I take nothing for granted. The tragedies that monopolize our TV screens day in and day out — volcanic eruptions … gang violence … floods … school shootings … et al — constantly remind me of how blessed I am. This daily barrage of depressing news also keeps me on my toes when it comes to not losing sight of the fact that all problems are relative.
It’s a source of never-ending fascination to me how so many people overreact to normal, day-to-day problems. It’s as though they can’t mentally differentiate between a fender-bender in a parking lot and a terrorist attack.
Maintaining a healthy perspective starts with recognizing the reality that, when you get right down to it, life consists of a never-ending string of problems. Once you intellectually and, more importantly, emotionally accept this reality, the fundamental question becomes: problems relative to what?
A person may fret over turning sixty-five, but sixty-five is relatively young compared to eighty-five. Likewise, eighty-five is a pretty good number compared to the alternative. In fact, to men and women in most African countries, even sixty-five is a Methuselah-sized number. The ten lowest life-expectancy numbers in the world are in Africa, ranging from 31.9 years in Swaziland to 44.5 years in the Central African Republic.
Then there are health problems, to which most adults — and, unfortunately, many children — can relate. While any illness is unpleasant, if you’re not afflicted with a life-crippling condition or terminal illness, you have a lot to be thankful for. As tough as it is to accept at times, the fact is that most health problems are relative.
While people are often upset about out-of-control food prices, no one in the United States goes to bed hungry (contrary to what some might like us to believe). In many parts of the world, however, thousands of people die every day from starvation and malnutrition.
Likewise, millions of people in Western countries are unhappy with their financial situations, but millions of people in Third World countries would probably view those same people as wealthy. While we fight ferociously for our places on the social–status ladder — buying a bigger house, a more prestigious car, or an attention-getting piece of jewelry — the world of misery moves unmerrily along.
There’s no question about it, human dilemmas such as loneliness, financial problems, and government oppression at times overwhelm us. They prod some to drink, others to resort to drugs. If not viewed in a relative light, they can cause conditions such as ulcers, high blood pressure, and emotional disorders.
The more your perspective is restricted to your own little sheltered environment, the more likely you are to perceive minor difficulties as major problems. And when that occurs, it results in the hemorrhaging of your two most precious commodities — time and energy.
Periodically, it’s healthy to step back and ask yourself, “What if, in the overall scheme of things, my problems don’t even matter? What if I’m allowing myself to become stressed and anxiety-ridden when, with just a slight reorientation of my perspective, I could experience tranquility and contentment?” It’s part and parcel to the art of letting go.
About 300 years before Jesus appeared on earth, at a time when people’s minds were not cluttered by such high-level concerns as the NBA Finals and NFL player protests, Taoist philosopher Chuang-tzu had time to reflect soberly on life:
Once upon a time, I … dreamt I was a butterfly, fluttering hither and thither, to all intents and purposes a butterfly. I was conscious only of following my fancies as a butterfly and was unconscious of my individuality as a man. Suddenly I awoke, and there I lay, myself again. Now I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming that I was a butterfly or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming that I am a man.
Think about it: You’re stressing yourself over unpaid bills, the never-ending onslaught of depressing news, or a job you dread going to every day, and for all you know you’re nothing but a butterfly having a bad dream. Or maybe our whole universe is nothing more than a ping-pong ball that has fallen off a table in a world of giants. Even worse, what if you and I happen to be living at a time when that ping-pong ball is about to hit the floor? Now that would be something to be upset about.
That said, it’s nice to know that when you cut problems down to their true (i.e., relative) size, it’s amazing how much easier they are to handle. And here’s the important question to bring that about: “Is the problem that is causing me so much stress at this particular time really all that important when juxtaposed against the problems of billions of other people around the world?”
Most people carry far more baggage than necessary on their journey through life, and, like the airlines, nature charges us for excess baggage. But the odds are pretty good that you can’t afford the cost of that baggage.
Which is why you would be wise to lighten your load by reflecting on your problems in a relative light rather than pressure-cooking them. Learn to keep things in proper perspective and master the art of taking them one step at a time so they don’t overwhelm you.
With a bit of rational analysis, you may even find that many of your problems are not really problems at all. Whenever the word problem pops into your mind, quickly ask yourself, “Problem relative to what?”
Even when I’m faced with a legitimately serious situation, the vast majority of times it either turns out not to be nearly as bad as I thought it was … or I figure out a way to handle it much more easily than I believed was possible … or, quite often, it simply fails to materialize.
Understanding and intellectualizing this reality is guaranteed to save you a great deal of wear and tear on your brain and body. Perspective is like a magic wand. Learn to use it.