Tag Archives: misery

Sharing the misery is good

Last night I went to a Miserable Poet’s cafe. In the past I’ve been to Death Cafes. Both serve similar functions in allowing people to talk about what is otherwise unspeakable. I’m in a social media group that allows the same process. In a space that is held for people to talk about what makes them miserable, there can be a surprising amount of laughter.

Mostly in our lives we’re encouraged to hide our hurts, fears, failings and setbacks. We are to look brave and successful. This can make tough times into lonely times as well, and it can isolate us. When you think everyone else is brilliant, and winning, when all you see is the online bragging, it can be easy to feel you’re the only person who isn’t having a fantastic time.

Miserable Poet’s Cafe is the brainchild of Bill Jones, a chap who has an uncanny knack for making people laugh by being relentlessly miserable. He’s run several now, and their popularity is increasing as ever more people want to come out, not just to share their woes, but to listen attentively to other people’s. Why? Why would a person choose a night of misery over something fun?

There is a common humanity exposed by sharing stories from our worst times. Last night we had teenage diaries. I didn’t contribute from mine, but hearing other people’s, I realised I was not the lone freak I’d previously assumed myself to be. I listened to tales of pain and breakup, bereavement, madness, sickness, abuse and loss. We share these things. Sooner or later, all of us are touched by one of the many things that can go wrong for a person. Seeing our suffering reflected in other people’s poems, we can each feel that bit less alone. We can recognise the commonality of experience, and that makes it easier to be gentle with ourselves, and see that behind other people’s cheerful exteriors, all manner of grief may be lurking.

A poem calls on the writer to put their pain into a coherent form that can be shared. That in itself is a process that can be cathartic, and bring fresh insight. The sharing can be an act of release, having it witnessed can help place it in the past and draw a line under it. Finding out that other people understand can lighten the load, make it easier to help each other, make it seem less shameful to admit failure and shortcomings. We can laugh in recognition, we can laugh in relief. We can hurt together, and at the same time be comforted by the sharing of hurt. We can applaud each other for finding powerful, well crafted ways of making hurt intelligible to others. After an evening of that, you don’t go away depressed, you go away lighter, and feeling less alone.

I’ve discovered, in the last few years, that I absolutely love making people laugh, and if I can do that on a stage and hear the laughter, that’s even better. Comedy can work very well in darkness, it can feed on disaster. I remember from college a quote that went “Comedy equals tragedy plus timing.” It may have been Woody Allen. Being able to frame tragedy so that it becomes funny, is an incredibly effective thing. It can give back a sense of power and control, it can restore a person, it reveals the vulnerabilities we all share, and provides a coping mechanism. If you expose your sorrow, you can share it in empathy, and sometimes in laughter, and both are really helpful.

Misery is a choice

‘Misery is a choice’ is one of those splendid positive thinking memes doing the rounds at the moment, and while it’s mostly true, it’s offered in a way that suggests all the wrong things. Misery is a choice so you should choose not to be miserable, and anyone who is miserable has no one to blame but themselves, is the impression it creates. So, let’s be very clear. If your brain chemistry is awry you may have no choice over being miserable. Further, there are a lot of times in life when misery is the best, healthiest and most honourable choice you can make.

You can only be hurt in so far as you care. The easiest way to avoid misery, is therefore to go through this life not caring about anything. The things you love, value, and invest in have the power to hurt you and let you down, but the person who doesn’t care is spared from this. It seems to me a very drab, joyless way to live. I would rather love fiercely and accept the inevitability of heartbreak.

Grief is a process. We can all expect to be bereaved as we go through life. We will lose jobs, friends, homes, we will move from one life stage to another, and not everything will go as we wanted. The process of grieving is the way in which our bodies and minds deal with profound and life altering loss. This process is important, but you can choose to repress it. Sooner or later, that repression will fail to hold up, and you get to move from choosing not to be miserable, to serious mental breakdown where you probably won’t have much control over your mental state at all. Feeling misery is a part of having a healthy mind, shut that down and you store up trouble.

Pain is part of the learning process. We all mess up. We all do things that it is reasonable to regret or wish we had done differently. Feeling misery over this helps us learn to do differently. If we have to be happy about all our choices, actions and all the outcomes we get, we do not allow ourselves to learn or change. Hone this skill long enough and it becomes a condition called covert narcissism, which will then poison every relationship you have. But you never have to feel miserable.

