April 17 – Problems and Blessings

April 17. “No matter how bad someone has it, there are others who have it worse. Remembering that makes life a lot easier and allows you to take pleasure in the blessings you have been given.” (Lou Holtz)

I have never been comfortable with quotes like this one. Quotes like “I cried because I had no shoes, until I saw a man with no feet,” or a mother’s admonishment about starving children in faraway lands have always made me feel uneasy. I do understand that there are people who have things more difficult than I do, but I never want to use someone else’s plight as a way to justify taking pleasure in my life, or to make my burden lighter. To me this has always been a self-serving notion.

I also think that quotes like this serve to minimize, or trivialize a person’s problems. “You think you have it bad? Well let me tell you…” just doesn’t seem like a healthy way to help a friend in need. To me it smacks of one-upmanship, and is actually fairly demeaning.

I am a believer that everyone carries some level of burden in their life. There are circumstances of my life, and of those around me, which make each person’s life difficult in one way or another. I am never comfortable standing in judgment of how heavy another person’s cross may be to bear, because I don’t want that criticism thrown my way.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t count my blessings as a way to keep perspective on my life. I know that no matter how hard I may think I have it at any given time, I am still enormously blessed. At the worst depths of difficulty I still had far more on the blessing side of the ledger than the problem side. No matter how hard I see things being in the moment, I know that when I step back and look at the larger picture that I am a blessed person. I just prefer not to have that blessing-counting come by way of comparing myself to others.

The truth is that I have no idea how hard or how easy another person’s life may be. I may want to look at someone and say “oh, they have it easy, I wish I had their problems”, or similarly “I am glad I am not THAT guy.” But I really don’t know what that person may be dealing with, because I do not walk in their shoes. I have not had their lived experience, and I do not share their outlook. The person who may appear to me to be the most blessed, lucky person may be dealing with a difficulty in life that is out of my view, and would horrify me. Similarly, the person who I may see as the ultimate sad sack may have an inner peace and joy that belies their external condition.

Recently the actress Gwyneth Paltrow was quoted discussing how easy she thought that working mothers must have it. They have a set routine, she opined, and could do things so much more easily than she. She bemoaned how hard it is to be a mother on location with long days for a movie shoot and so on. She was roundly, and nearly universally denounced for her take. Working mothers took to social media and blogs to vilify her for being clueless about what their lives were like, and what difficulties they faced.

In the articles I read, both sides failed for the same reason. They each failed to take into account what the other person’s perspective in life may be, or to understand that person’s feelings. The truth is that there are certainly advantages to being a multi-millionaire actress. She has access to things that a mother working 50 hours a week in a job that pays far less would never have. Paltrow has the resources to overcome financial difficulties and to give her family things that the average mother would never have. But at what cost? Clearly for her to take to the media and discuss her plight, there have to be tings that she wishes were different. At the end of the day, both sides would probably not want to truly trade with the other. The working mothers might be surprised at how difficult it is to be in Paltrow’s life, just as she would find theirs more difficult than she perceives.

Lost in all of that vitriol was the notion that both sides have very real issues to deal with, and both have enormous blessings as well.

Lou Holtz was a terrific football coach, and he is a very entertaining motivational speaker. I think that he has a knack for getting people to rally up and be successful, both on the gridiron and in life. But, on this quote – for me at least – he falls short.

My life does not get easier, nor would I take pleasure in knowing that someone else has things worse than I do. Simply knowing that someone else has no feet does not really help me to find shoes, nor does it make the pain in my feet and less. Pain, suffering, blessings and joy are not zero sum games. Knowing that someone has it better or worse than me does not solve my problems. And, counting my blessings in life does not solve them either. When I decide to own my problems and feel my pain, only then can I find my way through them. Everything else just changes the window dressing.

If I were re-writing this quote, it might look something like this: “No matter how bad you think you have it, remember this – you are still a blessed and loved person. These problems in your life hurt, but you have the strength within you to deal with them, and overcome them. And remember this, you are never in this alone. Reach out to your friends and family and let their love and support buoy your spirit and give you the helping hand you need.”

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