At Christmas in 2015, psychiatrist and blogger Scott Alexander wrote a post about his experience treating people “in a wealthy, mostly white college town consistently ranked one of the best places to live in the country.” Despite being in the sort of place that both the intersectional left and the populist right would reasonably identify as wildly privileged, Alexander wrote, his practice was dominated by people with “problems that would seem overwrought if they were in a novel, and made-up if they were in a thinkpiece on 'The Fragmentation of American Society.'”
He went on to argue that these encounters were not just an artifact of his vocation — that actually, by virtue of being a psychiatrist, he was getting a more accurate look at how bad things can get in a comfortable part of the United States than a basically healthy person circulating among basically healthy people might realize.
For personal reasons his essay resonated strongly with me at the time, and particularly his point about how Americans tend to “filter for misery” in the same way we filter for political agreement in our increasingly self-segregated social worlds.
This misery filter is partially a function of the other forms of segregation. Think of how upper-class America didn’t notice the crescendo of misery that became the opioid epidemic until the Trump phenomenon sent journalists out to the hinterland looking for an explanation. Or how partisanship encourages us to downplay suffering within the rival political coalition — to imagine Republican “whiteness” as one long suburban barbecue, or life on the liberal coasts as all Georgetown cocktail parties and welfare-queen idylls.
But I think Alexander is right that the filter is also part of life within the most successful social enclaves — especially for chronic miseries that don’t fit an easy crisis-resolution arc. We tend to be aware of other people’s suffering when it first descends or when they bottom out — with a grim diagnosis, a sudden realization of addiction, a disastrous public episode. But otherwise a curtain tends to fall, because there isn’t a way to integrate private struggle into the realm of health and normalcy.
Some of this is inevitable and necessary. You cannot fulfill your own obligations while constantly stewing in other people’s pain, and a community that wallows too much in suffering can actually spread it, by encouraging the healthy to go down the slide toward addiction or depression because everyone they know is sliding first.
But a strong filter also creates real problems, because it effectively lies about reality to both the healthy and the sick. It lies to the healthy about the likelihood that they will one day suffer, hiding the fact that even in modernity the Book of Ecclesiastes still applies. It lies to the sick about how alone they really are, because when they were healthy that seemed like perfect normalcy, so they must now be outliers, failures, freaks.
And this deception is amplified now that so much social interaction takes place between disembodied avatars and curated selves, in a realm of Instagrammed hyper-positivity that makes suffering even more isolating than it is in the real world.
These thoughts are in my mind because I’ve been reading “Before You Wake,” by conservative pundit Erick Erickson, a memoir addressed to his children and inspired by the descent of different life-threatening illnesses upon himself and his wife.
I found the book particularly striking because, like many people in our profession, I know Erickson virtually but not really in real life — which means, in fact, that I don’t know him, I know only the pugilistic piece of him that shows up for fights online. So reading his personal story is a small experiment in weakening the filter, in shaking off the spell of simulated life, of letting a person’s suffering give you a glimpse of them in full.
But beyond the virtual/real distinction it’s also interesting to watch a writer try to impart a sense of what a Via Dolorosa is really like, of how you make sense of it and bear it, to people he otherwise tries to protect from suffering — his children.
Because this seems to me to be the signal failing of modern education — visible among my own peers, now entering the time of life when suffering is more the weather than a lightning strike, but especially among the generation younger than us, who seem to be struggling with the contrast between what social media and meritocracy tell them they should feel and what they actually experience.
In America, we have education for success, but no education for suffering. There is instead the filter, the well-meaning deception that teaches neither religious hope nor stoicism, and when suffering arrives encourages group hysteria, private shame and a growing contagion of despair.
How to educate for suffering is a question for a different column. Here I’ll just stress its necessity: Because what cannot be cured must be endured, and how to endure is, even now, the hardest challenge every one of us will face.