Pain-Envy and Other Afflictions of the Fauxletariat
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.
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.
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.