Wallowing is never a good idea

Death (Photo credit: tanakawho)

Here’s a recent post chosen for Freshly Pressed that really hit a nerve:

And why does it still have to hurt so much?

When will it stop hurting?

Without question, I am over him. I no longer love him. I haven’t for a long time. I do not hate him. It would not bother me in the least if I never spoke to or saw him again. (Of course, this can’t happen (and I won’t allow it to happen), because we have Z and M.)

What I am not over is how much he hurt me. He’s not only hurt me, he’s hurt me in such a way as to have a long-term impact on any and all relationships I may have. He’s hurt me in such a way as to have a long-term impact on any and all relationships I already have.

When I need to talk to or just be in the presence of someone the most, I can’t bear the thought of it. I can’t bear the thought of confiding in someone else.

The depth of the pain is too much to bear.

The writer is a Canadian, a mother of two small children, whose husband cheated on her.

Keening  for seven years? Maybe she’s “ultra sensitive”, as this blogger describes herself.

And here’s a married, white, employed writer complaining in The New York Times that she is living in a friend’s ratty old house, at no cost:

I remind myself to have faith in something larger than the petty irritations of an old house. It’s been, as Dan has said, an “unconventional” way to take over a house.

That would be rent and mortage free, an opportunity millions of Americans would be happy to tackle.

In contrast, here’s an extraordinary story about a family whose 20-year-old son, Declan Sullivan, was killed at Notre Dame University in an accident. Their gracious response is inspiring, not tiring.

My impatience with whining is colored by my own experiences, and those of friends and family, who have coped from early childhood with serious illness, partners’ or parents’ premature death, mental illness, alcoholism, sexual abuse, repeated job loss, natural disasters.

Coping is a learned skill, as is resilience.

Canadian writer Paul Tough wrote a smart book on this subject:

Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure. In this absorbing and important book, Tough explains why American children from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum are missing out on these essential experiences. The offspring of affluent parents are insulated from adversity, beginning with their baby-proofed nurseries and continuing well into their parentally financed young adulthoods. And while poor children face no end of challenges — from inadequate nutrition and medical care to dysfunctional schools and neighborhoods — there is often little support to help them turn these omnipresent obstacles into character-enhancing triumphs.

Jose and I, in our professional work as journalists, have witnessed horrific violence, death, war and fear for our own lives. People who choose our field know that working to tight deadlines against ferocious competitors means no one has time to coddle you, and insisting on it is a career-damaging choice.

When New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid died of an asthma attack while covering a story in Syria, his accompanying photographer Tyler Hicks carried his dead body into Turkey. Jose spent Christmas of 1995 in bitterly cold Bosnia, sleeping in an unheated metal cargo container, his holiday meal a packet of chicken soup, all he could find in the post-war madness there while working as a news photographer. He couldn’t shower for five weeks.

I faced my mother’s manic breakdown when I was 14, in Mexico, with very little help, and had to take care of a visiting friend, a girl my age who spoke no Spanish, while we figured it all out.

No one trains or prepares you for such moments. 

I recently had a long conversation with a new friend, a woman whose life has handed her a tremendous amount of personal stress, fear and worry, some of which is out of her control and ongoing. Yet she is chic, funny, smart, tough and resolutely un-whiny.

Clutching and sobbing tends to make me sigh and withdraw.

When the shit hits the fan, do you crumble?

Or deal?

48 thoughts on “Wallowing is never a good idea

  1. When most people hit situations they don’t have the skills to manage, they shut down. Life goes on. They handle the day to day. But their emotions remain frozen and inaccessible. They thinking they are dealing but aren’t. Others surrender and are overcome with emotions they can’t seem to come to terms with. They return to them, picking it like a scab, wondering why they can’t change, why they can’t get over it.

    Very few of us actually manage to cope well, although most of us think we are. What resilience takes is being with our feelings–neither wallowing nor shutting them down, but just being there, the way we would sit with a friend who is suffering but that we cannot truly help. At best, we can only be with ourselves. It’s something very few of us are willing to do. I’ve learned. That’s allt I can say for myself.

  2. To be fair, I think you completely misread my post. I have not been “keening” for my ex for seven years. Yes, it was seven years ago that all of this happened, but – if you read the post – you’ll know that it was about finding e-mails and letters from seven years ago that brought the betrayal, etc. to the surface.

    Because we (I) tried to fix the marriage and then we still lived together for three years after we decided it was definitely over, I never got a proper chance to deal with the pain. I have since determined how to deal with it, thank you very much.

  3. I mostly deal – I have small tantrums, but then I get up and get on with it. I don’t tend to be a person who wallows. But I’m also aware that I’ve not weathered massive huge tragedies yet. Some family dramas, some natural disasters, and a couple of really intense disappointments, but nothing crippling. I hope to rise to the occasion if…when I have to.

  4. What a beautiful story! It is refreshing to see a family grieve without demanding money to ease their pain. You are absolutely right. When the shit hits the fan, you either get it together and muddle on the best you can or you crumble as the rest of your life dissolves. I had a major life crisis in college that galvanized me into the person I am today. That person is strong, resilient, independent, and confident. Plus, it gave me an awesome relationship with my grandfathers. This situation made our relationships closer and now I have found my role models/heroes. It was the best and worst thing in my life. Thank god it happened.

    1. I weathered a six-week period when I was 19 turning 20 that I think would have broken many people. I look back and say, “I got through that…now what?”

      Good for you! No questions you were forged in that fire.

  5. I strongly believe that situations are as bad as you make them to be – at least in good part that is. I was most recently unhappy with my own situation and felt like so until I finally decided to do something that would make me feel better. It doesn’t change the situation per say but it sure changes the focus and puts things in better perspective – both for me and the people around me. I think we expect too much “comfort” today.

    1. I wonder. From everything I’ve heard and read (having no kids), many young people today (boy, what a fogey phrase that is) have never “failed” and have been told from birth they are all special little snowflakes. So when things get bad, can they cope? Where would they have learned the skills of resilience?

      1. Well some of them may cope because they are little monsters and will do whatever it takes – I had friends who treated their kids like royalty so I’ve seen it. On the other hand, my cousin (who was also treated as such when we were growing up) is an eternal victim. So yes, I think it may hinder the coping mechanism in some individuals.

      2. Victimhood is pretty off-putting, no? I see people coping with very real and difficult issues, so my patience with those unwilling or unable to just get on with it (even after a period of shock) is fairly limited. Losing someone you love, yes. Terminal illness, God help us. But almost everything else has some sort of resolution.

  6. Thanks for adding some food for thought! I feel like I do far better with real stress than I do when things are going basically well and I stub my toe or something. I’m almost more stressed out when things are fine, if that makes sense. But I don’t usually share that with others because I know that it’s me being silly.
    I find that when other people I know are living in very non-traumatic or stressful situations and want to complain about things that seem frivolous to me, I lose my patience a bit. I can’t make myself care about how stressful it is for them to find money when they choose not to get a job, or something like that. I have spent a lot of time working with folks who have extreme states of mind, so seeing people who can enjoy a basic level of sanity and still not get their sh* together can make me sort of shrug and walk away mentally. 🙂 Thanks for helping me think about this more!

    1. Thanks for such a thoughtful reply…I have zero patience with whiners with no sense of perspective. Only if you’ve been through hell (and seen others do so with grace) can you really see what stress looks like.

      But for some people, any stress is time to freak out.

  7. Yasmin

    But before you build resilience doesn’t the character building have to start first? For example if you’ve had a comfortable life and then suddenly something bad happens, of course you’re not going to take it well. Of course you’ll need the space to whine, right? I suppose seven years (referring to that blogger you quoted) is a bit long though.
    Another thing, where would writers go for writing content without problems? Writers write about problems a lot. So if something has been bugging you for 7 years it might be cathartic just to write it out.

    1. You can have a comfortable life and still be aware of the world and the problems others face — through doing volunteer work, for example, so when life gets tough for you personally it’s not such a Huge Shock. Expecting a bump-free ride is madness. If your eyes are open to others’ troubled lives, you’ve seen shit up close and you’ve seen people handle it.

  8. Adversity builds character. Thats been my mantra for years. In the jobs I’ve worked over the years and especially in my part-time job of 11 years, wallowing or crumbling can get you injured or killed. When the shit hits the fan, I analyze, decide, bear down and move forward. I’ve found this strategy works in both my personal and professional lives. Grief and fear are best left for the quiet times after the situation has run it’s course. I know that all sounds a bit hard hearted, but when the shits in the fan emotions have to take a backseat, knowledge, training and experience have to be allowed to do their thing.

  9. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that when the ‘worst’ happens and all we have to rely on is our own devices, we seem to be able to put aside the need to be a crybaby and just get on with fixing it! I’ve noticed that often in my life, but none more vividly than when I fell down the stairs, alone in a house except for the dogs … it was almost as though another me watched as I told myself there was no point crying about the pain, that would upset the animals even more, and then set about propping the broken foot against the other and bumcrawling to where the phone was so I could summon help.

  10. Hmm. Interesting post. When things go wrong, I do crumble and feel sorry for myself. For a bit. but then after a while, I deal with it and put things in perspective. I think both phases are necessary though: crying and taking the time to recover allow me to relax and let go. And then I can kick myself and start over. What is annoying about the woman whining about her husband infidelity is that she’s still whining SEVEN years afterwards. Had she written the post a month after the incident, I’m sure we’d feel more sympathy for her.

    1. I think it’s normal to freak out a bit, maybe a lot. Again, I think it depends what’s just happened. Oddly, I dreamed last might about a woman whose husband suddenly abandoned her — which happened to me as well. That was a very difficult time for me…for a while. But not forever. And I had a pre-nuptial agreement to make sure I would be financially protected, so even if I did not eat for a week (and looked fantastic in my grief!) the bills got paid and I could start my unwanted new life unafraid of financial ruin.

      Planning for the worst is not a bad idea.

  11. I think everybody handles situations differently. A country saying I keep thinking of is “Everybody thinks they’ve got the hardest row to hoe”. What seems life-shattering and big and messy to me might be a cakewalk for someone else. Likewise, I’ve been through a few experiences that friends can’t believe didn’t “scar” me much more. I try to be easy on people because I know at some point I’ll be struggling through a situation that someone else might think is ridiculous.

  12. I’ve seen a lot too in my career, and it taught me to admire those who really stand for their belief. The skin we have in the game doesn’t come naturally, though. But the experiences we endure in life make us stronger if we learn from our mistakes.

  13. GlennFreiner

    I think you should comment on the second comment concerning the woman who stated you “imisread her post.” That deserves a comment from you, given that it was the subject of your blog.

    1. It seems there are two possibilities: 1) I misread her post and therefore didn’t grasp her real meaning; or 2) her writing was unclear and confusing and therefore I drew the wrong conclusion.

      Given how many times my own writing has been misunderstood — and enraged and vicious reactions printed in response to things I never said or even implied — it happens. Her blog post was a jumping off point to a larger point I wanted to make.

      It’s what bloggers do every day — we read one another and react to what we read, whether we “got it” or actually did not grasp what the writer originally meant. One blogger wrote a post attacking me and essentially accused me of rewriting a press release for one of my NYT stories, a statement that was both deeply insulting and inaccurate. Like her, I left a comment on his blog correcting him, and moved on.

      It happens.

  14. Latanya West

    I learned to deal a very very long time ago with burdens only a few will ever face. But aside from the steel I’ve built into my reflexes and reactions to life, I will always remember what my mother said to me one day when I was puffed up with impatience for those I looked upon with disdained. The ones who hadn’t ‘sucked it up’ and ‘made the choice’ or ‘moved on’ like I felt I had. She said, “Tanya, everyone can’t be like you.” Empathy. Non-judgement. That was my life lesson that day.

