Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Chicken soup for the soul

Quite some time ago I read a little book called Chicken Soup for the Soul.  I have a memory of reading it while sitting in the bathroom at my parent's place as they like to keep those sorts of things there... but I could be wrong about that.  The book had all kinds of quotes and anecdotes about all kinds of things but they shared a universal theme of being heartwarming stories of redemption, triumph, love and companionship.  Awww.  The theory is that these books make you feel good about the world and make you happy.  I found the quotes interesting at times but I can't say that they made me feel happy.  When I want to get a quick pick-me-up from reading something I go read Dan Savage's sex advice column instead.

You might wonder why reading about people embroiled in all kinds of terrible situations regarding love, sex and relationships would make me happy.  Thing is, I am not entirely clear on how that works myself but I have some ideas.  I think it is similar to the fact that a strong determining factor in people's happiness is their relative wealth to the people within their social circle.  Absolute wealth is a factor to a point and is either a very small or nonfactor beyond basic necessities but *relative* wealth is important no matter how much you make.  If your friends, family and the people on your street make 30% less than you it doesn't matter if your salary is 30k or 500k you tend to be happier.  I think the same sort of thing applies here but on a different axis. By some determining factors including at least luck, brains, discipline and natural tendencies I am in a pretty good place in terms of relationship issues so if my theory holds water I should be happier when I can see that the people around me are worse off.  That isn't necessarily going to work when I look at people who are single, for example, since there are definite benefits to being single even if you would like to be in a relationship.  However, it would definitely work if I see people with bizarre sexual tendencies that land them in all kinds of trouble.

This, as it turns out, is the main fare in Savage's column.  People who want to be dressed up like babies during foreplay, people who want their spouses to cheat on them for a turn on, people who are matched up with partners with drastically different libidos (normally the male wants sex 3 times a week and the female wants it once a year, but the reverse situation does exist) and all the even more exotic fetishes come out to play.  Unsurprisingly when you look at the folks with really nonstandard preferences they have all kinds of problems with a world that doesn't understand or respect them and often rejects them quite violently.  Their stories are often awful and heartwrenching and full of terribly evil acts and seeing all that really cheers me up.  Sure, I might be really irritated with having to haul Elli all the way from school over my shoulder while she screams and tries to hit me... but at least it is a 4 year old trying to hit me and not an adult who professes to love me.  I may be bitter that I can't go barefoot into the local grocery store but I am not stuck looking for a lover who is into transgendered women who have the physical characteristics of a man; which, as I understand it, isn't a rough road indeed.  I read these stories of woe and misery and think

-Wow, my physical gender and my mental gender match!  (I might be offending trans people with poor terminology... but you know what I mean.)
-I am attracted to people that make up a very large percentage of the population!
-All the things my partner wants of me sexually are at worst easy and at best quite a lot of fun!
-Nobody over the age of 4 has tried to hit me in quite some time!

Again, I have no problem with people that have these characteristics but we can all see where the easiest path lies; just like I have no problem with Russians but I am glad to be living in Canada instead of Russia.

I remember a Simpsons episode where Homer is sitting in Moe's bar recounting his story of becoming a team mascot for a baseball team which ends with him being utterly humiliated in front of an immense crowd.  The barflies listening to him are all enthralled and utterly absorbed in his tale...

Homer:  "Why do stories of degradation and humiliation make you more popular?"
Moe:  "I don't know, they just do."

In some ways it is very Stoic to be thinking of how much worse life could be and using that recognition to be happy.  I don't know that the ancient Stoics would have approved of reading sex advice columns as an aid to negative visualization but it sure seems to work.


  1. Randrew was telling me recently about a theory/study/something saying that Facebook is making people depressed. The reason is most people only post good things on Facebook and keep the bad things hidden. So a person who has some problems looks at all of their friends, sees they don't have any, and gets depressed. Everyone they know has a great life with no problems and they don't, at least as far as they can tell, so clearly they should be unhappy.

  2. "Schadenfreude" is one of my favourite words. It says something that Germans have a word for "delighting in another's misfortune".

