The Powers of Commiseration Lead to Change Only if We're Careful
An 18-count carton of eggs used to be anywhere from $2 to $4 at my local grocery store. As eggs are a breakfast staple for us, a household joke during the pandemic was the waxing and waning of the price of eggs. It felt like we were doing better when egg prices began to creep back down to 5 bucks from the previous week's new outrageous price of $7.99.
Today's trip showed $9.59. I took a picture of it and sent it to my husband. His reply is not fit to print.
An older lady watched me stare at the eggs. "They're high, aren't they?" she said with a bemused yet resigned tone. I laughed in a short, brittle way that meant both agreement and dismay. But it was a moment of connection that took the edge off. It wouldn't change the price of the eggs, but I wasn't alone.
It reminded me of how solidarity can be comforting. About a week before the pandemic shut down everything in March 2020, I went shopping with my mom at a bulk grocery store. I started loading bags of beans, rice and flour and canned tomatoes. She ribbed me about my disaster-level prep, but I remember passing an older gentleman. We each scanned the other's cart, filled with items that spelled preparation instead of routine, and looked straight into each other's eyes for a moment longer than would be ordinarily polite. It was a shared worry, and again, I felt less alone.
A study by Vanessa Pouthier, "Griping and Joking as Identification Rituals and Tools for Engagement in Cross-Boundary Team Meetings," looked at a team responsible for palliative care and oncology patients and noted how commiseration helped them process the emotions of their jobs.
Commiserating and co-rumination — where you discuss and dwell on a problem — can feel relieving, and it also opens up an opportunity to bring in ideas for solutions and new ways to look at what we consider normal.
Online communities expose commiseration on a global scale, especially when others from other parts of the world tend to leave comments on things we find normal. Plenty of times, the top comment on discussions becomes, "America: you good?"
Spoiler: We are not good.
A thread on medical bills for a regular pregnancy — sometimes in the tens of thousands of dollars, even for straightforward births with "good" insurance — leads to comments by foreigners who find our system unfathomable. Then they like to stick it to us by mentioning that their only bill for pregnancy was the parking lot — and that they got paid maternity leave.
As a connected world chugs along, more people in America will look to see that their problems have solutions in other parts of the world that are not even considered or proposed at levels of functional change here. New knowledge gained from that type of commiseration might lead to asking questions and fostering change, but it may also lead straight into an echo chamber.
A video online showed seesaws installed for students at the University of Arizona. It showed giggling young adults on lit-up seesaws while a voiceover explained that they were placed there to stem suicide during finals. The video cuts to a person sitting in their car screaming, "We don't want seesaws; we want health care."
Except the video was misinformation; the seesaws were a traveling art installation.
Commiseration can start with personal and societal illumination when we each realize we're not alone. That it's not just you, and it's not just us; it's the system. But while social cohesion might make us feel better, we should take our sharing of misery and lean into ruminating on real-world solutions and double check our sources.
Cassie McClure is a writer, millennial, and unapologetic fan of the Oxford comma. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.