering. I cannot fathom how much suffering is out there, and I can’t begin to imagine the pain that other people withstand. Imagining such things would mean weeping and that would make the keyboard soggy, and the circuits and the whatnot would short out and cause some kind of Electric Dreams scenario, and people, I cannot afford to have my computer fall in love with me. )
And now for a story:
A while back, a friend of a friend was injured in a stupid, tragic accident that resulted in the loss of her leg. At the time she was also writing an advice column for teenagers. After I heard about her accident, I would at times wonder if she had ever responded to another complaint about the Tragedy of Bad Hair or The Heartbreak of Loserdom with, “I know how you feel. Because I LOST MY LEG. Which is just like losing your homework and getting a D. Except, you know, it’s a LEG.” Because I like to kill time with pointless activities, one day I went online and read a bunch of her columns. Week after week, she gave patient, compassionate advice to problems that the best of us would deem awfully silly. She never compared anyone’s pain to her own; she never even mentioned her pain. I know part of this was just her being a professional. But also, she clearly knew that pain is relative—just because you could hurt more doesn’t mean you don’t hurt.
That’s the thing about pain: perspective doesn’t necessarily ease it. Say I stub my toe: if you grab me and scream, “What if I had chopped that toe off with a cleaver! THINK OF IT!” I may be distracted by your odd behavior, but the pain in my pinky toe will not miraculously dissolve. When someone writes in their blog of some misfortune that’s befallen her, she is not necessarily writing her definition of the Worst Thing That Could Ever Happen to Anyone. Just because she could hurt more doesn’t mean she doesn’t hurt.
When I spoke to the New York Times, most of what I talked about was how the parenting blogs are, most of all, authentic. That’s all we’re after (I think)—some representation of authentic experience that we’re not getting elsewhere. We sure as hell aren’t getting it from the parenting magazines, which provide canned information about vaccinations and discipline and baking nutritious muffins that look like kitty cats, but will never help you feel less alone, less stupid, less ridiculous. This is the service we try to provide—we share our lopsided, slightly hysterical, often exaggerated but more or less authentic experiences. If one blogger writes about her traumatic doctor’s visit, then maybe at some point, some freaked-out new mother is going to read that and feel a little better—less stupid, less ridiculous—about her own breakdown at the pediatrician’s. Or maybe not. But what service are you providing when you tell her to shut up?
I now return you to your discussion of my son’s itchiness. He’s itchy! It’s the worst thing that could ever happen!
Someone I grew up with told me a similar story. Her older sister had died when she and I were both first-graders (her sister was in fifth grade). Meanwhile, her father had a friend who'd lost a finger in an accident, who never talked to her father when about it when it happened. When her father asked the friend, finally, why not, the friend said that it couldn't compare in any way with losing his daughter, so why should he talk about it in front of him? And the father said, "It's the worst thing that's ever happened to you, right?"
"Well, yeah." said the friend.
"Well, losing my daughter is the worst thing that's ever happened to me. The worst thing that's ever happened to you is still the worst thing that's ever happened to you, no matter what it is."
The post I cut and pasted above is something I've had kicking around in my brain for months now, but never found a good way to articulate. Given the number of blogs I read (including one devoted entirely to the pointless arguing on other blogs), that "My Pain Beats Yours So Shut Up number" is a worn-out ol' tune to me. I'm guilty of it. Seemingly every blogger and blog commenter is guilty of it at some point. Doesn't matter what the blog's about--books, baseball, politics, infertility, cooking, the "My Pain Beats Yours So Shut Up number" has gotten airtime on them all.
Shit, we even do it to ourselves. Like the finger guy mentioned above. Like Kellie, after I've told her work horror stories, apologizing for telling me a story about her own job because my job sucks worse (her words, not mine--personally given that her job is singing at funerals, I think we're pretty much neck and neck; it's just apples and oranges).
My old friend Mike, in explaining to me once why he's become a libertarian, put things this way: he said wealth is not a "zero-sum game". Meaning that contrary to the more liberal belief, someone being rich doesn't automatically make someone else poor. In other words, the sum of their two wealths is not zero. I'm probably botching this explanation, but at least now you can see clearly why I chose to major in the supremely useless liberal arts, and he's earning his PhD at Caltech.
ANYWAY, I'm not sure I agree with Mike fiscally, but at least in terms of emotion, I think many people treat life this way. More attention for you means less for me. More validation for you means less for me. More suffering for you means less for me. More happiness for you, more gifts for you, more luck for you...the list goes on. Until it's gotten to the point where people are hostile to one another over having feelings.
I'm not going to say I'm not guilty of this. But ever since that conversation with Mike, I try very hard to sit back when I'm feeling put upon by someone else's emotions and say to myself: "It's not a zero-sum game, Beth. It's not a zero-sum game."
I'm glad someone else seems to agree.