  3. @Ziggyny

    Yeah, I think this is why blogs where people say things like "my day was fine" get very few viewers and blogs that talk about horrible things happening get many more. There is no better way that I know of to drive traffic to your blog than posting a well written story of your own personal suffering and tragedy. People love to hear about how awful everyone else is doing so they can feel cheerful about their own situation and keep their minor troubles in perspective. Facebook is sort of the opposite of a tragic blog post in that it pretty much only contains trivial good news.

  4. This actually reminds me a lot of reading Magic tournament reports. Reports where people rolled all their opponents and won the tournament were never very compelling but the reports containing much drama and eventually a soul crushing loss were much more enjoyable to read. It is far easier to commiserate with someone who loses than someone who wins, particularly since Magic tournaments usually have about 50 losers and 1 winner so most of us lose almost all the time.

  5. This isn't Schadenfreude. That is the pleasure you feel because something bad happened to someone else who you think deserved it, which is different then the happiness you might feel when you realize that you should be thankful that bad things didn't happen to you. Schandenfreude involves malice.

  6. There's an implied value judgement in this which does bear calling out, in the spirit of politically correct pedantry...

    > read these stories of woe and misery [...]
    > -Wow, my physical gender and my mental gender match!
    > -I am attracted to people that make up a very large percentage of the population!
    > -All the things my partner wants of me sexually are at worst easy and at best quite a lot of fun!
    > -Nobody over the age of 4 has tried to hit me in quite some time!

    One of these things is not like the others...

    That nobody has tried to hit you (recently) and you haven't been inconvenienced by preference or partner are all clearly advantageous. And in case it were not obvious, you've written them in such a way as to explain. (Having an usual fetish restricts your dating pool. Your partner's preferences are "quite fun".)

    But that having incongruent physical and subconscious sexes is so obviously a negative that it bears no qualification is at the root of much of the subtle systemic prejudice trans people face.

    You could have once said the same thing about homosexuality, but it seems odd now to be truly grateful for not being gay. To the majority of our generation, it has become more like having blue eyes or red hair; just another human characteristic. Though there are some obvious differences wrt gender variance, the principle is the same.

  7. I agree that that point stands out. I think it was an important one though, and here is why:

    First, being trangendered is incredibly difficult even if you have no problem with it. Other people treat you badly or just avoid you because they have no idea how to act. Finding a partner becomes monumentally difficult because you have to find a person who is accepting enough of your situation to want to be with you forever which is extremely rare. You will constantly be faced with making uncomfortable explanations and finding yourself in social situations that are challenging. Some of this can be avoided or mitigated by having expensive, painful, difficult surgery and other medical treatments. All of this is undeniably bad.

    Secondly I must raise the point that humans don't like having their gender be in question. Even if the rest of society genuinely was unconcerned about your situation I think you would find it *extremely* hard to find people who thought that being physically one gender while mentally the other was anything but terrible from a personal perspective. This isn't a prejudice but simply statistics... go ask a thousand trangendered people if they thought that being born that way was a good thing or not. Ask them if they would prefer to have been born physically as the other gender. Ask them if they think that being born transgendered was beneficial for their happiness.

    Note that I don't think that transgendered people are bad or inferior or anything of the sort - I just think they have a harder time of it. It is the same with short people, people who go bald young, people who are extremely prone to nasty diseases by inheritance, people who sunburn easily or people who have bad acne (like say... me). None of these are things is a justification for abuse, moralizing, discrimination or blame and yet people widely think that those born on the correct side of the fence are luckier regardless of which side they are on personally. Do you think that you are lucky to not have pimples on your face? I suspect you do. Do you think that because I do have those that somehow that I am a lesser person? Clearly not. Transgendered people I see in exactly the same light. Their lives are harder in many ways both from their own entirely personal perspectives and from the way society treats them. People don't want to have their condition. That doesn't make them bad people, it just makes their condition undesirable.

