Other people’s problems

2016-06-18 17.58.50
Who lives here? (Please enjoy this tenuous connection.)

For many years, my favourite place on the internet was the Guardian Experience column. Each week I looked forward to reading about whichever unlikely scenario had taken place. The column’s subjects were mostly affably bonkers, on just this side of comfortable.

It stands to reason that the well of weird would eventually run dry. Recent installments, such as ‘I own a haunted pub’ don’t have quite the titillating allure of ‘I inject myself with snake venom’.

Recently, I’ve found the page I pull up in any spare three minutes is Dear Prudence. Slate’s advice column has been running for more than twenty years, with various ‘Prudies’ wielding the pen.

I never expected to be a person who reads advice columns, but I’ve been devouring them. Gulping down Prudie’s back catalogue as though it were made of sugar. Staying up until the small hours scrolling through page after page of ‘I want to leave my husband for my gay best friend’.

What is it about other people’s lives that draws us? Is it that we want to learn from the mistakes of others, that we think we can apply their solutions or the advice given to them to our own problems? Or is it simply voyeurism, that each of us is secretly an emotional peeping tom? `

Part of what I love about Dear Prudence, Care and Feeding, or the deepest darkest recesses of Just No MIL is the human connection. There’s so much written about the death of community thanks to our online lives. There’s something fundamentally flawed about that argument.

On a radio programme last week a presenter asked a member of the public what he thought of Corbyn’s ambitious free broadband plan. “I think we need to turn off the internet for an hour in the evening. Nobody speaks to each other anymore,” said the man, speaking to a stranger on a Thursday morning.

The internet can be a bad place, but it can also be a force for good. Forums like Reddit have given people on different sides of the world the ability to connect with others who are going through the same thing, having the same experiences. It can also foster healing, knowing that others have managed to find a way out of the same torment.

Probably, though, the reason I love the slice-of-life peeks into other people’s lives, is because it is the ultimate low-stakes way to get involved without, you know, actually getting involved.

There’s only so much energy it is possible to give another person, no matter how much you like them. There are big, big problems in this world, and there are small problems that feel big, and there’s only so much you can listen without feeling drained.

And let’s face it, there’s a certain amount of fun that goes into these online columns, too. Nicole Cliffe, of Care and Feeding, states of advice: “I try to keep the LW’s needs at the top, bc this person has come to me in vulnerability to ask. And then it’s also about entertainment, and it’s about education.

I would be lying if I didn’t say I get a certain amount of joy from reading about the welder who caught all three stages of plague from his cat, or the man with ten children who fought off a bear. That these people exist on this earth alongside £80K earners whining about being taxed an extra £21 a month is incredible.

In one fell swoop it puts our own problems (Brexit, underemployment, rain) into perspective and allows us brief escape into another life. Suddenly, the baby refusing naps isn’t a big deal.