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Therapy for Creatives, Part 13: 'Broadcast Suffering'

Updated: Sep 29, 2021

Social media is the modern canvas writ large; on it one can find the full range of human opinion and expression from the terrifying to the sublime with sprinklings of the transcendent. One of my favorite writers publishing today is Maria Popova, who has a weekly blog called brainpickings. Popova's ability to connect and condense complex information in a compelling novel way is astonishing. Highest recommendation.

In one of her latest essays, Popova unpacks how roman emperor Markus Aurelius turned the suffering of his early life to his advantage by keeping a journal of how he could find benefits in negative experiences. Popova uses the very private diary of the emperor’s stoic success as a lens to view the complex nature of suffering. She contrasts Aurelius' journal with “…a peculiar modern phenomenon that might best be described as a culture of competitive trauma.” She names this phenomenon "broadcast suffering," which she describes as a need for our suffering to be recognized and validated. Social media posts provide the ideal venue to publicly proclaim our suffering (complete with pictures, music, and video) in hopes of receiving sympathy or being understood.

No longer is it necessary to speak of one’s maladies through inference, metaphors, and polite minimization. Instead, we are becoming accustomed to full-frontal exposure to physical, medical, psychological, and behavioral trauma, mainlined directly into ears and eyeballs via social media.

The utility of the trauma-share is mixed. It can convey updates to close friends and family in almost real-time. Still, it can also deliver messaging contrived to elicit sympathy at best, or at worst, a source of secondary trauma for those who are sensitive or unwittingly exposed.

As an intimately interconnected species, we are just now learning the implications of living our lives in public. While cautionary tales abound, we don't know if the trend towards broadcast suffering is a phase or a permanent manner of communication. Performative creatives have always used points of drama in stories, plays, songs, and visual art. But there was an implied awareness of the context, venue, and audience. In the case of broadcast suffering, the tools for creating these messages have been democratized and may become more dangerous.

I'm uncertain whether to sound the alarm over this behavior or be patient and hope for more equanimity in social media posts. Hopefully, we will find ways of tempering the siren song of mass validation.

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