  15. Your own post, and even more your attitude, impaled a nerve with me!

    Resilience –a topic you’ve written about, or mentioned, before –is not something you or anyone else is born into anew at age 14 (or whenever). In your case it seems to me that you learnt resilience the hard way: by knowing you could only rely on yourself, not parents, through being sent to boarding school at a very young age, by being sent on camp all summer, by parenting the parent.

    You used some examples which made it clear there are so many forms of resilience beyond that of soldiers or war correspondents and war photographers. Many other occupations require daily resilience to face life and death risks: police, firemen, railway shunters, miners, the school teacher who defends her class of five year olds from a gun-toting madman. The skills and determination to be a good parent also require resilience and strength of character.

    Resilience doesn’t mean that the child (or adult) never sheds a tear or asks for help from others: what matters is that, in the words of the song, they pick themselves, dust themselves off and start all over again.

    I was dismayed by the superior self-satisfied tone you took against the young blogger who made two mistakes (1) expressing her pain in public aka “whining” and “wallowing” and (2) being Freshly Pressed. You ignored that she was daily showing resilience by bringing up her young children alone. I’m not a fan of putting it all out there as she did but your post could have raised the same issues without “naming and shaming”.

    You also misrepresented the article in the NYT: that family was actually paying rent and/or trading it off for renovations in a quid pro quo exchange with the owner to their mutual satisfaction…and to their surprise found they were enjoying it. Why choose those particular extracts from each post?

    Your posts convey the message that so long as someone is stoic, silent, and doesn’t bother you or anyone else with their life crisis/crises, they’re just fine (aka resilient). Resilience without compassion is not a commendable attribute.

    1. A lot of private history has shaped my views expressed in this post. I have a great deal of compassion. It’s been sufficiently abused — including by Caitlin Shetterly — that my views have changed over time.

  16. This was an interesting perspective. I agree with Cassmob above. My initial reaction was that you sound hardened and judgemental. Yet, I can also see where your irritation is coming from.

    I’m not a fan of complaining, or mopping. Though I’ve been that person before so maybe that’s why it bothers me?

    Having some compassion, and empathy is an important set of qualities (but some people are born without the ability to practice these emotions – I’m talking about psychopaths).

    Other people process problems in different ways, and I’m sure someone was at least empathetic to you during your hard times?

    Is the reaction from the readers what you expected?

    I think you were looking for understanding of your own emotions (irritation) without really understanding those who you criticised.

    ps: I still love your honesty, I just don’t particularly agree with you on this.

    1. This may sound rude — and that’s not my goal — but I don’t particularly focus on any specific expectation of what readers will think or say. Not on my blog and not in my paid writing work. Everyone has their own perspective, and we all see the world our own way — blogging is certainly an interesting way to reality-check mine with a much larger group of people than those I know personally face to face. However unlikely, this blog now has more than 3,500 followers worldwide, of all ages and both genders. So even trying to predict anyone’s reaction is unproductive — will an Australian woman react the same way as a British man? Will a 20-year-old Canadian react the same way as a 35-year-old American or Spaniard?

      Yes, I was tough, and quite possibly unkind, in this post. Caitlin Shetterly and I have dealt with one another personally. I read her book. I’m just not a fan.

      Were people empathetic during my hard times? No, not especially. Much of it I kept private. No one knew about my mother’s illness until the past decade or so, nor her use of alcohol because you don’t tell tales out of school. A very, very few people know the full details of what I faced in younger years, and usually with little or no outside help, so they have a better understanding of when or why I lose patience.

      Those who know me well, know I have, and show, a lot of compassion and empathy. I couldn’t even be a successful journalist if I was unable to relate well and easily to people I meet and interview, many of them wildly different from me, whether a Prime Minister or convicted felon. But I no longer am as hasty in my automatic rush to try to bandage people up, as it were, which is very typical behavior of people who have grown up around alcoholism. And I’m OK with that.

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