Making People Feel Bad for Making People Feel Bad

As I watched TB Silent Killer, a documentary about an outbreak of virulent tuberculosis in Swaziland, I was struck by the patients’ willingness to talk freely about their despair. If anyone had just cause to despair, 12-year-old Nokubegha does. This orphaned child was quarantined for months in a TB hospital in the developing world, far away from her only sibling. Yet, as she spoke frankly about pain and isolation, I had to beat down a peculiar sense of unease that perhaps only an American would feel. I was afraid that someone would call these people downers or whiners. It was as if a chipper person would pop up from behind a bed pan to the TB patients that “pity party time was over.” Or worse, that someone would accuse them of trying to make others “feel bad.” Heaven forbid!

I don’t believe that it’s impossible to make someone else feel bad anymore than I believe someone can will tuberculosis from their body. Still, in most cases, we have a lot more control over our bad feelings than many people realize. More importantly, when we witness someone’s genuine pain or hear them describe it, it seems strange to assume that they are intentionally suffering to make us feel bad or to hurt us in any way–as if your emotional state did much for them all by itself. Yes, I’ve met a few people who seem to harm themselves out of spite, but most of us do not seek misfortunes in order to play out some drama for an audience. Regardless of the suffering person’s intentions or awareness of our response, unless we are a true psychopaths, we will feel along with him or her. These emotions may push us toward action, but they can’t force us to do anything and neither can the person who is suffering.

Feeling empathy, understanding, and outrage at injustice can move a person to actually help others, but feeling bad is mercy strained. We feel bad when we think there’s nothing we can do to help. (Listening is doing something, and it’s hard work.) We feel bad when we believe that we are to blame for the other person’s misfortunes, and worse when we sense how easily we could wind up like them. This feeling bad fog of impotence, guilt, shame, and pity is pretty useless. Left unchecked, it can actually make the situation worse for those who are suffering.

When people feel bad, they usually want to make it stop. And the easiest way to make it stop is to avoid the source of bad feeling. Even I–a fan of Frontline, which isn’t exactly feel good TV–was tempted to look away from TB Silent Killer. And I just couldn’t deal with Mothers of Bedford, a program about incarcerated moms.  So if you want people to stick around and listen to a difficult story, it’s wise to avoid saying anything that might make others feel guilty or resentful. It’s not easy, especially if you live in the land of “compassion fatigue” where there’s usually a comforting rerun of Modern Family to turn to.

Then there are the people who don’t want to stop feeling bad for others. They gravitate to it, like a creature driven to return to a spawning ground that is now polluted. They may offer help  in exchange for other people’s dignity. That is too often the price of charity.

If the mere thought of others’ suffering is too much for you to handle without becoming lost in your own fog of bad feelings and martyrdom, maybe it’s better for you to turn away quietly–at least until you understand what or who is truly making you feel bad. No one profits when your sympathy curdles into blame and disgust. No one has the right to stop you from taking care of yourself, not even someone who is suffering (because we all suffer at some point).

Our motives don’t need to be absolutely pure before we can lend a hand or ear to others, but our impact will be much more beneficial if we set aside feeling bad when we try to do good.

Here’s a list of organizations helping the victims of TB:

True Vision TV’s donation page for the patients and families interviewed in TB Silent Killer

Prymaat Was Right: Decluttering Ideas about Housework

Since my office is officially closed today, I had no excuse to avoid cleaning. Time to suck it up and confront the cluttered corners of my home. As I sorted clothes, I could feel my chest tightening. Why was I so stressed out by this simple task that everyone else manages to do so easily? In a way, that question kind of answers itself. I know that even if I could know what everyone else does, I can’t assume that what they do is right for me. This wisdom disappears when I start to clean. It’s as if Prymaat the Conehead and I are the only weirdos who hate housework. In spite of the my very public apathy for cleaning, especially laundry, I feel guilty about mess.  In the cluttered corners of my mind, I still believe that I’m supposed to love neatness for its own sake. In reality, I only value neatness when I’m looking for my keys or a fresh, complete pair of socks.

