Collective Misery is the Prescription for Failure

About a year ago, I was going through a pretty rough time in my life. Having barely survived Recovery Summer, the once thriving company that had employed me for 15 years was about to go out of business. Twelve hour work days and substantial pay-cuts weren’t enough to keep us above water. The job market was awful and I was receiving few callbacks on my resume. Two evenings a week, I’d find myself across town, wrapped up in the two to three hour process of donating my blood plasma to earn some extra money. When I’d get home, often after my kids were already in bed, I’d sit in front of my laptop and put sports merchandise up for bid on eBay. I knew unemployment was right around the corner and I wanted to put myself in the best possible financial position to support my family during that time.

A few weeks later, the company did go under and I was out of a job. It was scary. I felt like I had the weight of the world (my world, anyway) pressing down on my shoulders. Friends and family offered their best wishes and words of encouragement.

Someone close to me sent me a well-meaning email during that time. In it, he wrote, “If it’s any consolation, there’s A LOT of people out there who are going through the same thing.” I remember reading those words with a scowl on my face and thinking, Is he serious? How could that possibly make me feel any better? A few days later, someone else made almost the exact same remark to me. Once again, I found the statement puzzling. Why would I take comfort in the knowledge that many others were going through the same hardships that I was? Why would I find that even remotely satisfying? I’d much rather have everyone else be doing just fine. I’d much rather be the exception than the rule.

I suppose it’s a statement on our culture – that collective suffering is supposed to somehow make us feel better about ourselves. It’s no wonder that we’ve become so dependent as a nation. When enough people are handed defeats, defeatism becomes acceptable, even an inevitability… and we look to others to save us.

We see this brand of group-think in the Occupy protesters. We hear it in their messaging – “We are the 99%”. The collective nature of their grievances substantiates (in their minds) the notion that they’re victims, and that those who aren’t (the wealthy) are to blame. Thus, the rich owe something to the less fortunate.

This is certainly the mindset the Obama administration is counting on in hopes of winning a second term. You see it in their relentless pursuit of the class warfare strategy that ironically can only be successful if the economy remains weak, jobs remain sparse, and people remain resentful of those who are succeeding. In that sense, it seems the administration has given up on things getting better as well.

This viewpoint is exactly why our country has become “soft” as President Obama puts it. It’s not because we’ve run out of ideas or lost the capacity to innovate. It’s because we’ve been conditioned to sell ourselves short, and have been coaxed into believing that our fate is largely in the hands of others.

Unfortunately, the longer this goes on and the more dependent people become, the harder it is to convince them that the power of the individual is the key to prosperity in this country. Wealthy people have achieved their success by rising above collectivism and apathy. They’ve carved out their own niche, innovated, worked hard, taken risks, and achieved self-reliance. These are the people we should be supporting as a society, because with their success comes opportunity for the rest of us.

And opportunity is a key term that has been missing from the national debate. We hear a lot of promises about forecasts and outcomes because people want to hear the bottom line and be comforted, but opportunity is not about guaranteed outcomes. It’s about setting an environment for success and leaving it up to individuals to seize the moment and advance themselves.

But misery loves company. At least that’s the message of the Obama administration. By dividing us into groups based on our income brackets and stoking the envy of those on the low end of the scale, they’re emboldening collective anguish instead of emboldening individualism. And they’re only doing it because they believe it to be a smart campaign strategy, not because they believe it’s good for the nation.

People like to be empathized with. Maybe it’s human nature. But once we’ve bought into the notion that collective misfortune is a foregone conclusion without dependence on others, we’ve truly lost the American spirit of individualism that has historically been the catalyst for success in this great country. And the faster we discard those who try to sell us on the merits of dependence, the better.

Author Bio:

John Daly couldn't have cared less about world events and politics until the horrific 9/11 terrorist attacks changed his perspective. Since then, he's been deeply engaged in the news of the day with a particular interest in how that news is presented. Realizing the importance of the media in a free, democratic society, John has long felt compelled to identify media injustices when he sees them. With a B.S. in Business Administration, and a 16 year background in software and web development, John has found that his real passion is for writing. His first novel, entitled "From a Dead Sleep", is now on sale! He lives in Northern Colorado with his wife and two children. Like John on Facebook. Follow John on Twitter.
Author website: http://www.johndalybooks.com/
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  • Paul Courtney

    John: Instead of letting nostrums from nice folks bring you down, you should have listened to that great economist, Nancy Pelosi, when she explained that each of those unemployment dollars (I assume) you received turned into $1.50, lifting all boats! Bet that would have made you feel so much better.

  • Brad

    Well I think you may be overreacting to what is really just empathy on the part of your friend. I know that when my business suffers, I suffer; if I have someone in business who says to me, ‘hey, my business is slow to, so you aren’t alone; but things should improve, so hang in there.’, it makes me feel more understood and better as a consequence. Maybe being down doesn’t affect your self esteem any, but for most people not working or losing business is a blow to their self esteem — you have been rejected in an area that is vitally important to you. I guess if you have John Galt, you may not react negatively because you are a Rand hero, and they don’t react that way. I could pretend I am one, but it wouldn’t really do me much good. Its a bit too easy to pretend that we are all exceedingly strong and above the low moments that affect lower mortals. But when someone has empathy for your situation, most human beings feel better for it, and it hardly makes them spiritual budies with the occupiers.

    • John Daly

      I think you may have misunderstood my point. I understand that my friends were just trying to be kind. They’re good people. And no, I don’t equate them with the Occupiers.

      I was just examining the mindset of how we’re supposed to take comfort in the idea that others are suffering along with us. I find it to be fascinating element of our culture.

