Thursday, 19 June 2008

Pity Party

While I often scoff at the English, I do admire their steelines (or emotional unavailability) at times. When my (English) boyfriend's friends are having difficult times they will meet at the pub, engage in playful banter of the Jeeves and Wooster variety and go home. Whenever I ask about the psychological well-being of his friends, he provides me with a few broad comments - fish to the seal's mouth - but generally no details. Indeed, Australian men also like to assuage their grief with a spot of tennis, surfing or drinking. That said, the one: one (woe is me) talk is noticeably more popular amongst men these days (along with skin care regimes and long fringes).

Women are more likely (perhaps soon only barely more likely) to share every fear, change of pulse, criticism received, perceived injustice and confrontation. Now, I don't like giving women a hard time - we're beautiful, creative, complex beings and we have enough to deal with already - but I've got to be honest, I'm a bit frustrated with our tendencies to have 'pity parties'.

Pity parties are festivities where people sit around in a cafe, college, or bedroom and go round the group to exchange long, solemn explanations of a series of catastrophes that have happened in the last 24 hours. What's more, even though the feedback is nearly always sympathetic and often very thoughtful and practical, it's not uncommon for one of the other party guests to be heard telling the exact same story of horror to a new earnest listener only hours later. Wanting problems to be validated rather than immediately solved is fine - there's nothing more frustrating than an quickfire solution when you're actually looking for reassurance. But there's also something to be said for exercising 'the right to silence', as Theodore Dalrymple has put it. In other words, not saying anything at all, just letting it pass from the mind, having a brisk walk or a dance in the living room to "Somebody Else's Guy," or even just exercising a bit old fashion suppression (not for too long, of course, and not for things that are actually traumatic and overwhelming).

I have been thinking about this for a while. It came to a particularly intense crescendo when I attended a feedback session for a Springboard (women's professional development) course I was signed up for as a last minute filler. As an aside, I would recommend certain aspects of the course, specifically learning the skills needed to ask for what you want or need from bosses, colleagues and associates. Put simply, this involves communicating in an assertive (not an aggressive or sulky) way and being aware of the 'Flossy' syndrome: the tendency of certain women and some men to work in a diligent, but approval-seeking way whereby colleagues dump more and more work on them - thinking to themselves 'great, a cheap PA as well' - while the poor sod hopes that the boss will take it upon himself or herself to translate their productivity and commitment into financial and status rewards. Na-ah girlfreeeend!

In any case (ahem), all of us decided that a couple of months after the course ended we would get together to discuss what 'specific actions' we'd set for ourselves and whether we'd meet them. This seemed like a beneficial and constructive activity. And on my way there, I had that feeling that the winds of high-spirited, unrestrained joy were going to whip my face so forcefully that I would have to put vaseline on my cheeks. But what transpired was rather the opposite: a bunch of drowsy, pitiful women with rounded shoulders expressing various forms of disssatisfaction about how their specific actions (including having the walls painted as part of the broader 'goal' of finally getting the renovations done) had been thwarted (by lazy tradesmen and unsupportive husbands). Once someone had almost finished what she was saying, at least two women would frenziedly agree and declare their equal or worse painter/tradesman story. While some of the other specific actions were more grand and therefore made me feel slightly less pathetic by association, they still engendered the same response: lots of gasps, dumb nodding faces, 'how are you coping?s' I was waiting for someone to hold their heaving bosom and break down. At least then there would be some sort of bubbling over.

I could barely hide my contempt. Actually, I didn't. My eyes became squinty and I may have chucked out a few barbed comments as a sort of tantrum. I said I didn't want to meet up again if we were just going to sit around and share catastrophes. Not too smooth. It was, of course, partly about my own inadequacies as a queen catastophiser - something that I am trying to shake off rather than indulge (I say, as I write a blog).

Clifford Orwin's description of Neitzsche's view on pity, as a kind of inhuman fear of personal suffering, chimes:

Pity, while a temptation (even the final or most powerful temptation) to the higher man, was primarily the preserve of lower ones. These, Nietzsche dared to think, wallowed in it as swine do in mud, their pity for others being indistinguishable from their pity for themselves. This preoccupation with pity, the modern epidemic (which, as Nietzsche says, glancing at Schopenhauer, “has made even philosophers sick”), was the sign of a declining life form, an anesthetic for incurable sufferers. It pointed the way toward the last man, who would feel nothing and long for nothing.

Although Nietzsche often described himself (and has been described by others) as an immoralist, his ultimate objection to compassion was an ethical one. The core of humanity was its ambition to greatness, and all greatness depended on suffering. The modern project of compassion, then, taken as the elimination of suffering, was ipso facto a campaign against humanity as such in favor of a descent into the subhuman.

I have managed to say to myself already today (in the shower as I began bemoaning my lot), 'Pull yourself together!' (I tried the 'let it pass' approach, but sometimes that's not enough.) That's what I am going to say if one of my friends calls me up for another 45-minute session about the shortcomings of her man. That or, 'please exercise your right to silence'.

No comments: