Don’t Worry Be Happy and Other Abusive Folk Wisdom

Don’t Worry Be Happy and Other Abusive Folk Wisdom December 13, 2018

At least a couple times a week I see a meme that says something along the lines of “your problems are nothing compared to what other people are going through – be happy.” And there are always comments that say “yes – people don’t realize how good they have it.”

These memes make me very angry.

Most people who post them mean well (on the surface anyway) but to someone who’s hurting they scream “your pain isn’t real” and “I can’t be bothered with listening to you, much less helping you.” They’re callous and abusive, particularly in a society that has the capacity to do better.

“Cheer up.” “Don’t worry be happy.” “It’s not that bad.” “You have so much to live for.”

These clichés and memes are unhelpful and abusive and they need to disappear from our conversations.

Some of this is naïve ignorance – some is manipulation

I think most of the people who share these memes really do mean well. But it’s obvious they’re mindlessly repeating clichés without thinking about what they’re saying.

“Eat your vegetables, there are children starving in China.” I didn’t hear that often as a kid, but I heard it. Nobody could ever tell me how me eating vegetables (which for the most part I was happy to do, except for turnips and beets) was going to help kids starving halfway around the world. That’s because it didn’t. It was simply a way to manipulate a kid into doing something he didn’t want to do.

I hated it when people tried to manipulate me. I still do.

You can’t always get what you want – sometimes you have to make do with what you’ve got. Sometimes you have to do unpleasant things simply because they have to be done. But it’s one thing to introduce children to harsh realities (gently and age-appropriately). It’s another thing altogether to try to convince them that they should be happy about it because someone else has it worse.

You feel what you feel

As a child various authority figures would occasionally say “you better change your attitude.” Few things made me angrier. My response (that I had sense enough to think to myself rather than say out loud) was “I can’t change how I feel.” Of course, the authority figure didn’t care how I felt. They just didn’t want to have to deal with an upset kid. Whether my problems were serious or minor was irrelevant to them.

You feel what you feel. Maybe things really aren’t that bad and you do need to put them in perspective. Or maybe whatever’s bothering you is a symptom of a serious condition, either personal or systemic. It doesn’t matter.

In the moment you feel what you feel and anyone who tries to delegitimize your feelings needs to shut the hell up.

Other people’s suffering doesn’t lessen yours

For some things there is no good or bad. There’s only better or worse, and that can be highly subjective. Are apples better than oranges? Is summer better than winter? It all depends on who you ask. And so we get used to judging everything in life by what we see around us. Sometimes that’s helpful. Other times it causes us to forget the meaning of “enough” and to continue reaching for more and more when “more” won’t make us happier.

But not everything is relative – some things are inherently bad. Pain is bad. Disease is bad. Suffering is bad. They aren’t relative – they’re just bad.

And if you’re hurting, the fact that someone else is hurting more doesn’t help you one bit. If you have the flu, the fact that someone else has leukemia doesn’t mean you don’t need to stay in bed till you’re well. If you have chronic pain, the fact that someone else has terminal cancer doesn’t make your pain go away.

Other people’s suffering doesn’t reduce yours.

We’re all different, or to hell with inspiration porn

We love stories of people who overcome tragedies. The war veteran who had both legs blown off but still manages to climb mountains. The cancer patient who never misses a day at work. The child born into abject poverty who goes to college and becomes a huge success in business or politics. These are real, significant accomplishments and the people who overcome these obstacles deserve to be celebrated.

But the fact that they could do it doesn’t mean everyone can do it.

There was a time when I could run a six minute mile. But I could admire and emulate elite runners all day long and I was never, ever going to be able to run a four minute mile. And even if I could drop a lot of weight and go back to running, I would never be able to run a six minute mile again at this age.

Some people with chronic diseases or conditions are able to live a “normal” life. Some can do it on some days but not on other days. Some can’t do it at all. It’s not a question of “motivation” or “inspiration” or “finding the want-to.” It’s a question of what a given body can or can’t do. Everybody’s different.

If someone overcame similar circumstances to yours, you may be able to learn something from them. That can be helpful. But your situation isn’t identical to theirs, and just because they could do it doesn’t mean you can too. They have a different body, different surroundings, and different levels of support from family and friends and from society at large. Comparing yourself to others doesn’t help you.

And if you’re in a comfortable secure situation, offering hurting people inspiration porn instead of tangible help is cold and cruel.

Discomfort can be a great motivator

Let me be perfectly clear about two things. One, suffering is always bad. Even if good eventually comes out of it, suffering is never a blessing and it’s never, ever redemptive. And two, politicians who want to “make it hurt to be poor” to motivate people are soulless bastards who should be thrown out of office and thrown into a prison so brutal it would make Joe Arpiao blush.

But organic pain (as opposed to human-inflicted pain) is Nature’s way of telling you something needs to change. “Other people have it so much worse” is a rationalization for accepting a bad situation. “How can I make this better?” is a much more useful response.

You can’t help people who don’t want to be helped, and ultimately people have the right to live their lives the way they choose, even if we would choose something very different for them. But if you see someone else hurting, thinking (much less saying) “maybe if they hurt enough they’ll do what I think they need to do” is callous and arrogant. Telling them “be of good cheer” is useless.

If you see someone hurting, the proper response is to ask “what can I do to help?”

Finding happiness in the face of despair

People who say happiness is a choice are liars, fools, or both. I have never chosen to be happy in my life. I’ve never chosen to be unhappy.

On the other hand, we can choose to do things that make us happy. Self-care is good and necessary. More importantly, we can choose to do things that will make things better in the future. Education is not a cure all and student debt can be a nightmare (that’s one example of a systemic problem our society needs to solve) but finishing high school and earning a bachelor’s degree goes a long way in building a better life.

Find a better job. Or quit chasing a better job and focus on your spiritual practice. Concentrate on loving your family. Or walk away from an abusive family.

These can be long and difficult endeavors, but the sooner you start the sooner you’ll get there. Don’t worry be happy is no way to live, but persistence is a virtue.

Sometimes, though, there are no good choices. Diseases, accidents, natural disasters, and wars happen. Sooner or later death comes for all of us.

There are no easy answers here. Some people find peace in the quiet acceptance of the inevitable. Some focus on the things that bring them pleasure. Some dive into service to other people and to important causes. There is no one right way, but regular spiritual practice when times are good builds a strong foundation for when times are bad.

Keep your abusive folk wisdom to yourself

If you find yourself thinking “other people have it worse, I’m OK” ask yourself this: are you putting things in perspective? Are you being thankful for the good fortune you have? Or are you settling for a bowl of rice when there’s a whole buffet available? Or worse, are you telling yourself to be happy because at least you’re better off than “those people”?

You’ll have to decide for yourself how to respond if someone is passing along this abusive folk wisdom. Depending on your relationship and past experiences with them, you may want to remind them that “knowing that other people are hurting more doesn’t make me hurt any less.” Or you may prefer to say “GTFO with your inspiration porn.” Or something in between.

And if you’re thinking about sharing any of this garbage, ask yourself why. If you want to be helpful, find someone who’s hurting and ask “how can I help?” If you really think these things help, re-read the previous paragraph.

These clichés and memes are unhelpful and abusive and they need to disappear from our conversations.

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