Updated: Jul 24, 2022
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.”
Excited about the new job? Delighted by the new boyfriend? Thrilled about the new vacation spot? Transformed by the new spiritual encounter?
We can forget that those huge experiences, so overwhelmingly vivid to us, are mediated to others through the weak, vague media of mere words and gestures (in person) and through the much smaller pipelines of typed words + tiny images available through social media. What seems luminously fabulous to you, once reduced to a Facebook post that scrolls along amid dozens of others, is now more-or-less just “interesting” even to your friends.
To appreciate what this positive experience fully means to you would, the proverb cautions us, require someone to…be you. A stranger—literally, “an other, who is not you”—cannot share the peculiar quality of your joy over this event because that joy is, indeed, peculiar to you. Even someone who went through the experience at your side would feel it differently…let alone someone encountering a much-reduced version of it through conversation or the internet.
So are we marooned on lonely islands of individuality?
Well, yes…except that one of the great truths of the gospel is that God sees us from the inside out. God supremely “gets” us—and wants to share all of life with us, because God loves us. That is very good news.
Moreover, the closer a fellow human being is to you, and the more of you they see, the more he or she will be able to share your ups and downs. We thus find that the Bible anticipates one of the key paradoxes of social media: the more we use it, the lonelier we can become. Why? If we invest what social time we have trying to share big things through small conduits hoping for big responses, we can gain only small rewards—and big disappointments.
And to make up for the dissatisfying littleness of those replies, we can resort to a pathetic numbers game. Since we’re not getting any properly large responses, maybe a lot of tiny ones will make up for it—so let’s keep checking the “views” and “likes” and “shares” and “retweets.”
We’ll clearly do much better to say what we want to say a single friend, at length, in person. And if we can’t get together, then share secondarily through the richest medium possible: video call or phone call. Big signal = big sharing = big response.
There’s no point blaming social media for its intrinsic limitations.
Nor each other for ours.
So stop reading this, and go call a friend.