My wife finds it strange, but I love the band Metallica. Most popular in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, this ridiculous heavy metal band put out a song on their Black Album entitled “My Friend of Misery.” I enjoy this song for its sound more than its content. It is heavy and paced a little slower than their earlier stuff, but it tells the story of some miserable wretch who cares too much about the world’s problems, and the weight of it all makes him miserable. The song concludes: “remember, misery loves company” suggesting that to care—to empathize—is to end up miserable.
When I think about my contemporaries (and their engagement in the world of social media, more specifically), I’m tempted to change the title of the song and sing instead, “My friends commiserate,” because that seems to be a healthy portion of what takes place there. Certainly on Facebook there is a lot of picture sharing, a lot of envy-inducing life posturing, a lot of “liking” benign thoughts or snarky comments; but much of what I see is a culture of commiserating. I see a lot of complaining and kvetching, and offered in response are words, not of comfort, but of commiseration. It seems to me that people somehow feel better when they know others have bad days too. Who am I kidding? I feel better when I know other peoples’ lives aren’t perfect. Misery does indeed love company.
Let me ensure I am clear here and say that much of what I see is far from actual suffering or misery, and is not often tied to real tragedy—unless, of course, you consider it a tragedy to overpay for a burrito. I do not want to sound as if I am mocking or belittling actual pain and suffering. Real suffering calls for real empathy. But those of us groomed onSeinfeldare apt to overreact, and having stood in a long line at Starbucks, expect to be called the Next Greatest Generation for our unique triumph over such obvious adversity. We fill our lives until we are frantic and then complain about busyness; we think ourselves worthy of honor for enduring the simpletons around us who try our patience; and we befriend through commiseration.
This gives me pause. I fear that my generation is a little too good at commiserating. I wonder if we connect better over commiseration than we do celebration. In our culture that prizes authenticity, complaining and whining seem to make friends easier than contentment or even happiness. If Facebook is any indication of real life, then misery does indeed love company because happiness seems too fake.
The problem as I see it is that our faith calls us to more than commiseration, but to a type of community that leads to growth. In the body of Christ, friends certainly love you as you are, but they don’t leave you there. Having just studied Ephesians, we are reminded that we are called to speak truth in love in order to build one another up in the gospel.
Empathy is an important virtue for Christians seeking to love one another. However, empathy cannot be an end in itself, but must lead to encouragement and hopefully growth. Commiserating certainly feels good, but it leaves you stuck, motionless, and at times still in sin. And therein, lies the problem.
Commiserating helps us feel comfortable but not necessarily content. Paul, in his letter to the Philippians, offers a hopeful contrast.
I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me. Philippians 4:11b-13
Verse 13 (though most often misquoted by football players and celebrity Christians alike) is a powerful antidote to the idolatry cultivated through complaining and commiseration. While I may get mild validation from the commiseration of others, Paul says Christ is the only validation I need. While I may feel better about myself by seeing that others are inconvenienced too, plenty, hunger, need—yea,every circumstance—can be faced happily when I look to Christ for my identity and his promise for my security.
I am learning contentment (present tense). By no means can I claim with Paul that I have learned it (past tense). And my hope is that through the gospel I can put a lid on my whining and complaining. My hope is that rather than commiserating with friends, I can learn to encourage them out of their plight (however trivial) rather than giving them a gold star for telling me about it. My hope is that through it all, we learn true empathy for others rather than cultivating connection through commiseration. Finally, my hope is that we can learn not just contentment, but happiness through thanksgiving and that we learn to not be embarrassed about being happy. To go back to Philippians 4, my hope is that we learn to,Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say rejoice.
It may not make for a great heavy metal song, but maybe my wife is right on that one, too.