The Personalist Project

I was raised to be kind of stoic. Well, no, stoic's not the word...we did plenty of complaining, sometimes raising it to a genuine art form. But we valued being tough. No, that's not it, either--not tough, just--not spoiled, not soft, not hoity-toity--not imagining we were suffering hardship if we lacked luxuries. As my mother used to remind us (even when my father was delivering sandwiches to support us all and we were living on stale- sandwich casseroles), "Compared to most of the world, and compared to most people throughout all of human history, we're very, very rich."

That's unquestionably true, and startlingly easy to forget. I think I enjoy my life a lot more than people trained to believe that their happiness depends on their material comfort rising a certain exalted level. I want the same for my children: I never want their contentment to be at the mercy of their ability to maintain a hoity-toity lifestyle. I want them to keep firmly in mind that It Could Always Be Worse.

"It Could Always Be Worse" actually became our family's official motto one day when I was a kid. By "official," I mean, as my sister Simcha recounts:

[M]y older sister announced that she was supposed to bring in a poster depicting our family crest (we didn’t last long at that school). As I recall, the finished product showed our brand-new motto rippling proudly under an escutcheon divided into four tinctures, each with a charge; to wit: a Star of David, the head of Groucho Marx, an open book listing our favorite authors [from Dr. Seuss to Tolstoy], and a Bagel Rampant.                               

(Unfortunately, the original, with my father's calligraphy and my mother's drawings, has been lost to posterity, unless it's buried somewhere in the Book Room. What you see above is Simcha's clever digital reconstruction of its essence.)

"It Could Always Be Worse" has stood me in good stead all these years.

On the other hand...

Twenty-six years into raising my own kids, I remember another side of my upbringing I want to make sure to pass on. When my children are suffering and in need of help, I hope they'll be able to say so. I do want them to keep their troubles in perspective, shaking it off, toughing it out. And I want them able to enjoy simple pleasures, not continually pining for the more complicated, more expensive sort. But I don't want them to feel like failures if they can't muster up cheerfulness, if they find themselves just plain unable to shake things off sometimes. I don't want them to imagine that seeking help is a sign of weakness, something to despise in themselves or in anybody else. And even if what's troubling them is a "first-world problem"--well, it's good that they realize that, but, as my sister Rosie points out

Have you ever tried to stop feeling sorry for yourself by thinking about how much worse other people have it? Does it work for you?  When I use it to remind myself to have a sense of humor, sometimes it works. ... But if I try to pull myself out of self-pity by thinking about starving children in Africa or homeless people in the city, it usually doesn’t work. All it does is make me feel guilty on top of everything else, and start me off on a train of thought about how crummy the WHOLE WORLD is, anyhow.

She continues: 

The problem with this way of thinking is that it assigns each human pain a ranking. Upset that you live in a tiny apartment?  It’s better than a clay hut in Africa! Upset that you live in a clay hut? It’s better than being homeless! Upset that you’re homeless? Be grateful–you could be dead! If you keep going this way, there’s probably only one person in the world who has a right to feel bad, because everyone else has at least some advantage over him to be grateful for.

I don’t think that’s how God sees it.  I think he cares about your “first world problems,” even if they’re small or silly, because He knows what it’s like.

So, neither stoicism, nor Princess-and-the-Pea-style fragility, nor self-righteousness, nor self-loathing. It's a tricky balance.

How do you manage it?

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Comments (8)

Rhett Segall

#1, Sep 1, 2017 4:13pm

One thinks of the man who cried for losing his shoe till he met a man who lost his foot. One thinks of Anne Frank  who still felt "man" was basically good in her final days in the concentration camp! Yes, no doubt about it, important perspectives.