    I think being homosexual and transsexual are entirely different. Homosexuals that are raised to think that homosexuality is fine and who live in a tolerant society generally do well and would not choose to change their sexual orientation by and large - they are fine with who they are. Transexuals, by definition, suffer from a disconnect between who two different aspects of themselves. Obviously transexuals can be hugely happier when in a society that thinks that their condition is possible, acceptable and normal but as best I understand it even in that situation they would usually prefer to change who they are if given the choice.

  8. I wouldn't argue the factual basis of your response. Few trans folk would prefer their situation if given a choice, I'm sure. And there's plenty of supporting empirical evidence.

    I only call out the impact of letting it be an unquestioned assumption that it is "bad to be trans". In a world without discrimination, a trans identity would be a challenging (but very surmountable) birth defect; a variation on intersex. Sadly, that seems generations away, but I think we have an obligation to do what we can as right-thinking people to hasten it.

    And though I'm quite sure you're being non-judgemental in your assertion, this is hardly universal. You might consider yourself and Ellie fortunate that her gender identity matches the one to which she was assigned at birth (so far as you know!), but would she understand the source of your relief?

    When making an assumption that something is "bad", and that something happens to define a very marginalized minority, it's very important to be a bit more specific.

    You wouldn't say:
    > -Wow, my skin colour isn't black!
    > (I might be offending darker-skinned people with
    > poor terminology... but you know what I mean.)

    You *might* say:
    > I acknowledge my privilege as a white person,
    > and appreciate it.

    Same principle applies.

  9. Either blogger is eating my posts or there are a whole bunch of dupes in the approval queue... On the bright side, now you get the short version. :)

    I wouldn't argue with your interpretation of facts. Few trans people would choose their situation if given the option (though this is not universal). But that's not the point; the issue is not with what you say, but how you say it. When you are talking about a characteristic which defines a horribly marginalized minority, a little more empathy is in order.

    You may be thankful that Elli isn't gender variant, so far as you know. The reason you are thankful is because of the hardship she won't face. Would (s)he understand that, in the absence of context?

    You would not say:
    > -Wow, my skin color isn't black! (I might be offending darker-skinned people with poor terminology... but you know what I mean.)

    You might say:
    > -Wow, my skin color doesn't subject me to racism, I appreciate my privilege!

    In the absence of outside judgement, gender identity disorder becomes a relatively easily treatable condition, particularly if addressed when young. That it is not so is the fault of our culture. Changing a culture is a very slow process, and one we all play a part in.

    It's a quibble atop a nitpick, but hey, this is the internet!

  10. I think suggesting that having white skin does not subject a person to racism is not accurate. I worked selling beds in a few parts of Toronto with extremely high populations of people from a specific culture outside Canada and had all kinds of issues because of my appearance. My experience only extends to Portugese and Indian areas but I definitely had the experience of being marginalized because of my race.

    Let's be clear: Overall being caucasian is an advantage because more people in positions of power are caucasian and knowingly or not they tend to favour other caucasians. There is no argument about who has the biggest advantage, though Toronto certainly has an extremely level playing field compared to most places.

    I agree that phrasing is important but I think how carefully we phrase things has to be measured against how much less we can say because of it. If I really wanted to make sure my posts were absolutely politically correct and offended no one I could spend weeks on each one going over and over it and adding more and more addendums and caveats. Doing so would make my writing nearly irrelevant though because nobody would bother reading such dry stuff. Figuring out the standards for these things is a particularly tricky challenge - saying the wrong thing does get more attention but it gets attention of the bad sort.

  11. Oh, by the way...

    Your original post appeared in my email but not on the blog. I have no idea why this happened but I assume the internet demons ate it. I suggest ctrl-c before hitting the post button. Someday I might even remember to do that myself. :)

  12. > I agree that phrasing is important but I think how
    > carefully we phrase things has to be measured against how much less we can say because of it.

    Quite true. And I don't even think your post could have been considered offensive. Rather, I'm pointing out an implicit assumption you're making and the subtle impact that assumption has. It's not about watching your writing, it's about evolving your mind. :)