“Coughs and sneezes spread diseases,” a famous British public health campaign.
As I wandered through the painkillers aisle, sniffling and throwing decongestants and tinctures into my basket, I thought that one of the annoying things about the common cold is the knowledge that it’s so benign. A harried-looking dad was bending over the babies’ section, staring at a bulb syringe and trying ineffectually to calm the miserable toddler in the red UPPAbaby. The little boy was howling. And why not? What had he done to find himself visited by a raw, red nose, troubled sleep, and a series of aches and pains? So far as he was concerned, this was the end of the world: nothing in this moment could have been worse.
And the truth is, when you feel sick, it’s a small comfort to know you’ll be better within a week and what’s happening to you isn’t, in fact, serious. There’s none of the anxiety of a real medical problem, but then it’s in a different category entirely: it’s the very knowledge of its toothlessness—paired with its unpleasantness—that renders it irritating.
What else in the world is like this? I tried on various feelings and memories as I walked home, and then it came to me: Internet meanness. Being trolled by someone on the Internet is one of the few things that feels like a common cold. It happens, it’s ubiquitous, you know that you can’t give into it—and it’s none the more pleasant for that. Those things which are all about one’s toughness—that really only differ in how you stand up to them—are a particular sort of exhausting.
Like a cold, there’s no “good” trolling—only degrees of badness, and various capacities to cope and palliate. You can strengthen your immunities, as it were, but putting yourself into the world means exposure.
There are, of course, degrees of awfulness—check out Lindy West’s recent turn on This American Life to hear an extreme recent example—and it’s an inexact and stupid comparison. It becomes very tempting to say something really hackneyed: that both are easier to bear when you hold your head up. But I’d be lying; I ignore these sorts of things to the greatest extent possible, brood when I can’t, and turn off comments. It’s been a while since I cried about such things, and for the first time this week, I read an insult from a stranger and didn’t take it to heart. It only took ten years. And someone calling me “a goblin fart,” of course.
I know I’m belaboring it, but I do think there’s something there. The human body’s a remarkable thing, but after millennia, we still get colds. Maybe we always will. And no one should ever grow inured to cruelty and pain; we are not built for it. Babies haven’t learned much perspective, but that doesn’t mean that, strictly speaking, they’re wrong.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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