Why Is Social Media So…Disappointing?

Many posts in social media are cries not just for attention, but for sympathy—literally, for “feeling with.” I have had this good/bad experience and I want to share it, since it is so strong and meaningful to me.

Sometimes, in fact, one encounters the sad Facebook plea: “If you’re reading this, please [like/share/write something]”—presumably so the poster will know his or her feelings are validated by others.

What, then, to make of this odd and disquieting proverb from the Bible: “The heart knows its own bitterness, and no stranger shares its joy” (Proverbs 14:10)?

The brute psychological fact is that no one can truly know another’s pain. Each experience of suffering is unique and peculiar to each of us, because each of us is unique and we therefore undergo suffering in our peculiar way, according to our own personalities, framed by our particular previous experiences, and interpreted through our individual hopes and fears. Athletic injury, broken heart, childbirth, humiliation, job loss—“the heart knows its own bitterness” and others can only guess, however kindly, at “what it must be like.”

If the brute psychological fact is that no one can truly know another’s pain, the brutal psychological fact is that few want to. For sympathy is, indeed, “feeling with,” and few there be who willingly increase their pain by taking on the pain of others.

When we suffer, however, we easily forget those facts. Our suffering is so evident and so intense that it seems that it must be glaringly obvious to anyone with a heart. So why don’t other people get it? Why don’t they say the right things and do the right things? Why don’t they care—or care much, much more than they apparently do?

A recently bereaved colleague wonders why her friends don’t ask her more frequently how she’s doing (while, yes, another hates that question and can’t understand why people keep asking it—“the heart knows its own bitterness”). A friend coping with life-threatening illness posts social media updates frequently and then confides his sorrow that, after the initial outpouring of concern, few people now even “like” or otherwise respond to his posts. Don’t they care anymore? Did they ever, really?

Strangely, according to the proverb, the same dynamic happens at the opposite pole of human feeling: “no stranger shares its joy.”

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