This past month has been tough for some people I know. I have friends who have lost their jobs. I have some going through personal stuff with decisions to make. I have some with relationship issues. Sometimes we all have that feeling – that weary desire to give up, the anger and frustration, that feeling of “why me?” that prompts us to drink or to smoke or to listen to downbeat music like the Travis song referenced in the title. Or…er… Radiohead. Or whatever it is that people listen to nowadays that’s the equivalent of Radiohead (I’m getting old. Let’s move on.)
So what do you say to the person with bad news? The person with bad luck or heartbreak or tears in their eyes? I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer but here’s what I think:
Firstly, take their problems seriously. Everyone has problems.
As you can see below, your problems can be mapped on a grid based on 1) how much they matter to you and 2) how much they matter to others. The first thing that’s obvious: these 2 factors are rarely the same. Take the teenage breakup as a perfect example – we’ve all been there. At the time, it seems like the world is imploding but to everyone else it’s a total irrelevance.
As I’ve said before you have no ability to understand what life is for another person, how they feel, what they think, what they’re experiencing. You don’t even know what an apple is. Putting someone’s problems in a box and rating their seriousness based on your view of the world is a pointless and silly approach to the world and it’s amazing how much people do it.
So when I hear people talk about ‘middle class problems’ or ‘white people problems’ or ‘young person problems’ etc etc I think it’s stupid – the implication seems to be that some people are entitled to have problems but… what, some people aren’t? It’s ridiculous. You could be rich, or poor, or old or young, or fat or thin or popular or unpopular. At the end of the day, you still have good days and still have bad days. Which brings me to my next thought:
Don’t say ‘it could be worse’. It’s stupid.
I don’t know about you but I personally hate this advice. I think we’ve all had it at some point from someone, and – if you’re honest – you’ve probably doled it out as well. But it’s stupid. ‘Reductio ad absurdum’ is a phrase that means to take an argument, and follow it logically until you see how ridiculous it is, and this is a great chance to try an example:
You stub your toe. Ouch.
Don’t complain. Could be worse. You could have broken your toe.
But the guy who did break his toe… he can’t complain either. He could have broken his foot.
And actually he can’t complain because some people don’t have a foot.
But even they can’t complain because some people don’t have any feet. Or any legs.
And those people might think they can complain but they can’t. Because some people are dead.
Repeat this ad infinitum and what you end up with is this: one person in the universe who’s allowed to complain (but can’t because he’s dead), and the rest of the population of the world who – whatever happens to them and however they feel – are not allowed to. Stupid. Problems are problems, and you can’t make them not be by pointing out that someone else has it worse. So what do you do?
Maybe the horse story will help.
There’s a great story from Han dynasty China called ‘The Horse’ which goes something like this:
It sounds stupid, especially as they all end up dead. So it’s hardly a rousing finale of happiness. But there’s something in there that’s worth taking…
You never know what’s round the corner.
My wife and I met each other after we’d both had a rubbish spell of luck. I think it’s fair to say the day we met that things had been crap, and that the outlook was for a permanent rain. Emotionally I mean. (It’s metaphorical rain. I’m being metaphorical – though this was the north of England. So probably there was real rain too.) Anyway, not only was I trapped behind the bar at a country white trash wedding in Yorkshire but I had to face up to the prospect of 5 hours of someone else’s family doing drunk karaoke. Looking back 11 years later that turned out to be a pretty good day.
My best friend and I did our study together, and on the day of exams I found a scrap of paper down the back of a chair in the waiting room. It contained the difference between me getting grades that I wanted and him just missing his. 13 years later he goes to yacht parties in Cannes. On our results day I suspect he felt pretty gutted, never realizing the creative bigshot he’d become (whilst I morphed slowly into the cartoon character Dilbert). That worked out pretty well in the end.
3 years ago I was stuck in a job that I hated, surrounded by people who – quite clearly – hated me in return. I was miserable and broken and empty inside. I went for a job that I didn’t quite get, and the day I found out I thought my life was over. That decision forced me to take a big risk and now I’m sat at the other side of the world with a daughter I probably wouldn’t have had, friends I’d never have met and a load of experiences that I wouldn’t exchange for anything in the world.
What I’m saying is this – to those I know who are having a tough time, and to those who I don’t:
You’re having a bad time, and the course of your life has been knocked out of line. But that doesn’t mean you won’t have good days again, and for all you know they are just around the corner.
Sometimes the path you go down isn’t the one you wanted. But it still goes somewhere decent.
Never give up.
Anyway, that’s what I think. I don’t know if it helps anyone, but it’s what I tell myself.