Keeping Misery Company
“The opportunity of offering a kindness to others amid our own turmoil can be a manner of restorative tonic.”
The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.
Misery loves company.
Growing up, that was what was said when someone else’s discontent spilled over—presumably on purpose—to increase the suffering of those around them.
It’s a funny saying.
Not funny ‘ha ha’. Funny ‘curious.’
Until recently, I acknowledged it with an emphasis on ‘company’—the import being that someone else, perhaps an innocent, was being targeted by the miserable. One against another. As if suffering should be confined to the individual.
Then while reading The Midnight Library by Matt Haig I starting thinking more about kindness, suffering, and the far reaches of both beyond the individual. Appropriately, Haig’s fiction is also about how perspective changes one’s experience.
I considered a new perspective of that oft used phrase.
Switch the emphasis from ‘company’ to ‘misery,’ and the importance of the situation changes. Someone is miserable. Not only that, but they are so miserable it is spilling out and touching the people around them. If silent suffering is a whisper, this is shouting from the rooftops. Depending on how their behaviour is interpreted, the person calling for help may still go unheard.
They may be blamed for afflicting others with their pain, for victimizing their company. Or they could be received with compassion, and seen as someone that needs understanding.
Grammarist.com tracks the phrase’s origin back to a Latin one that translated is “To the unhappy it is a comfort to have had company in misery.”
Perhaps the comfort in this case is not that others also suffer, but the knowledge that the ups and downs of life are commonplace—of knowing we’re not alone. Is compassion itself born out of suffering?
That’s a pretty big question, and I haven’t got an answer. Interestingly, this Greater Good Magazine article gives us some insight, stating “[r]esearchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have found that people in the lower socio-economic classes are more physiologically attuned to suffering, and quicker to express compassion than their more affluent counterparts.” The lead author of the study, Jennifer Stellar suggested that “[the upper classes] may just not be as adept at recognizing the cues and signals of suffering because they haven’t had to deal with as many obstacles in their lives.”
As a side note, I found that article when searching for a study that found the poor are more charitable than the rich. The difference between affluent subjects and everyone else came down to the same emotion: compassion. The affluent didn’t have as much. Ouch. I guess it’s no big surprise. If being able to have anything we wanted was always a good thing, people wouldn’t warn against spoiling children. Plus, accumulating wealth (or anything for that matter) means you have to keep some to yourself. And the more you keep, the more you have.
Now, let's get back to talking about suffering. I promise you, kindness will also work it’s way into this train of thought.
Maybe the reason the unhappy is comforted by company in misery is because of mutual and reciprocal compassion. The opportunity of offering a kindness to others amid our own turmoil can be a manner of restorative tonic.
Stellar goes on to say, “Upper-class individuals appear to be more self-focused, they’ve grown up with more freedom and autonomy. … They may do better in an individualist, competitive environment.”
Perhaps it is my own self-focus that had me interpreting the sharing of misery as a cruelty rather than simply another aspect of social relationships. From this angle, individualistic self-interest seems like a lonely view of the world. Afterall, the person that suffers in silence receives no comfort.
Do you feel more generous when you’re facing a challenging time? Has someone else’s small kindness helped you weather a storm? Do you like to share your misery or keep it to yourself?
Check out more from Down the Rabbit Hole by going to www.bookinterruped.com/blog/categoriges/down-the-rabbit-hole