Friday, November 9, 2012

Things Could Be Worse!

It could always be worse! How often have you heard someone say those words to you? I myself have had them said to me over the years  so often, and by so many well-meaning people, that it is still vaguely surprising to me how little comforting they are. Has anyone ever found solace in the thought that something could conceivably be added to whatever it is that is already making them miserable that would somehow make them even more upset or more unhappy? You’re upset about little ol’ this, the words prompt us to think? This little thing? You have malaria? You could have malaria and gum disease!  Don’t you feel better now?  No? What’s wrong with you? Don’t you know enough to feel grateful that you only have malaria? Honestly, things could be so much worse!

I recall taking courses in pastoral counseling in rabbinic school when I was a student at JTS all those many years ago. The courses varied dramatically in quality, but one of the ones I liked the most, and from which I learned the most, included a very helpful section regarding things our teacher counseled us never to say to anyone. Ever. Some of them were no-brainers that no normal person ever actually would say to anyone. Others, as far as I can recall, were not really such terrible things to say at all. I’ve even heard myself saying some of them from time to time over the years, but never without at least a twinge of guilt. But some were things that people really do say and that our teacher was counseling us to avoid. And chief among them was the attempt to induce comfort by noting that, no matter how bad things are, they could actually be far worse.

My father suffered from diabetes and he was obliged to have a serious part of his left leg amputated when he was eighty years old. The operation itself went smoothly. But recovering emotionally took a lot longer than his physical recovery and, wholly uncharacteristically, my father agreed to be visited by one of the hospital chaplains. (I lived in Vancouver in those days and was coming to New York, as my dad had specifically asked me to, only after he went home and was really going to need my help getting around.) And that young rabbi—whom my father told me looked like he was maybe fourteen, whose wispy beard looked pasted on, and whose yarmulke, Dad said, was almost bigger than his head—actually said The Forbidden Words to my father, attempting to feel better about his sorry lot because, hey, he could have lost both legs! He should feel lucky because, honestly, it could have been So Much Worse! The young rabbi, whom (luckily for him) I never encountered personally, knew at least not to gild the lily by pointing out that my father could also have had malaria. Or that he could have also lost an arm. Or both arms. Or his teeth. Or his arms and his teeth. I was sorry I wasn’t there to explain to the chaplain that no one ever feels better by having it pointed out that things could be worse, that a comment along those lines only really serves to make a patient feel guilty for being ungrateful enough with his or her lot to be upset in the first place. And that that thought—that they are somehow behaving like ingrates by being unhappy with their negligible misery—invariably makes people feel worse, not better.

These thoughts all came back to me in the course of the last few weeks in New York. As I write to you, it is snowing outside as the nor’easter promised for this evening provides an advance covering of ice, snow, and slush before the really bad weather begins later this evening.  In the course of Wednesday, I heard not once or twice but three separate times (once in person and twice on the radio) people attempting to make us all feel better by pointing out how much worse things could be! You’re upset about a little ol’ nor’easter? It could be another hurricane!  This is nothing—or at least it’s promised to end up being nothing at all—like Sandy. So being upset because it’s cold out, because you still have no heat or light because of the last storm, because you are among the 150,000 Long Islanders still without power (or among the 30,000 whose power was stricken by the nor’easter—which, by the way, are you as thrilled as I am that we don’t have to refer to nor’easters as well with adorable names, which practice regarding hurricanes I’m finding increasingly cloying with each successive storm?)—none of it is worth getting all unhappy over because, as we all know from last week, it could be so much worse. You could have no power and you could have malaria. Or diabetes. Or malaria and diabetes. If anything, you should feel relieved that things aren’t worse. What if you also had no teeth? I suppose all of the above is true. But who really feels comforted by any of those thoughts? In my experience, no one at all!

And that brings me to the presidential election. Yes, it could have been worse. We could be facing a Bush/Gore scenario in which the election remained undecided during weeks upon weeks of legal wrangling. We could be facing the unpalatable situation in which one candidate wins the popular vote, thus having the support of a majority of citizens, but the other candidate wins in the Electoral College, thus winning the election in the only way that actually matters. (As you may know, this has actually happened four times in our nation’s history, in 1824, 1876, 1888, and in 2000.) But the results were still depressing. A Senate divided against itself. A House of Representatives equally riven along party lines. A country as clearly as ever divided along lines of race, class, and political philosophy. (That the other great dividers of American society—religion and gender—don’t seem to have been such a huge factor in the election, and particularly with a Mormon running for president for the first time, is a good example of how the results could have been even more depressing.) Two blue coasts with a huge red heartland that are supposed to think of themselves as parts of the “one country under God, indivisible” to which we all pledged allegiance as elementary school children, but which hasn’t actually felt anything like that in a very long time.

The president was victorious in his quest for re-election. But, just as I invariably counsel all my brides and grooms that, for all weddings are fun and exciting, the real task at hand is not to fret about the party but to work hard to create the kind of viable, happy marriage that will last a lifetime, the task facing the president is not to bask in the afterglow of his victory but to attempt to find a way to restore the unity that was the hallmark of our country in its finest hours and that could, I believe, characterize American society again…if the people at the helm have the breadth of vision and the generosity of spirit necessary to effect that kind of sea change in our culture and our society.  So, yes, it could have been way worse. No one could have clearly won, like in 2000. But the tasks facing us now that the electoral process has finally died down a bit—the 2016 race only really begins after the inauguration in January—are nonetheless incredibly daunting. So it feels like cheap comfort to note that things really could be worse. Yes, surely they could be. But the real job at hand is to grapple with things as they actually exist and not to seek comfort in make-believe fantasies that would be even more daunting than the situation that actually exists. This one is plenty daunting enough.

I suppose all my readers know the difference between a Jewish optimist and a Jewish pessimist: the pessimist says, “Oy, things couldn’t get any worse,” to which the optimist responds “Of course they can!” For some reason, that joke always makes me laugh. But the challenge facing our country doesn’t make me laugh at all. Nor do the myriad challenges facing Long Island as we attempt to negotiate the aftermath of an early snow without having been anywhere near fully recovered from our previous weather disaster. Yes, it could be worse. We could have had an earthquake too! But the real task at hand is neither to fantasize about worse weather or worse political outcomes, but to take sober stock of how things are, to find the inner resolve to live through the storm, to shovel the snow, to make sure no one in our midst is cold or hungry or living in the dark…and to do what it takes as a nation to regain our sense of common purpose and shared destiny to overcome the divisive forces that seem no less likely to hold us back us in the future just because the election is now behind us.

I wish the president well. We all should and must. Governor Romney’s concession speech was eloquent in its simplicity and suffused with what I took to be heartfelt generosity towards the president.  As a nation, we need to be no less gracious…and to do together what it takes to move past the Us vs. Them mentality that has done our nation no good at all for a very long time now, and to work together truly to make of this land the one nation indivisible under God that it was and surely can again become. And cheer up—we could be facing all this counterproductive divisiveness and partisan rancor and we could all have gum disease! Wouldn’t that be worse?

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