Jane Curtin in "I hate housework" apron

Alienated by housework

The first idea that I need to throw out is that cleaning is easy and simple for everyone. Cleaning is not quantum physics, but it does require some skills that are not universally known. Some people are better at it than others. By the way, there’s an interesting contradiction between society’s expectations of cleanliness and the status of people who clean for a living. What’s up with that?

The next dirty notion is that I am cleaning “wrong.” No one is watching me clean (as far as I know), so I can dump the fear that my performance is being judged. I’m happy to learn ways to clean faster and better, but I’m not in a competition. I’m not going to get points for style. And as much as I’d like to be speedy, sometimes that’s not going to happen. Let Frederick Winslow Taylor spin in his grave, slowly.

Another junky notion that needs to go is the connection between cleanliness and womanliness. There is nothing inherently female about cleaning. Some of the tidiest people I know are very manly men. Yet the link between womanliness and washing remains powerful, as if we must compensate for being “unclean.”  In a 6th grade health lesson, we girls were shown a pamphlet that said, “Dainty is as dainty does!” Even back then, our teacher said this material was dated. Next time I’m chatting with a group of women who appear to be bonding by wondering what they will ever do with their sloppy guys, I will just tune out. Sorry, but your pamphlets are dated.

Perhaps the foulest belief that I have about cleaning is that I should feel intrinsically motivated to do it. Instead berating myself for not cleaning happily like a cartoon princess or efficiently spit-spotting my way though chores, I would be better off treating myself for getting through the drudgery. And no, a sparkling sink is not its own reward. Being able to pour myself a glass of water without digging through a stack of dirty dishes is what it’s all about.

So hooray for me for cleaning today. An orderly home makes life easier and gives me more time to do things I love. I may hate housework, but I like knowing where my socks are.

Freaky Steeky, I Cut My Dog’s Sweater

The sweater I knit for my dog, Mabel, turned out to be a bit on the tight side. Rather than cast Mabel as a canine “sweater girl,” I decided to experiment with steeking. Steeking involves cutting hand-knit fabric. (For deeper details, see Eunny Jang’s internet classic, Steeking Chronicles. Or check out her video.) Since Mabel is not especially sentimental about her wardrobe, the steek stakes were pretty low. Why not go for it?


The second reinforcing crochet chain in progress


Close up of crochet

Mabel’s sweater is knit in an acrylic wool blend– not the ideal fiber combination for steeking. Still, I figured the yarn would be coarse enough to hold together with reinforcement. Because the sweater was too small to maneuver into my sewing machine, I reinforced the steek with two crochet chains.

Once I wrapped by brain around crocheting a chain onto knit fabric, it didn’t take long to make the reinforcements.  I cannot wield my sharpest scissors and take photos at the same time, so I’ll try to describe the thrill of cutting into my own handy work. Even though I had to fuss a bit to locate the right cutting points, it was very liberating to slice away at my own stitches.  I wish I had done it at a table with the fabric tacked down to a board so I could concentrate completely on cutting the stitches in the center of their heads.


Mabel’s former pullover

Nothing has unraveled…yet. I might break out the sewing machine to add extra reinforcement later.

So now Mabel has the makings of a cardigan. The final product may wind up as some sort of Henley.




Mabel in her new cardigan.

Mabel is thrilled.

What Makes a Pattern Worth Paying For

There are free craft patterns and instructions everywhere. Between, the wild, wild, web and the backs of yarn labels, it’s possible to avoid paying for knitting and crochet patterns all together. So why do I still pay sometimes?

1. I can’t figure out how they did it (or I just don’t feel like it).
If I see a photo of a cool garment and I can’t figure out how the heck the designer did it, then I’m half way to sold. Even if I could figure out how the item was constructed, it’s nice to let someone else do all the math and make the key choices. I don’t always want to figure out how to modify a so-called one-size-fits-all hat pattern so that the finished project actually fits my big head.

2. Enough searching; I just want to make stuff.
Time is more precious than money. You can never regain the time spent scouring the internet for the right free pattern. Sometimes it’s just more efficient to buy from a trusted source.

2. The pattern makes everything clear.
Nothing frustrates like incomplete, vague, or incorrect directions. A great pattern will give you specific instructions when they matter, such as what kind of cast-on to use, and include schematics and other helpful illustrations.

