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Pain-Envy and Other Afflictions of the Fauxletariat

January 21, 2014

femme fatale
Bedriska, my grandmother, was an elegant, aristocratic Ilsa Lund type who was the kind of woman a man would do anything for. The kind of woman who would’ve made him do it, too.

My mother, Jirina, or Georgie as she calls herself in America, is gorgeous and vivacious. She is a Bond girl with a thick accent and a touching sweetness. A woman with a spine of steel and a broken heart. James Bond would’ve loved her – but like all the women he loves, she is a tragic heroine. If she and James had ever crossed paths she would’ve ended up being fed to sharks by a villain with an even thicker accent then hers, or would’ve at least faced a tearful goodbye with her handsome spy, who couldn’t bear to be with her for risk of putting her in harms way.

These are the women of my family. They have fled across armed borders, hidden Jews, learned they were Jews, had guns held to their heads, have known how to double-cross and have known how to cross their legs to get you to notice.

So, it’s no surprise that I grew up with a touch of pain-envy.

The three-hanky movie played on at home while I went to Catholic school, staring out the window and dreaming about spies and adventure. To my family’s credit, they were far more interesting than any of the subjects in school, or even most of my friends for that matter.

And I was left recounting my family stories to my friends. It seemed important somehow.

At what we called “the swamp” – an empty church parking lot and hang-out for pre-driving rebels – I had a captive audience. A lot of my friends were punk rock wannabes who drew “tattoos” on their arms with red Sharpies and had no interest in realpolitik. But despite the Lucky Stripe cigarettes that dangled from their black lipstick-painted mouths, their defiant poses, and self-styled Mohawks, these were good kids who didn’t want to hurt my feelings.

They knew our family had seen rough times even if I hadn’t. street voodoo

As I grew up, my family’s experiences began to have a profound effect on the way I viewed my own life. When faced with the onset of middle school politics, I couldn’t help but think of what my mother’s seventh grade experience was like. There is something about the onset of 6th and 7th grade that turns sweet, if precocious young girls into monsters. Mean girls would taunt and torture me and I would retaliate in kind, hating them and myself during the process.

My pity parties, however, were always busted up by the knowledge that when my mother was twelve, the mean girls she contended with could’ve had her or her remaining family members arrested if she misspoke, and were egged on by her very own teacher, who openly called my mom the daughter of capitalist pigs. Pigs who loved the prospect of money in America more than the dream of building a socialist utopia in the Eastern Block. More than they loved her. Never mind that my grandparents didn’t leave their home country willingly. If they’d stayed, they would’ve been thrown in prison on trumped up charges.

Don’t get me wrong, my mother was never one of those mothers who told stories of her hard luck childhood in order to shame me or make me grateful for what I had. Maybe that’s why her stories were so effective. She told them out of pain and anger – when she told them at all – and in the process put a damper on my teen angst.

As time went on, she also unwittingly helped me shed any left-over traces of the pain-envy I’d experienced in my early teens. So much so that I grew to have a particular distaste for that affliction, even if I understood it all too well. Pain-envy breeds a sense of moral superiority within its sufferers, often accompanied by at least a trace of hypocrisy, and an uncontrollable desire to make the afflicted the hero in his own story – even at the cost of the truth.

I’ve seen it present in large portions of the populace – in places like San Francisco when we lived there. The fauxletariat – my husband actually coined that term – would walk around in their shabby clothes and $300 hiking boots aching for the hardship of a third world garment factory worker. Sure, they wanted to make the workers’ lives better, and that’s a great thing, but it was more than that. They coveted the depth they believed people who have suffered – really suffered – accrue.


And there is some truth in that.

Except for the pesky fact that for every person who has experienced pain with a capital P and becomes more sage, kinder, almost glowing in their life force, there is someone who, although also having been visited with agony, remains petty, mean-spirited, foolish, even downright silly.

We have plenty of both kinds in my family.

So, I leave pain-envy for the fauxletariat. The people with mostly intact (or intact-ish) families who didn’t grow up with moms obsessed by curses and “Red brain-washing.” Their moms, like the moms of my friends, worried about whether they wore helmets, if music needed a warning label on it for violence and sexual content, vitamin B-12. All good things – I’m not knocking them. I shopped for two weeks to find the best skateboarding helmet for my 9 year-old daughter.

Even if I know it’s mostly emotional busy work that gives me a mostly false sense of security.

