When our problems become sacred
Today there is something triumphant about having a problem, but the modern tendency to glorify problems has some obvious consequences
He is the new underclass among writers; the guy has no wounds. He is male and heterosexual; he is not a Dalit; he has never been beaten by the spouse; nor abandoned by parents as a child. He is never depressed, not even in the mountains, not even when there is a power cut and a dog howls. He has never been evicted from his place of birth, so he does not go there. And for the same reason, he is unable to write with sentimental anger about the exact green of the “backwaters", how heavenly the smell of the egg roast is, and how beautiful the healthy women on the morning streets who never dry their hair properly before leaving home are. He does not live in the West under the supervision of a dominant, foreign and affluent race, so he has no reason to seek refuge in his identity. He is not a wealthy feudal lord in decline, or a middle-aged humanities intellectual who wishes to get laid through “empathy"; as a result, he is incapable of proxy-feminism, Marxism, and the theft of wounds from the truly wounded. He is not even fat.
He is a writer who does not find an opportunity to be angry; when the month’s outrage begins, he does not have a side, he does not belong to any group of people with dissimilar noses. The guy is doomed.
How everyone became a victim is the same story as how everyone became a narcissist. The most naïve of them all was Narcissus, who only fell in love with his own reflection; many after him saw, and see, their own image in the reflections of others. This is at the heart of the most powerful, and probably corrupt, aspect of storytelling—the moment when the reader “relates" to a character. For centuries, storytellers who could create familiar characters succeeded more than those who were more interested in the abstract fringe. But now the storyteller is not required. People seek a reminder of themselves not merely in stories, but in almost everything. A fierce democracy is taking over the idea of celebrity—everyone is photographed, everyone is called beautiful and a genius. And, as they do in the star signs, they see a special tribute about themselves in the hysteria of a collective wound.
Today there is something triumphant about having a problem. There were a few reminders in July. An American woman mailed her team: “I’m taking today and tomorrow to focus on my mental health. Hopefully I’ll be back next week refreshed and back to 100%." This could have been a joke many of us have sent to our colleagues, but her boss knew it was not because she had sent similar mails before. He mailed her with compliments for using sick days for mental health. He was not joking either. “I can’t believe this is not standard practice at all organizations," he said. The exchange received one of the highest rewards of our modern times—it went viral. It caught the attention of Facebook’s chief operating officer, Sheryl Sandberg, who, in a post, praised the boss for his “compassion". She herself is attempting to create an organization where people are not penalized for emotional upheavals.
The new age is trying to eradicate notions of weaknesses, of flaws, and to persuade the world to expand the idea of human normality.
But some among the clinically depressed may have been irritated, as they were when actor Deepika Padukone suddenly became their ambassador. A few I spoke to then refused to believe that she was one of them, that she was truly depressed. It was as though they owned a turf of serious dejection and a person with vulgar joys was encroaching. Their discomfort lies in people confusing transient sorrow with depression.
If everyone begins to claim they are depressed, without fully understanding what it means, what becomes of those who are to a severe degree? There is a line, they seem to suggest, between personality and mental health. Some people should be asked to go seek meaning or swim or run; some people should be prescribed drugs. But all of them claim to be depressed today. All of them will, as capitalism tries to save itself from an unhappy workforce, ask for days off “to focus" on their mental health. And bosses will be expected to compliment them for being forthright.
When people claim they have a problem, it is not acceptable any more to tell them that millions face such issues without a whimper, or to ask them to work hard to overcome it, or to face it with greater fortitude. The remarkable quality of the modern problem is not any more that it is a stigma, but that it has become sacred.
This month there was an online campaign which demanded that the first day of the menstrual cycle qualify for leave. It swiftly became popular. Any woman who refused to accept that periods were that serious a matter was condemned.
Men are an enthusiastic part of public laments, but issues that are male-specific are rare. They do keep getting requests from delicate new-age men to cry more. There must be something great about crying that some savants know, it is their chief solution for improving men. “If all men were suddenly ok with crying, 70% of our problems would disappear," tweeted the comedian and actor Kumail Nanjiani. It is not clear if he meant men should cry privately or on the shoulders of their women (greatly annoying them, surely, if done too often), or should they cry in the malls?
The modern tendency to glorify problems has some obvious consequences. The rich will always be louder than the rest, and the finite empathy of a society is then wasted in self-absorbed privileged lament rather than being spent in concern for the truly unfortunate.
The festive communal commotion of “we-have-problems" reminds me of the Chennai of my childhood when there would be this funeral procession and all the onlookers, including the town alcoholics, would crash the concourse, dancing and whistling, and the actual grim mourners would disappear in the mobs.
Manu Joseph is a journalist and a novelist, most recently of The Illicit Happiness Of Other People.
The writer tweets at @manujosephsan