Semantics is a funny thing. With all of the nuances in language and syntax, it’s possible for two sentences that seem almost identical to have very different meanings. It’s trivially easy to misunderstand, misinterpret or fully miscombobulate, depending on context and mindset and prior experience.
I find that this happens all the time. Even when it comes to personal philosophy.
Or perhaps, especially when it comes to personal philosophy. Sometimes the closedest of closed books is other people. Particularly when they’re trying to tell you how to live.
“Sometimes the closedest of closed books is other people.”
For instance, take this truism that seems to orient a fair number of people into a particular philosophical mindset:
“Things could always be worse.”
People usually say this after something awful has happened. It’s ostensibly meant to cheer someone up who’s just gone through some awful injury, trauma or modern Star Wars sequel. As in, “Sure, you broke your arm, but you could have broken both.” Or “Hey, at least there weren’t two Jar-Jar’s in that train wreck.”
I for one don’t find this comforting. It comes off as a guilt trip. Sure, you have it tough. But something worse happened to someone else at some point, probably, and you don’t her him complaining.
Of course, that poor bastard is probably dead, what with the two broken arms and the George Lucas nightmare tearing apart his soul. But, see? Things could always be worse!
The pinnacle of this line of thinking is the old proverb which says:
“I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”
Frankly, I don’t see how that changes things. The author’s still running around shoeless, probably stepping on rocks and bees and other sharp things. The footless guy doesn’t have this problem. And besides, if the other guy’s got no feet, then maybe he’s got an old pair of shoes to give away. He’s not using them. Help a barefoot brother out, is all I’m saying.
The point is, the message of “things could always be worse” seems to me to be: shut up and deal, because you got off easy and other people have been hit by lightning and eaten by bears and sat through the English Patient, and I don’t even want to sign your cast any more, ya crybaby.
I’m paraphrasing, of course. Obviously, no one has sat through the whole English Patient movie without crawling out of the theater or committing hara kiri with a Twizzler in the balcony. But you get the idea.
Now, contrast that with a favorite phrase of mine, which I nearly exclusively use when things are going reasonably well:
“It can always get worse.”
See the difference?
No? Fine. Nobody ever seems to.
Here’s the thing — my saying is a warning. A checkpoint. A simple “be prepared” and don’t get overly comfortable, because the universe will throw you a curveball now and then. I don’t say this when someone’s been run over by a bus, and I don’t invoke some tale about how some other person was once run over by two buses, so zip your feeding tube hole and be thankful. No. That would be rude.
Instead, I say it at happier times, when our collective guards might be down and we might need a gentle reminder that life can be an up-and-down sort of experience. These are the situations for “it can always get worse” — wedding toasts, for instance. Birthday parties. In Christmas cards. Right after sex.
Now you see the difference. When “things could always be worse” than some awful tragedy that just happened, the horrors are limited only to our imaginations. This horrible event could be just the first of many — and certainly not the worst so far, what with all the broken-limbed, footless cretins apparently limping around in the past.
But when “it can always get worse” than, say, a birthday party? Well, sure, there’s probably no birthday party tomorrow. Or if there is, then they might serve vanilla cake or store-bought cookies or graham crackers and prune juice. That would certainly be “worse”. But nobody has to lop off their feet, or feel bad about some Greyhound-trampled jerkhole in a body cast taking it all in stride. That’s his problem. We’ve got a pinata here. Carry on.
But just remember: it can always get worse.