But I indulge in myself all the fixations of a happy wife and mother just like my friend’s moms did. It is a privilege to have such small things to worry about. I know I will be lucky if my kids grow up only to envy pain.

green-eyed monster

But I do want to give them some balance – the kind I was fortunate enough to have.

I make sure to tell my children the stories I heard around my dinner table. I want them to feel close to those experiences and understand them deeply. I don’t want them to feel far away, the way the plight of an un-free Tibet feels to an earnest college student. I want those stories to engender a sense of curiosity in my children that stretches beyond borders and partisan political beliefs.

It was, after all, my own family stories that made me sign up for the Greece and Turkey program in college and go backpacking through Europe, even if I couldn’t really afford it. They were what inspired me to sell my car and move to Prague for 3 ½ years, start my own business, and ultimately decide I wanted to be a fiction writer – as if there weren’t enough of those in the world.

Those stories and the experiences they inspired in my own life showed me that pain wasn’t something to envy and romanticize. It’s an important building block of emotional and spiritual growth and I wouldn’t trade mine, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that as much as I once envied the clarity and simplicity of the problems my grandmother and my mother had faced – the bad guy with a gun, the dictator/homicidal maniac who is intent on silencing every dissident voice and trampling over every right a citizen of any functioning democracy takes for granted – I don’t want those problems – no matter how good a mind-movie they make.

I just want to write about them.

noir writer

From → family

  1. Great stuff, Vic! As good as it gets!

  2. Thanks, Billy Ray – you da best 🙂

  3. /And Billy Ray, I loved your An Uneasy Mind post. Beautifully written and real.

  4. I saw this post first thing this morning, before starting work. Been thinking about it ever since. There was a long time when I too thought that the “clarity and simplicity” of certain kinds of pain were enviable if for no other reason than the responses seemed to be equally clear and simple. They never were. I’m enjoying catching up on all your writing here and looking forward to more.

  5. Thanks so much, Betsy.

  6. What an awesome expression!! Wow!

  7. Wow, you put a word to something I always felt to some degree going up.
    My mother, and my whole extended family, were Cuban refugees during the Revolution. They always had these stories and I think I really did feel pain envy.
    Very eye opening post 🙂

  8. I am new to wordpress and to be honest I am glad this is the first post I read. It is very well written and it made me think. You write the things some of us only dream of having the ability to say out loud.

  9. Reblogged this on From Edens Garden and commented:
    What an insightful post to come across at the beginning of my blogging journey.

  10. Great blog…love the photos too!

  11. Comparing pain only seems necessary to those who believe in suffering as currency. When did we start giving out points for hardship and withholding them for happiness and ease? Ironic, considering happiness and ease always seem to be goals of the ones pointing to their high-scoring scars. You can’t condemn your goal without dooming yourself to failure. Example: bad mouthing “the rich” while complaining about not having enough money. It boggles the mind.

  12. orthodoxchristian2 permalink

    Great post. This is quality writing at it’s finest!

  13. This is wonderfully written! Thank you for sharing it.

  14. Awesome. I loved every word …

  15. Interesting photo to describe your article.

  16. Mike permalink

    Wonderful read.

    I worry, frankly, that most don’t know enough to feel envy anymore.

    For example, an article I read some years ago explored the character “June Cleaver,” explaining the shocking deprivations experienced by an average girl (and boy, for that matter) born in the US in the later half of the 1920’s. The life provided to Wally and the Beaver when the show first aired in 1957 would have been a “Buck Rogers” fantasy for both Ward and June just ten years earlier.

    My sense is she didn’t want to talk about what she and her extended family went through either, opting instead to give her children another scoop of ice cream.

    Shocking the children of June Cleaver so universally turned on her basically ten years later, mocking every facet of her being. Envy would make more sense; understanding, respect, and quiet admiration more appropriate.

    • Well put and thank you for reading. I think the pain of WWII was such that many parents of that generation wanted to shield their children from it/shield themselves and never look back. You’re right, we do so at our peril.

  17. I read your post, and then read it again. Beautifully written, rang so true … and I love the word Fauxletariat.

  18. An excellent post – good choice for Freshly Pressed!
    The ironic part of this is that very often, the people dealing with the actual pain are able to rise above it and their spirits seem to be free and even fiercely clinging to joy, whereas the fauxletariat walk about in their $300 hiking boots with long faces trying to reflect the pathos of the world.
    I saw this starkly in the Nairobi slums of Kibera — the local people were tenaciously happy, the visitors morose.
    Very well thought-out and beautifully written. I feel sorry for the new blogger above who read your post as her first! Nowhere to go but down. Congrats.

