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Other People's Misery

For the past three or four years Iíve suffered from a problematic back that will randomly erupt into bouts of intense discomfort, occasionally pain. The causes are uncertain, there was no hideous ski accident or attempted eastern sexual position that caused my spine to fall, though the wealth of physical labor I did in my early twenties and computer job I currently entertain probably deserve some of the blame. I canít really verify the degree to which my back is wounded though I did once overhear my chiropractor say to his aide, "This guy is really screwed. Bring me my strongest healing crystals!" Every so often, it acts up, and though itís never caused searing agony, it can be disturbing, making both work and sleep a chore.

This past week has been one of those periods. Constant discomfort radiates from my spine like bad alternative music from a college radio station. Even though Iím not laid up in traction, Iím definitely annoyed. And as such, when I see happy pain-free people jog past me, all smiles and puppy dogs, I have the common human reaction: I want them to suffer too. If God is going to punish me, why canít he get them as well? Iím not as much bothered by the pain as the fact that everyone else isnít in pain. Because when it comes to the distribution of agony, Iím a tried and true communist: I think everybody should have some. In fact, I once wrote a disgustingly self pitying song lyric to that effect:

And if Iím going to live this life
Of misery and pain
I want everyone elseís life
To be just as lame.

Granted, the verse is hideously self absorbed (hey, it was the grunge era) but I think it bullseyes a feeling weíve all had: "Why me?"

Or more to the point, "Why me and not him?"

However, there is an interesting extension to the logic that pain becomes more tolerable when shared by others (that notion being gist of most 12 step support groups.) And that is that our problems dissipate when compared to other peopleís larger problems. The "At least itís not me" theorem. The truth is, we take comfort in other peopleís pain, the worse the better. We do this for the simple reason that when other people have BIG problems, ours donít seem so big. Certainly we mourn when we find out a neighbor has died of cancer, or sent their severed ear to a prostitute, but at the same time, suddenly that broken arm we have or case of the crabs doesnít seem so serious. As bad as things may seem, relatively speaking, theyíre still pretty good.

This is the purpose of supermarket magazines like the National Inquirer or the Star. They show us that as grand as the lives of celebrities seem, they still suffer, they still bleed, they still get kidnapped by aliens. Though our lives may seem pretty mundane compared to Liz Taylor, at least we donít have an inoperable brain tumor or happen to be mating a yeti. And itís because of our self protecting selfishness that we can laugh at celebrity death jokes such as the ones sure to get started upon the recent demise of JFK jr. ("You know, George magazine has really sunk to new lows.", "The problem with JFK jr was that his career never really took flight.")

And because we find solace in other peopleís pain, we tend to rather guiltily find warmth in some of humanityís coldest moments. As terrible and demented as it sounds, I take great comfort in the Holocaust. I mean when you compare your life to someone experiencing Auschwitz (or the Khmer Rouge, or the Cultural Revolution, or the American Indian massacres) what can you really complain about? Losing money on the Superbowl? Having your car stolen? Those things donít even register. Even if you develop cancer, youíre doing a lot better than your average victim of the gas chamber. Nothing puts things in perspective like genocide.

However, I think there is another, slightly more noble sentiment we derive by examining other peopleís misery. And that is: sometimes things do get better. Some people survived the Holocaust and went on to lead long, fulfilling lives. Some people get chemotherapy and survive cancer. Despite her inoperable brain tumor and yeti marriage, Liz Taylor is doing fine. As much as this sounds like a McCallís article, we derive hope from tragedy, or more so, triumph over tragedy. And hope is definitely worth something.

However, feel free to give your back muscles a good wrench to cause violent spasm inducing agony. Itíll make me feel a little better.

Wil Forbis is a well known international playboy who lives a fast paced life attending chic parties, performing feats of derring-do and making love to the world's most beautiful women. Together with his partner, Scrotum-Boy, he is making the world safe for democracy. Email -

Visit Wil's web log, The Wil Forbis Blog, and receive complete enlightenment.