Then there's the awareness of the unending sufferings of others that we can't avoid today. Such awareness doesn't make us feel good that we don't have it so bad. Paradoxically it can make us feel guilty, i.e. survivors guilt! C.S. Lewis says somewhere that the human mind seems incapable of the awareness of so much suffering and wondered whether he was wrong for enjoying life in the face of it all. Simple logic though let him know that his not enjoying a pleasant meal or fine bath did nothing to help the ones in the trenches, or we might say the victims of "Harvey". On the contrary, love for life pushes us to want to share.

Devra Torres

#2, Sep 1, 2017 4:18pm

Yes! As Cardinal Ratzinger said,

Something I constantly notice is that unembarrassed joy has become rarer. Joy today is increasingly saddled with moral and ideological burdens, so to speak. When someone rejoices, he is afraid of offending against solidarity with the many people who suffer. I don't have any right to rejoice, people think, in a world where there is so much misery, so much injustice. 

The loss of joy does not make the world better--and, conversely, refusing joy for the sake of suffering does not help those who suffer. The contrary is true. The world needs people who discover the good, who rejoice in it and thereby derive the impetus and courage to do good.

Joy, then, does not break with solidarity. When it is the right kind of joy, when it is not egotistic, when it comes from the perception of the good, then it wants to communicate itself, and it gets passed on.

Rhett Segall

#3, Sep 1, 2017 5:54pm

This is perfect, Devra. If possible (I know sometimes we lose track of where we noted something) I'd love to have the source of Ratzinger's quote-but don't lose sleep over it. I've copied the quote.

Thanks, Rhett

Devra Torres

#4, Sep 1, 2017 6:11pm

Salt of the Earth, I'm pretty sure.

Rhett Segall

#5, Sep 1, 2017 7:14pm

Thanks, Devra- I have that somewhere!

Katie van Schaijik

#6, Sep 7, 2017 9:49am

I love that Ratzinger quote!

And I'm with you in not wanting children—or anyone—to think that their wellbeing is contingent on material comfort.

But I find I have a stronger reaction against that mode of moral correction (which I've been subjected to and have employed myself, alas) than you here express Devra. I mean the mode of chastising a person for complaining, on the grounds that other people have it worse. (Maybe it didn't come across as chastisement in your family; it did in mine.)  I'm with Rosie. Depending on the case and the relationships involved, it might serve to lend humor or humility or perspective in a particular situation. But more often, I think it tends rather to a kind of abuse.

It says to another person: "You don't matter." "Your experience is insignificant or false." "You are morally weak." "Compared to others, you disappoint me."

It alienates a child from others and self. "What I am experiencing is contemptible" easily develops over time into "I am contemptible."

I wish now that I hadn't done any of that with my children. I wish my parents hadn't done any of that with me.

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Sep 7, 2017 10:01am

I wrote about a concrete case illustrating the point in a short story I read a year or two ago.

Since then, I've done a lot of reading and reflecting on emotional neglect in childhood and the way it interferes with the right development of the self.

Children need their inner experience validated by the adults in their lives. "Of course you're hurt!" or "I'm so sorry that happened to you." Or "It's not okay that you were bullied like that. I understand why you're angry."

I propose that a major cause of the "culture of narcissism" recently lamented by the Pope is that whole generations of children habitually had their suffering and their interior experiences minimized, mocked, and corrected. So they learned to deny or conceal or suppress their interiority, and the self-experiencing self. Instead, they learned to construct a more socially acceptable "false self" to present to the world.

Then came the epidemics of depression and mental illness and everything else.

Anyway. This is stuff for a long post. I should try to write one of my own, instead of hijacking yours!

Devra Torres

#8, Sep 7, 2017 12:52pm

No, that's not hijacking!

In my family it was much more humorous than chastising, as far as I remember. Much less "You don't count"; much more, "Here we are together in this predicament. Oh, well, at least X isn't happening." My father used to quote the line about being sad he had no hat, but then he met a man who had no head. That kind of thing. Not "You're morally weak," but rather, "I know, it's tough, but if you can toughen up a little, you'll end up happier."

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