The Personalist Project

Accessed on October 01, 2023 - 1:47:01

It Could Always Be Worse?

Devra Torres, Sep 01, 2017

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?