Stories for Lent: #25 Witnessing the pain of others

(Title a shameless play on the excellent Susan Sontag book. Go read it. Now.)

Despite the fact that my career as a beauty insider was short and inglorious, I still have a love-hate relationship with watching videos and reading blogs. I love how it helps me unwind when I’m feeling down, but I hate how unachievable the lifestyles presented are. It makes me upset to think how I once thought I could keep up with the big names; of the waste and capitalist greed and entitlement and heteronormativity that permeate the top echelons of the blogosphere; of unrealistic beauty standards an average woman cannot afford; of the self-righteousness and sanctimoniousness; of the way everyone seems to have it well off and then they turn around to present a sob story about anxiety or depression.

It feels unfair. It feels like a cop out. They have everything, and they’re still unhappy. It reminds me of the kinds of conversations I’d have with friends or family when I felt sad or upset, and they’d turn around and say: What have you got to be so miserable about? You’re healthy, you’re alive, you live in a democracy. Pull yourself together!

There is no situation in which you’re allowed to be upset. Your pain is never good enough.

*

I sat today, watching yet another confessional by a famous vlogger. I had unfollowed her during one of my more frenzied feed sweeps, and I had searched her name at random, when I was bored. The video was recent. I clicked, expecting a hate-watch.

Instead, I felt like I’d been rocked to my core. It wasn’t the subject of the video (which should have been triggering to me, for a ton of reasons) but rather, the sheer scope of her misery, the utter, absolute depth of it. The way it was strange and familiar at the same time. The way I felt her shame and anxiety as strongly as though they were my own feelings.

We train ourselves to think of the Internet as an unreal place, and social media – a gateway to Wonderland. A world full of best friends and cool older sisters who accept you and love you no matter how weird and dorky you are. It’s not real, because you know they wouldn’t give you the time of day in real life, but for 10-15-26 minutes, you feel like they’re talking directly to you and you are able to join them on an adventure, from the comfort of your own home.

You know, too, if you made any attempts at vlogging, how much work goes into making a single video. How much work, money, sheer artistry and multi-tasking, to make that 10-15-26 minute video a good experience for your viewers. You know that the sparkly, clean, well-off personae you witness cannot possibly keep this image up all day, let alone forever. You might be able to convince yourself of the opposite, and if you can, kudos… but there are also those among us who had a peek behind the curtain and who cannot appreciate the magic for what it is anymore.

I thought I was callous, free of delusions… and then a confessional video, something that I had trained myself to think of as disgusting, rocked me to the bottom of my heart. Even if the subject was something I personally disagree with, something I would never do, I found myself nodding along. Why?

*

Now, I’m sitting here and thinking about this term, “attention-seeking”. It’s one of the things my family cannot tolerate, and it’s also the thing that was first to go during my counseling training.

I think about all the times I was sad, depressed or otherwise, struggling to see past the agony of a moment, trying to find a silver-lining where there seemed to be none… and how together I seemed to everyone else. How I would get up bright and early, go to lectures, do my work, chat with my roomies, train with people… and then come home and hate myself. How I would cry and then talk to my parents on the phone and my voice would be completely normal. How I would run into my personal tutor right after having a major crying jag in the counsellor’s room, and he wouldn’t comment at all.

How I wanted, more than anything, for somebody to see me, see how much pain I was in, but I couldn’t tell them for fear of seeming clingy. Attention-seeking. A diva. A liar. How I would sink into self-loathing, but I would hate them as well, hate the world for its indifference.

Nobody owed me anything, but I was also taught that I don’t deserve to complain. To my mind, all that added up to: I don’t deserve anything. I don’t deserve help.

*

This is probably why confessional videos rubbed me the wrong way, for a while. I was jealous. I thought that they were getting away with something. They were breaking the rules and being rewarded for it.

But that was when it was just me, in my own little echo chamber, screaming at the walls and hearing my own voice hurling insults at me. It wasn’t until I picked up the phone or got on an email account and became a first respondent, a volunteer, that I heard other people’s voices. I heard the same fears and secret hatred that I shored up within myself, and I responded with empathy. If I could be kind to strangers, why couldn’t I be kind to myself – the one person I know best?

And why couldn’t I be kind to the people who make themselves vulnerable online? Why couldn’t I bear witness to their pain, and cheer them on for overcoming it in the best way they could. Jealousy subsided and empathy took its place, and I finally felt like something real was unfolding within me.

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