One often exaggerates little challenges way out of proportion to their actual size. One recognizes this when confronted with real challenges, of significant dimension, that are nevertheless tackled by those people afflicted by them. One then feels a little bit ashamed by one’s own silly exaggeration.
I was sitting in a coffee shop and downing a large cup of coffee, while observing the people pass by on a busy city sidewalk, an activity that I enjoy — observing people. You actually perceive a lot if you step aside a moment from your busy life, and take some time to consciously observe the people around you.
I watched a blind person negotiate the button for a cross walk. With her cane, she felt the end of the curb where it curves upward in order to find the post that contained the button. She listened to the traffic to hear when it was time to cross, and then felt the surface of the bumpy crosswalk, again with her cane, to know the direction to walk in to get across the road. Despite the blindness, she did all this very efficiently — clearly this particular section of her walk was very familiar to her. But think about that — negotiating the busy streets of a major city blind.
I watched a cripple in a wheelchair make his way pushing the wheelchair with just one good foot and leg — but always moving backwards, that is, with his back always facing the direction he was moving in. Just try to imagine that. And just try to imagine that as the only way you can get around — sitting in a wheelchair and pushing it backwards with one foot.
I watched a madman beggar carrying on a gibberish conversation with each person who passed him by, as though they were actually interacting with him, instead of hurrying by to escape him. Periodically, the man uttered, involuntarily, a shrill birdlike catcall that interrupted his otherwise unintelligible statements, for he was speaking in a language no other human being could positively understand, except that his soulful eyes were beseeching desperately — the message from the eyes was clear, even though his language was from Mars. Now and then someone put a dollar in his cup, no doubt with the thought, there but for the grace of god go I.
I watched a very old woman with a severe case of osteoporosis, bent like a right-angle T-square, and therefore forced to always look down at her toes, make her way with tiny steps, grudgingly, along the sidewalk, periodically having to crane her neck severely sideways to see if she was about to walk into anything. Her entire world had been reduced to her toes.
By the time I finished my coffee, I didn’t feel quite so put out by my little troubles, but was struck by how cruel life can be. No question, there is a significant number of people who must endure dreadful things…and it will always be so.
The ancient Stoics had a mental trick for chasing away the blues. It was a kind of negative visualization where you consciously tried to think of the worst possible thing that could happen to you and the consequences — for instance, losing your legs or the aforementioned going blind, etc. The idea was that by comparison to such awful eventualities, your present condition should seem quite benign, and so you hopefully gain some perspective. I contend no such visualization is necessary to do this. You just have to open your eyes.