3. The designer and publisher stand behind their work.
Sometimes I don’t know this if this is true until it’s too late. Certain publishers have better reputations than others when it comes to technical editing and errata. I like knowing that they got my back. The peace of mind that provides is worth a few bucks.

4. I believe in paying people for their work.
I won’t get too highfalutin about this, but if you believe in property or participate in property systems (Do you pay for goods and services or expect them to fall on your lap like manna?), then don’t make an exception for intellectual property. It isn’t different. Designers may chose to give away a pattern, but I respect the fact that it was theirs to give away in the first place. Why should I expect anyone to provide me with all of the services and information listed above without some real compensation? It’s not enough to say “Oh, isn’t that precious?” Individuals might offer free patterns out of generosity, but they may also be doing it to build an audience. Yarn sellers and manufacturers aren’t giving away patterns just to be nice; they do it to sell yarn. 

5. Because art and entertainment.
Some patterns are so beautiful that I just want to buy them to support the designer. The photography and layout are part of the fun. It’s my way of saying, “More, please.”

Lipizzaner Mutt

I recently “trained” my dog, Mabel, to give me high fives. I put the word trained between quotes because there was so little effort involved. It was less training and more theatrics. Mabel, who many neighbors insist must be part Jack Russell Terrier, loves to rear up and jump anyway. All I had to do to get her to perform the high five was to hold up my hands, then reward her for smacking her front paws against them instead of putting her paws on my shins. I used the same method to get her to do a variation of the fist bump. What clever dog wouldn’t want to put her paw on top of a fist full of treats? If I hold my empty fist in front of her, she’ll bump it, and I can reward her with praise or a treat from my other hand.

Teaching Mabel these human greetings was vastly easier than teaching the stay cue. As I saw it, I was basically teaching her to do nothing–a completely unnatural activity for most mammals, especially feisty ones.

It reminds me of Legendary White Stallions, an episode in the PBS Nature series about the Lipizzaner Stallions. The stallions have been trained to perform breath-taking jumps and kicks. But perhaps the most amazing–and useful–thing I learned from the program is that some of the spectacular dance moves are actually natural wild horse behavior performed on cue in front of an audience. Although it takes years for the horse and trainer to become true artists, the essential difference between a crowd-pleasing performance and an common action is all in the timing.

Knowing that some of the most highly skilled animal trainers in the world are just getting their equine partners to do what they might do anyway–only on cue–opens up many fun activities for a dog person. Now I get to praise my dog for jumping instead of always saying “Off!” or “ah ah ah.”

I should also keep the stallions in mind as I continue to shape my own behavior.

Is Phyllis More Rotten?

The classic movie Double Indemnity is filled with pithy exchanges. Lately one bit of dialogue plays over and over again in my mind:

Phyllis Dietrichson: We’re both rotten
Walter Neff: Only you’re a little more rotten.

Double Indemnity

Dirty dealings in the grocery store, from

What, if anything, makes Phyllis (played by Barbara Stanwyck) more rotten? And who is Neff (Fred MacMurray) to cast any proverbial stones? Before I take a poke at those questions, I’ll bring up another. Why did filmmakers Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler bother to include these lines at all? To me, their significance goes beyond serving a source of another grim chuckle or a possible concession to the morality codes of the day. Although Walter Neff may be falling back on the preschooler’s “You started it!” excuse, he does make a valid point. We need to understand that Phyllis is more rotten, pound for pound, even if only by a few ounces. And that makes a difference.

Now, to weigh the rot.  Consider the characters’ actions.  (I hate spoilers, but in this case the statute of limitations for that crime was up before I was born.)  Both Neff and Dietrichson are greedy killers, but the latter has killed more and doesn’t seem to want to stop. Not only is her body count higher, but the bodies belonged to people who were in her care, people she took vows to love. Her manipulations can’t be justified by her position as a woman making her way in a man’s world. The best thing I can say in her defense is that her moral compass is broken or missing. I can’t say the same for Neff.

