You have probably been told - or even told someone else - that ‘things could be worse’.
This would probably be after you have voiced a complaint about some misfortune which has befallen you. It could be about health or finance or employment – in fact any amount of things. These words are usually well-meant. They are intended to comfort.
If your central heating system has broken down, then you must remember the poor souls shivering in the aftermath of the Turkish earthquake. If you are groaning with Covid then you should think of the person you know who has been diagnosed with a much more serious complaint. If you missed out on a promotion at work, then remember the unfortunate unemployed. On Facebook you see someone sipping a cool drink during their Caribbean holiday and you cannot afford one this year, well at least we are having a spell of warm weather.
The words are intended to comfort…but somehow they don’t. Why is that?
Things could be worse. But they could also be better!
Everything depends on who you compare yourself with. And somehow comparing your present situation with that of someone in still less happy circumstances often simply does not have the desired effect of encouraging you.
Citing random examples where things are clearly worse is a rational approach to your discouragement when what really is required is a little empathy. You don’t need facts – you need understanding. The rational approach may work a bit later but only after some sympathy has been shown. A little tenderness is required.
Sometimes the reminder that things could be worse does work in that it may help you to put things in perspective when you have temporarily lost your sense of it. And that may be helpful.
More helpful perhaps would be a reminder that in your suffering or disappointment or discomfort or sadness you join the struggle which so many others are already engaged in, or who may be plunged into it by one distressed phone call. You know people who are struggling with tough odds and do so with dignity and courage and perseverance. Now your odds have changed unfavourably. Now you’re in the struggle with them, a struggle whose real nature you could only have understood in a more theoretical sort of way before.
You can now join these strugglers in spirit, even if they live remote from you. You can keep them and their situation alive in your mind without becoming morbid about it. For some readers that sounds a lot like prayer on behalf of dear ones. For others it will be simply the fellowship of the struggle. There can be a certain strength in that.
In London, we have passed many times that large sculpted head of Nelson Mandela on the South Bank just by the Royal Festival Hall. Underneath are inscribed the words ‘The struggle is my life’. We all struggle for very different reasons. It may help to know that the struggle is part of life in which all are engaged at different levels of intensity at different times in our lives.
We are all entitled to groan sometimes. We all need someone truly to hear those groans without coming up with any easy solutions. Just being heard is part of the solution. Things could be worse but very often a sympathetic, intelligent or simply silent hearing can make things just a little better.