Monday, September 1, 2008

Other People and Other Places

There's something about the problems of a stranger that they never really seem that bad.

I don't mean problems like cancer, or the death of a child, or whatever. Those problems do seem really bad. But the ordinary, run-of-the-mill problems of strangers -- like having adolescent kids that are a pain in the ass, or having a boss that's an idiot, or having a parent who is harrassing -- is it just me? those problems never really seem that bad.

What I'm trying to say is, I routinely underestimate the small life difficulties of others.

For instance. There's a food court area in the library where I do my work, and the other day I overheard two women who had clearly met to have coffee and talk. They were each about, oh, I don't know, maybe 55 years old. It was about 10 am.

One of them was describing some problem she was having at home -- I couldn't tell if it was an unsupportive spouse, or what -- but the two women talked over the issue at length and at one point the woman with the problem said, "I just don't know if I can take it anymore."

This is ridiculous, but something about the scene seemed so homey and nice. The friend, the chit chat, the cup of coffee, the morning sense of the whole day to look forward to. I found myself thinking, "Isn't that nice."

I had to remind myself, "This woman just said she didn't know if she could take it anymore. Obviously she has some kind of real problem, not just some, you know, trivia." Somehow, not knowing her, I found it hard to make it vivid.

I think people do this a lot. They read in the paper about some family that is living on 450 dollars per month, and relying on food stamps, and they think, "Well, sure, that sounds bad, but it doesn't sound that bad." When you know if they were in the same situation they'd be going out of their minds with unhappiness.

I don't know why this happens. But I was struck the other day by sense of how different it is with places. With places, you underestimate the difficulties of the familiar, not of the strange.

At least I do. In a city I know and care about, the little patches of decay and dirt don't seem depressing, really; they're just the decay and dirt of home. I didn't grow up in New York City but I spent time there as a kid and I really like it and when someone says to me, "Well, but it's so dirty!" I'm like, well, yeah, that's sort of true. It is dirty. But who cares? Why do you care?

When you're in a strange place, though, all the little negatives loom so large. "Those streets, they're not in a grid, it's very confusing!" "That section of town with the overpass and the boarded up storefront, how depressing and sad!"

I think if you grow up with the particular problems of a particular place, you just don't notice them as much.

I grew up on the East Coast of the US, and sometimes my California friends will say to me, "But when it's cold, you have to put on all those clothes before you go out! Boots, coat, hat, mittens, what a pain in the ass!"

And I'm like, "Yeah, you do have to do all those things. I never really thought about it. And your point is. . .?"


aps said...

What baffles me is when people compete over who has it worse off. Since when people want to have the most depressing life? Do they just want the pity? Or do they do it to justify their feelings of self pity?
Regarding the question on how other's problems seem more bearable to you then they portray them, I think it has alot to do with that it becomes a problem in only one area of their life to you. All you are capable of understanding is an un supportive spouse that makes the said person unhappy, unloved, unsure of themselves, etc. in their home/romantic life. To that person their whole life is tied together with the spouse problem. All aspects of life are effected by the un supportive spouse, their thoughts are always focused on that problem. If that is the case, and I am just guessing, then the size of the problem becomes less important then how much time they spend distressing over it.

Captain Colossal said...

That is too goddamn true. Other people's small problems strike me as cute. If someone else tells me their house is messy, I find it endearing. Whereas when my house is messy I find it terrifying, and probably a sign of some larger, endemic, problem.

Noko Marie said...

Hi aps, sorry to be so delayed; I was incapacitated for a few days.

I have to admit this: I compete over who has it worse off. I do. Sometimes when I feel things are bad for me, and I hear someone complaining about something that seems small and trivial as if it's the end of the world I can't help but feel, "But that's nothing!! My problems are so much worse!"

I can't explain it, except maybe to say that you can't feel pride in overcoming adversity unless it's you're problems are recognized as problems. But that's not the whole story either.

I think you're right about how problems can take over a life.

Noko Marie said...

CC, yep, that is an excellent example. Obviously misery is also in the eye of the beholder.