Recently I found myself thinking about the day I first learned I hadn’t made the A-honor roll in elementary school. It was fifth grade, and after having made all A’s through fourth grade, I imagined I would likewise cruise through fifth.
I remember the shock and pain I experienced when opening the envelope to find my first B.
(Rest assured, there were plenty more of those — along with some C’s, D’s, and F’s — to come in the not too distant future).
I also remember that, despite my hurt and despair, I was — though I didn’t realize it in the moment — looking forward to showing my parents. Not because I knew they would be okay with it, but because I knew they would feel sorry for me.
As best I can remember, this is my first active experience with something I have since learned to be true of human nature: we find pleasure in sharing our pain.
This got me thinking about the nameless narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes From The Underground and how, in the beginning of the story, he speaks (for two full pages!) about the pleasure one can receive from a toothache. He doesn’t find pleasure because the toothache feels good, of course, but because there is something deliciously sweet in complaining to others about how badly it hurts.
The older I get, the more I see this strange propensity in both myself and in those around me. We anticipate and enjoy the effect our own misfortune has on others.
Dostoevsky’s character, as I remember it, suggests that the only time a miserable toothache is, in fact, completely miserable, is when one has to deal with it alone. It’s not in the ache that he feels true agony; it’s in not being able to share the ache that he feels true agony.
I hate it, but this plays out in my own life far more than I care to admit. As soon as something bad happens, I immediately scroll the through the mental Roladex of people with whom I might find joy in sharing my misery.
Not to let them comfort me, mind you, but to project my misery upon them.
This is true of any bad news, really. When I feel sick. When I don’t get my way. When I’ve had a bad day. You name it. If it’s negative, then I look forward to sharing it. I don’t mean to; I just do.
I sense this is normal, but it doesn’t make it right.
It also makes me wonder, if we were left completely alone (as Dostoevsky’s narrator was), how would we deal with pain? Would we be completely incapable, seeing as our primary coping mechanism would suddenly be stripped away?
It also makes me wonder: is it possible to share misfortunate without projecting it? In other words, is it possible to share misfortune without, whether consciously or unconsciously, anticipating how our news will be received by and will affect the party we are sharing it with?
And finally, how does faith play into all of this? Does this explain why statistics show people are most apt to pray when something bad happens? Does this imply that we often pray with more of a “see-how-hard-I-have-it” agenda than with a “please-comfort-me” agenda?
Or, what’s more, if we are praying with a “please-comfort-me” agenda, are we unconsciously really praying “See-how-hard I-have-it” and just hiding behind different words?
Maybe this is why Watchman Nee says a good prayer should start “Lord, Thou art” rather than “Lord, I want.” Perhaps he means that, anytime we are speaking something other than praise, we are projecting our own misfortune on God so as to transfer our energy onto Him.
I don’t know.
I do know that, like the statistics show, I am most apt to pray when something bad happens. I also know I enjoy projecting my own misfortune.
Whether there is any connection between the two, I simply don’t know. But I’m certainly curious.
Austin Carty is a writer and speaker from central North Carolina. He is the author of High Points and Lows: Life, Faith, and Figuring It All Out, and he blogs daily at www.austincarty.com.