I made a lightning trip down to Texas last week -- two very long days in the car to earn one day on the ground -- in order to attend a funeral. The father of some good friends of mine had died suddenly of a heart attack.
It's common in those sort of situations to say, "He died too soon," and it's true. While we never positively want to be separated from our loved ones, there's a point at which we can say though still with some sadness, "He lived a long life and died peacefully at home. It was a good death." Even if death itself, at least as we know it, is a result of the Fall, a sorrow and a trial, there is a sense of death sometimes coming in its time, after a full life, and alternatively there is the sense of a death that comes far too soon.
In other aspects of life as well, when we talk about something going wrong, it is in comparison to how things ought to be. In this model of how life is supposed to be, marriages have no more than a certain degree of conflict, people live out long lives before dying of ailments that involve little suffering, and people suffer neither from major financial reversals nor major disabilities.
From this comes a natural human desire to make comparisons. "I have suffered this great reverse. My life is not following the script for 'the good life'. I have it worse than others."
I'm not always a nice person, and as a result I indulged in this a fair amount when my father died ten years ago. I particularly remember someone thirty years older than me going through the always difficult social process of offering condolences by saying, "I'm so sorry to hear about your father. I lost my own dad last year, so I know how hard it is to lose a parent." And I, bitter with feelings of loss, smiled and said thank you while thinking, "You had thirty more years. You should be happy."
Some of that is just the emotional equivalent of the drowning swimmer striking out at the person trying to same him. Scared and desperate, we sometimes hit whatever comes close. But as time and distance have allowed me to examine those sorts of feelings more, I've come to think there's another factor at play as well.
We have, implicitly, a script for how life is supposed to go. We know where our own lives fall short of the script, and we sometimes feel a particular commonality with others who have experienced the same problems. But at some level, when we don't know all about someone else's life, it's easy to fill in by assuming that their lives follow the script in all aspects that we don't specifically know about.
If we don't know much about someone's life, we fill in with the "happy life" script and are surprised if any evidence comes up to the contrary.
There's a retired couple who live next door to us. We don't know them particularly well, but they seem to have a happy and quiet routine. Our school room window faces the window into their kitchen, so at times when I was wading through a frustrating evening, I'd catch a glimpse of them having a quiet dinner together at the table in their kitchen and think: It must be nice to be them. They visit their children and grandchildren, they don't have the chaos and screaming of small kids. They're alive and together in their seventies. Will we ever live long enough to enjoy that time?
It was some time later that I heard from someone that the wife had been widowed while young and raised her children alone for some time before meeting her current husband and marrying again. I'd been allowing myself to think as if their lives had perfectly followed the script simply because they were people I didn't know well, and so I had filled in with the generic ideal.
Of course, the fact is that ideals do not exist in real life. While the script for the good life to which we compare our lives when they fall short represents the model to which our lives are "meant" in some sense to fit, the comparison point to which we refer when we say that things are not happening as they should, it's not a script that anyone's life actually follows. No one simply lives "the good life" in full. So while it's entirely valid to think of ourselves as suffering a lack when we our lives deviate from this ideal in some way, it's wrong to imagine that pretty much everyone else is living out the good life and it is only we who are suffering reverses. If we don't know of that problems that someone else has suffered through, it may simply be because their sufferings are not visible to us, not because that person has it all good.
This is not to say that all people have the same number of difficulties to deal with. Some people do suffer much harder lives than others. But all of us are living off script. Even if others have not suffered the same things as we have, even if we can't see the particulars problems they face, no one is simply living the good life by default.
Hamilton: An American Tragedy
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