  19. Hello. I just ended up with your post. Actually I started doing this website about 20minutes ago and this post was the first post i saw. I’m not that good at English enough to understand the whole story but at least I know that this is a good writing. It inspired me

  20. This piece is incredible. I really enjoyed the flow and how engaging the content was.

  21. Very well written. I think only in our North American society could we have such a word (good word). We have become so spoiled that we do not even realize how spoiled we are.

  22. Great thoughts! I really like how you use stories as a medium to hold on to and make real the journey of your family, but in a way that avoids the “pain-envy” trap. A great lesson for us all about the importance of story-telling.

  23. People who romanticize suffering are probably similar to those who romanticize poverty– they’ve never really been there.

    Excellent post.

  24. Makes you think!

  25. I’m not sure what you’d call what I have. something like no pain guilt. My children tease me that I find THE saddest books to read. I keep feeling it’s my duty to understand others pain and the least I can do is read about it. I sometimes paralyze myself with empathy.
    Trying to be kinder to myself as I’ve actually suffered, but bad mother relationship pain is a luxury compared to the pain out there. I figure the best I can do is stay grateful and kind.

  26. This made me think of my own grandmother – never wanting to burden us with details of what her family experienced in the Ukraine. Part of me was grateful , but part of me always longed for more, maybe as some kind of connection. But I’ve learned, in her own wisdom, she knew I would have my own pain to deal with…replacing the “emotional busywork”. Loved this…

  27. saramcknight permalink

    Telling your children the Truth about the world, and making sure they don’t grow up naive is highly important.

    Fauxletariat is an excellent world by the way.

  28. I really enjoyed reading your post… Pain envy, in my experience, can occur as a result of many different self-deprecating dispositions &/ awareness of different types of privilege &/ emotional, physical, sexual, psychological abuse or manipulation… I’m not saying that you went through any of those things, but it’s an extremely interesting topic. Especially if one tends toward a psychoanalytic lens on life. I look forward to reading more from you!

  29. A really thoughtful piece, Victoria. I like the term fauxleteriat! I find that these days there seems to be a growing number of these people occupying local and higher government as well, which leads to the unfortunate situation where “we” the public are being manipulated into pain-envy by proxy, handed down from ivory towers… encouraged to consume in order to keep the economy and therefore a way of life intact and at the same time made to feel bad about it because we’re in such a good place compared to those poor [insert generic “other” state or peoples].

  30. Trying to sift through my thoughts here and be remotely coherent, so bear with me. Thought-provoking piece. My husband and I lament our children’s lack of world experience (while acknowledging that we live in a pretty cushy area) – perhaps what we need to do is tell stories of our childhoods. Not to shame or guilt, but to share. Thanks, Vic!

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  32. Wow, a wonderful post, thank you so much for sharing. As a new blogger, I’m inspired by your words.

  33. Reblogged this on Musings, Meanderings and Madness and commented:
    I ran into this today and really enjoyed it. I hope you do too…

  34. The concept of pain-envy rings true to me. On some subconscious level my mind attributes a positive correlation between suffering and wisdom. As a result I almost desire pain because of the consequence (side effect?) of wisdom.

  35. your inner expression, you shared it and everybody would like you…

  36. sr41297 permalink

    extremely it is miracle truth. life is full of pain, worries and unwanted happenings as per mind and fate also; which can experienced us for positive structure of our present

  37. Reblogged this on aliclassifieds.

  38. aqilaqamar permalink

    Reblogged this on Iconography ♠ Incomplete and commented:
    Your family may say a lot about you

  39. what an amazing piece of writing

  40. fakhbros permalink

    Reblogged this on Kilwa.

  41. Fauxletariat Love it! Your writing is beautiful and the subject so true. So many times I hear people almost trying to outdo the pain and difficulty of someone else and it’s a terrible thing to see and hear. I also agree that people choose to either turn the suffering into something good or revel in it which is a total waste of a life and every life that is connected to it.

  42. Great post!

  43. Reblogged this on inscape.

  44. How do I register for the articles you write??

    • Thanks for inquiring, Selma – just follow my blog. You can click follow on the top left or on your right, beneath the link to my book 😉 and the Facebook “like” box is a follow button that will prompt you to enter your email. You can then have my posts delivered to your email account when they come out.

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