Perhaps the most rotten thing about Neff is that he knows from the start that he’s making the wrong choices. Unlike his psychopathic lover and crime partner, he actually cares. Yet he chooses to be driven by greed and lust. One could argue that his ability to care and his decision to ignore that impulse makes him just as rotten as Phyllis, if not more so. His errors seem to weaken his position to judge Phyllis’s heartlessness, if you expect complete innocence from a judge. I don’t.

We can’t live long in this world without picking up a bit of rot. The more we admit to this, the better we become at resisting moral blight. While it’s best to attend to our own sins first, we can’t afford to wait until we have cleansed ourselves before we examine other people’s wrongs. When Phyllis says “We’re both rotten,” she is giving up responsibility based on the fact that everyone is a sinner.  I believe that our flaws are just one more commonality that makes it possible for us to care for each other. If I have the capacity to care, then I have a responsibility to use it. I have a responsibility to take a hard look at my behavior and that of those around me, especially those in power. And I have the responsibility to say, “you’re a little more rotten”, to draw a line, and to back away from that line whether I or anyone else had crossed it before.

Deserving Squat

I just caught up on a story of a local woman’s effort to go from squatter to homeowner. Because she didn’t “climb the property ladder” in a traditional way, many online commentators have questioned her worthiness. The hand-wringing and outright hate surrounding this woman exemplify the problem of deserving.

A sweet house. Who deserves this dessert? (Photo by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar)

Why is a person who has overcome a series of personal hardships and carved out her own path to housing less deserving than a person who obtains a mortgage any other way? Why does this particular story grate against commonly held notions of deserving?

Perhaps it is because deserving is a delusion which is irrelevant at best and maddening at worst.

While it’s a pleasure to see friends enjoying the fruits of their labor and courage, I have come to see the whole idea of deserving as a source of misery. I congratulate my friends and even myself for our successes. Still I hesitate to say, “You deserve it.” or “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer gal.” Because it could have happened to a nicer gal, or a smarter guy, or a more industrious person.  Or it could have happened to some jerk. That truth is hard to face.

Deserving appears to shield us from the random winds of an uncaring universe. But like many shields, it is also a blinder. It obscures the fact that bad things happen to hard-working people and that sometimes we just get lucky.

Luck does favor the prepared. Persistent effort tends to pay off. That’s why we don’t need to believe that people deserve the benefits of their hard-won skills in order to foster a healthy work ethic. Instead, it’s better to point out that work and resilience improve the odds of success and to leave questions of worthiness aside.

When our talent goes unnoticed and sweat is followed by pain and failure, we may wonder if we deserve the bad times. For there is no deserving without undeserving. Usually, other people are undeserving while we are unlucky. We shake our fist at heaven for giving us a raw deal, or steel ourselves by singing “You just haven’t earned it yet, baby” as we suffer and cry for a long, long time. But how long will you suffer before you see yourself as one of the undeserving losers? How long before you start hating others who appear to get all the goodies for nothing? To avoid the pits of despair and bitterness, it’s best to forget about deserving and undeserving.

You deserve a break.

Deserving makes overindulgence easier to justify. The creative team who came up with the fast food slogan “You deserve a break today” understood our desire to even out life’s balance sheet of deserving by stuffing our faces.  Too much of these rewards turn out to be a punishment to your body. Your bank account can take a hit, too, if you compensate for misfortune with retail therapy. Deserving interferes with our ability to care for ourselves as it dampens our compassion  for others.

Too often, our ideas about worthiness are rooted in biases that have nothing to do with meaningful achievement. For instance, a squatter doesn’t deserve to become a homeowner because she occupied a house without first complying with the rules of property. The work she put into improving the house, her employment, and her generosity to others like her should not be rewarded because they happened outside the proper channels.  Meanwhile, if someone else obtains a house through inheritance or a  home ownership incentive program, their worthiness comes under less scrutiny–in part because their situations are less visible, but also because they are more conventional.

Which homeowner is more deserving: a former squatter who attempts to use online funding websites to finance her housing, an heiress whose parents or grandparents left her a house or enough money for a down payment, or someone who knows how to work the system of state and private institutions to get a mortgage? Before you answer that question, ask yourself if the answer really matters.