      A support group is one thing because it is designed to encourage the individual to rebound.

      Collective misery, like with the Occupiers, is something different. It essentially legitimizes victimization and under-achievement, which leads to dependence on government.

      • Wayno

        Exactly! Get up and go work hard and you move up. These people revel in their misery and it becomes cult like.

  • Iklwa

    I can just envision it now:

    The Titanic has sunk, the life boats can be seen on the horizon but aren’t coming to the rescue and one freezing passenger in a life preserver turns to another poor fellow bobbing in the water and says, ”If it makes you feel any better, there are a lot of other folks …”

    I have never gleaned any comfort from a loved one of mine making a comment like that. The rational has always escaped me.
    Don’t hand me a limp platitude when I need a strong hand to help me into the boat!

    If I get into the boat, I’ll row with the best of them.

  • Drew Page

    My parents grew up during the Depression. I grew up being taught the value of a nickle, a job and an education. I was cautioned not to trust the government, the stockmarket, the banks and anyone trying to sell something. It was impressed on me that the only one I could trust to help me, was me. Every evening after school, I had to go over my homework with my parents. Poor grades were not tolerated and received swift retribution. When I complained about the freedom other kids had to play sports and get part-time jobs, my father would ask “Do you think that football is going to feed you and put a roof over your head when you are out of school?” “You take a job as a stock boy in stead of doing homework, you’ll be one for the rest of your life.” When I protested that “it wasn’t fair”, I got the standard “life isn’t fair” response. When I complained that I wanted such-and-such, my father would say “people in hell want ice water – and they don’t get it either”.

    I discovered that my parents, while not Harvard economists (or even high school grads) were economic geniuses. Their advice and counsel have served me well all of my life. When I look around today at all the unemployed people I think back on the kids I knew who screwed around in school, never studied and were ‘party hardy’ people, I know that my folks were right.

  • therealguyfaux

    “If it’s any consolation, John…” reinforces the crab bucket mentality of a lot of those to whom that well-meaning phrase is used. While that statement is meant to convey the thought that you’re not the first person this has happened to and you won’t be the last, so don’t kick yourself, it does carry with it the somewhat reverse-schadenfreude idea that if I can’t be happy then others should be equally miserable, lest anyone gloat. It was said by George Bernard Shaw, a socialist to be sure but not a false statement despite that fact, that any government which robs the Peters to pay the Pauls will always have the undying support of the Pauls. Since the 1930′s and accelerating in the 1960′s, our society has been rewarding the Shavian Pauls simply in virtue of being the Pauls and set up the perverse incentive of aspiring to a Paulian status so as to collect a reward of some kind. Of course, the Democrats have brought this to a fine art, the better to achieve electoral success. What is it Dr. Philip McGraw says on his TV show– “Insanity is doing the same harmful things over and over again, expecting different results this time”– we continue to participate in the rigged game that is the current system, expecting something different. Ayn Rand’s dictum about never giving your oppressors any positive sanction is ringing more and more true everyday– Atlas had better shrug, and quickly; then we’ll see who’s going to pay when we all stop producing, and tell the system we’d like to be Pauls too. Maybe then things MIGHT change.

  • Wendell Fountain

    Daly is quite right about collective misery. The fact that we are all sinking in the same ship of state together doesn’t give me any “hope or change.”

  • Glen Stambaugh

    Well done, Mr. Daly!

    • John Daly

      Thanks!

    • Henry

      Yes…well done indeed!

  • steve petrick

    Great insight!

    • John Daly

      Thank you.

  • Fred Pasek

    Daly’s right. I don’t know if he’s ever read Atlas Shrugged, but the surrender of those those who march in the streets and cry that the government and corporations don’t give them enough is palpable. They’re full of self-pity and don’t have a competetive bone in their bodies. They see life as a competition against successful people for a fixed amout of money that’s available instead of seeing life as a competition against ones own potential. The only way they think they can thrive is if some bully like our government takes from those they can’t compete with, the wealthy. Too hard for them to work your way up through McDonalds to become manager, or a franchise owner, or to start your own business. There’s a special kind of loathing I hold for people who surrender their lives like that. Get up off your ass, get a job, fight. Fight. Fight. Nobody’s gonna live your life for you. Fight like hell.

    • John Daly

      I’ve never read Atlas Shrugged, but I saw the movie and agree with the points of the story.

      • David W. Hunter

        Mr. Daly,
        Atlas Shrugged is a very long, sometimes long winded read. However, many of it’s ideas are brilliant. It is one of the most inspiring books I have ever read.

        Thanks for your excellent post.

  • Phil E.

    “Misery loves company” is the applicable aphorism here; “Group Hug” is the prescriptive “modern” remedy. We are all conditioned to feel a bit better about bad things when we receive some sort of comforting gesture of acceptance, of understanding, of collective sharing of what would otherwise be individually-directed pain.

    But Daly is right: Group Hugs don’t bring home any bacon; they don’t butter any bread; they don’t fix leaky faucets, mend fences, or pay for vacations to Aruba. Those things require actual EFFORT. Focused ENERGY. You know: WORK. And that’s why good parents will pick their kids up from a fall, give them a hug, say, “I know it hurts, Honey, but it’ll pass, now get back out there and try it again!”

    But there’s a time for hugs, and a time for just focusing on message.

    What the Occupiers on Wall Street and Wherever Street and particularly in Oakland and Greece need is for their Daddies to pick them up, give them a swift kick in the butt and say, “I don’t care if it hurts, get back out there and try it again!”