Misery Not Compulsory
I happened to hear an interview the other day with Julian Fellowes, who is the writer/ creator behind “Downton Abbey.” That much-loved show is apparently coming back for another go-round.
Fellowes was interviewed by one of his fans, Mary Louise Kelly, on “All Things Considered.” In the course of the interview Fellowes said a couple things that struck me.
“I feel strongly,” he said, “that the purpose of the entertainment industry is to entertain.” He went on to add, “This present thing . . . nothing is valid that isn’t about misery . . . [I don’t agree]. Misery is fine. Investigate it, to dramatize it, but I don’t think it’s compulsory.” (emphasis added)
It was one of those comments, seemingly offhand, that cuts through stuff and exposes a current pre-occupation of which you might not be consciously aware, but is ubiquitous. Almost a ruling obsession. Misery, suffering, trauma, grief — bring it on.
What’s going on with that emphasis? “Nothing is valid if it isn’t about misery.” I think Fellowes is right to question that assumption. But why is that so prevalent?
I mentioned recently that it has been a cold spring in the Northwest. The other day there was a front-page story about how this has been hard on bees and hence for orchardists. True that. I care about bees and the fruit farmers.
But it seemed to me one of those stories where whatever is happening you look for the downside, for a victim, someone who is being hurt or something endangered by it being too wet, or too dry, too cold or too hot, or . . .
We have had a cool spring, rainfall is up, the snowpack is good in most places, and nobody is using air-conditioning as yet. Favorable conditions for salmon and trees. But someone/ something must be suffering. Focus there. Find the misery. It’s compulsory.
A journalist friend says that the prevailing approach in journalism these days is “victim journalism.” You don’t just report the news. You look for a victim and write about him/ her/ them or that.
There’s an assumption underneath this turn, which is that the world divides into victims and victimizers, oppressors and oppressed, and can be wholly explained on that basis. If that’s how it is, then journalism or entertainment, scholarship or religion that doesn’t stand with the victims and the oppressed is likely to be considered “on the wrong side,” trivial or privileged. But maybe life is more complex than that?
Maybe that formulation is a little too pat? Certainly a steady diet of it is tedious.
And there’s another downside to the pre-occupation with victims and with declaring or defining oneself as a victim whether of your parents or the system or a bad church or the other political party or God Almighty. You’re putting someone or something else in charge of your life, your story.
One of the striking things about the war in Ukraine is 1) the Ukrainians certainly are victims of Russian aggression and brutality. Of that there is no doubt. But 2) that’s not all they are. Moreover, they are not behaving like victims. They are behaving like victors. People overcoming enormous odds. People fighting to preserve their freedom, their culture, and their history. So, there’s misery, plenty of it, but that’s not the whole story.
Remember Zelensky’s riposte to the American offer of evacuation early in the war, “I don’t need a ride; I need ammunition.”
To be sure, don’t neglect, falsify or overlook life’s misery. But don’t obsess about it either. Don’t fixate on victims. Celebrate the ones who fight back, the ones who go down fighting, the one’s who overcome, those who insist on writing their own story and being agents of their own lives.