Cognitive dissonance is the mind bending process of having to think things that do not add up. If you have an abusive partner but are practicing the art of not being miserable, you may stay, choosing to see the best in everything, and not dealing with the damage you are taking. If you can’t acknowledge misery, you won’t leave the stifling job, or necessarily take on any other discomfort in your life. The more time you spend choosing to be happy and tuning out the things that really should be recognised as problems, the more trouble you get into and you can entirely break your mind this way.

The worst thing you have endured is the basis for your ability to empathise with other people who are struggling and suffering. The person intent on avoiding pain, is less likely to be able to develop compassion or understanding for others. In some very privileged lives, avoiding misery is just about recognising that what you have is pretty good. If your misery is your inability to feel gratitude, that’s something to work on, but it does not follow that everyone else who is miserable is also incapable of feeling gratitude. Their partner may be dying, their child may be sick, their job and home may be on the line. There are plenty of real things out there to be afraid of, and in working to understand our own misery, rather than ignoring it, we can build empathy for others and do more to support each other.

Mourning the planet will make you miserable. Thinking about climate change, extinction, hunger, and deprivation in the world should make you bloody miserable. Yes, you can choose to ignore all of this and carry on in your own sweet way, but frankly if you do you will be part of the problem, not part of the solution. Our misery in the face of human destructiveness is the thing that could yet save us.

If you use the recognition that misery is a choice to help you get out of miserable situations and to make real change in the world – that’s a good choice to be making. If you chose to switch off that capacity within yourself, you may feel more comfortable in the short term, but you are likely to become toxic to those round you, and deeply dysfunctional within yourself such that your future choices may be sorely compromised. It is better, surely, to choose to be real, than to make sweeping judgements that reject parts of your life experience.

Misery and religion

No matter what faith or path you follow, the relationship between religion and suffering comes up sooner or later. One of the atheist arguments is that religion clearly doesn’t work, god does not intervene, cruelty and injustice continue. What many religions offer are ideas about the true source of human unhappiness, and how to deal with it. The idea that you can be saved from suffering by following the edicts of a religion doesn’t stand any scrutiny at all. What you might get are some tools that enable you to handle it better.

How a religion formulates its relationship with pain is very telling. Is it good for you, as the older book religions sometimes suggest? Or is it something we can and should avoid, as modern society seems generally keener on as an idea? Do we need pain and misery in our lives to make us rounded, spiritual people, or do we need to overcome it in order to achieve permanent happiness? How a religion, or for that matter a religious person handles this issue can be quite telling.

There is a theory that by normalising suffering and emphasising the universal nature of it, religions comfort us with the knowledge that we are not alone. True happiness is impossible in this lifetime, we can only hope for a nicer afterlife. The trouble with this theory, is how readily it lends itself to keeping people in misery whilst telling them that it’s good for them. Compassionate sharing is one thing, oppression another and there are times when it’s not easy to see what you’ve got.

Druidry doesn’t have one clear answer. “Nature is good,” the famous Reformed Druid tenet, suggests that anything natural is to be accepted, if not celebrated. The good with the bad. It is, after all, perfectly natural to suffer. Calls to compassion and service however, are very precisely calls to alleviate suffering.

My experience of Druidry is that we tend to be pragmatic about pain. You won’t catch many druids seriously ascribing it to past life misbehaviour or ineffable plans. We can be collectively quite ruthless when it comes to looking for our own involvement in what happens to us. We tend not to blame the gods, but look at what we could have, or can do differently. The sphere of action is entirely human, even if we do seek advice and input from elsewhere. Druidry does not encourage people towards spiritual masochism, or to the willing acceptance of needless burdens of suffering. It does encourage us towards making the best of what we have, and doing what we can for ourselves, and reaching out to others for help, guidance and support when we need it. And to offer the same.

Honouring nature, we recognise that all things have their season, for good or ill. All things pass. Life can be short and brutal, but is no less beautiful for that. Nature’s predators seem cruel if you are inclined to empathise with the cute, fluffy, ill-defended tasty things. Suffering is natural. Not wanting to suffer is equally natural. Being afraid of suffering and doing self destructive things in a misguided bid to dodge fate, is probably also natural. Getting yourself killed thanks to an irrational belief in your own immortality is natural. Once you start looking at it, nature is vast and many faceted. You can find any example you want out there somewhere. Being a druid does not mean emulating whatever you happen to see other bits of nature experimenting with. It’s the thinking, feeling, compassionate attempt to make the best of things.

Needless suffering helps no one. Challenges well met carry us forwards. Caring is the one thing most likely to open you to pain, and the one thing most likely to ultimately save you from it. And Druidry, is knowing this and doing something with it. The something, of course, is always going to be down to the individual to decide.