Feeling Bad When Good Things Happen During Crises
The best of times and the worst of times.
Posted February 8, 2021
Holding Our Breath
During the multiple global crises marked perhaps most notably by the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the focus has rightfully been on our shared problems and potential solutions. I recall the beginning of the pandemic when we all wondered how soon we would “get back to normal.” I’ve since set that idea aside, realizing that a return to yesterday is never possible. Rather than a return to the past, the hope is for a brighter future: one whose wisdom is founded in a deep understanding of what we’ve been through together.
As the pandemic began in mid-March of 2020, my co-author Cynthia Vinney and I rather quietly published a book, Finding Truth in Fiction (Shackleford & Vinney, 2020). This book is the culmination of years of hard but joyful labor. It describes our human affinity for shared stories, like film and television franchises, and how they help us discover realities and perspectives about life, the universe, and everything. It is a research-based book, including the review of a number of scientific studies that Cynthia and I had also dedicated hard work and enthusiasm to completing.
When you publish a book that is as meaningful to you as this one was to Cynthia and me, it is a moment of joy. It’s like the feeling a runner who’s been waking up at dawn to improve her performance finally has the day when she runs through the tape and completes the race.
Only this time, it really wasn’t. Having a book hit the press in March of 2020 was actually a surreal experience. I found myself caught in a conundrum.
This baby that Cynthia and I had labored over and birthed came into the world during a period of intense emotional turmoil. It feels strange to blow your party horns and show everyone your baby under those conditions. So, we really did not.
I'm Starting to Think This Is Not a Coincidence
In January of 2021, I published another book that I was incredibly excited about. This one, called Real Characters , brought together some of the greatest scholars and practitioners who understand the power of story characters in our journey to understand the shared human experience.
Just about the time that the book was making its way into the world, another major life event took place: the insurrection at the Capitol. Again, life seemed surreal and terrorizing. Party hats and baby announcements were again out of place.
I started to think that maybe I should stop publishing books as it apparently leads to national and world disasters.
Are You Feeling Bad When Things Go Well?
And though my story has its own particulars, I bet I’m not the only one who has struggled with understanding how to experience the best of times and the worst of times simultaneously. We tend to apologize for even noticing the silver linings of our difficulties. I have heard many an interview in which the subject blushes to say that they are not trying to say that the global crises are good, but just that also some good things do happen.
In my particular case, I find that most people think that if you publish a book, you are making a lot of money. Also, that you want to sell copies of your book to line your already-overflowing vault. Sadly, most academics who write books are making peanuts, and the sale of some copies means almost nothing to them in terms of money. We get paid mostly in the joy of spreading our ideas.
I’m a researcher and not a therapist. But the situation brings to mind part of the idea, as I understand it, behind survivor's guilt.
When we see loss and trauma, we can be thrown into a space where thriving seems almost to insult the suffering. As therapists have been helping survivors understand, that’s not the true reality of the situation. Your survival and your thriving are good things. They do not take away from those who suffer. We all suffer. One of the things that sustains us through suffering is the hope of a healthy, enjoyable, and productive future.
Permission to Celebrate
My mission is essentially to help people who are not psychologists understand psychology for their own benefit. I always hope my books do that. I’m taking a moment to honor the hard work and passion that goes into it and to take joy in the fruits of my labor. I hope that if you have struggled with this “best of times, worst of times” feeling in your own life, you will allow yourself to appreciate your own contributions and fully experience the joy that comes from them.
Dill-Shackleford, K. E., & Vinney, C. (2020). Finding Truth in Fiction: What Fan Culture Gets Right - and Why it's Good to Get Lost in a Story, Oxford University Press.
Shackleford, K. E. (Ed.). (2021). Real Characters: The psychology of parasocial relationships with media characters. Fielding Graduate University Press.