Lately, I have been on edge about many things. I feel trapped in my home by SARS-CoV-2, angry that I cannot go to Italy when I want or just visit with friends and family.
My wife and I have been talking a lot about keeping things in perspective. She believes that arrogance and a sense of entitlement can make us think and react irrationally, even hurtfully. I thought that was a dig at me, and I became defensive. She looked at me for a moment then told me how she learned how to keep things in perspective.
While she was in graduate school, my wife lived in a one-bedroom apartment. She always worked, so she always managed to pay the rent and to take care of her basic needs on her own. Then came a time when, for about a week, she had just enough cash for the commute to and from her classes. She lived on sandwiches of either tuna or peanut butter and jelly.
She knew that, at the end of the week, she would have money again, more than enough to pay her rent and utilities, fill her car with gasoline, and buy groceries.
She found herself in the only “poor” period of her life through happenstance. She had left one part-time job and was awaiting her final paycheck. A day or two after leaving that job, she had started at another, better-paying part-time job, and she was expecting her first paycheck from that one as well.
Because she knew that her dire situation would be brief, she did not tell anyone about it. Proud of her self-sufficiency, she also did not ask family or friends for money.
Still, she did not like being “poor.” It was like carrying around a big, shameful secret. It was also tiring eating the same things over and over. Sometimes she berated herself for not timing things better.
During that week of “poverty,” my wife struck up a conversation with a fellow student. He attended almost all of his classes, always well-prepared, always upbeat. Somehow, the subject of housing came up. He lowered his voice to tell her that he had been living in his car with his dog for most of the semester. My wife was astounded. She never would have guessed how difficult life was for that student. Not sure if he wanted to go into details, she did not ask him anything, but she did agree not to tell anyone his secret.
On the commute home later that day, my wife thought about how she had indulged in self-pity for her temporary difficulty. She thought about her uncomplaining, homeless classmate, and she felt ashamed.
Fast-forward several years, and my wife was living in her first house, on her own. Even though she had bought the house a year earlier, she still pinched herself, proud of her accomplishment. She had invited friends over for a New Year’s Day brunch and was busy checking things off her long to-do list.
On December 30, she realized that she had forgotten to add paper plates and napkins to her list. Annoyed by the interruption of her preparations, she drove to a large store that specialized in party items. There were many different “Happy New Year” motifs from which to choose, but she was having trouble finding one she liked. That annoyed her, too, as did the prices. She started asking herself why she had bothered asking people over in the first place, with all the cleaning and cooking and decorating involved.
A young man, a young woman, and a child walked into the aisle. They spoke in Spanish, and they were awed by the wide selection of partyware. My wife guessed that they did not have a lot of money because they looked only at the lower-priced plates, napkins, tumblers, and plasticware. She noticed how they touched the items delicately, as if they were precious things. The three spoke joyfully and excitedly, clearly looking forward to their celebration with invited guests.
Once again, my wife felt ashamed. She was probably in better financial condition than the three people, yet they were thrilled to buy things for a fun occasion while she groused about having to make choices. She had lost sight of the purpose for having friends over to her house. It was a new year, and she wished to launch it with people she loved and who loved her. No one would care about the design or cost of the party items; the memory of the get-together is what would linger in everyone’s mind.
My wife says that it is those two incidents – as well as witnessing the attacks of September 11, 2001 (but that’s another story) – that help her keep things in perspective.
I have to admit, she is much better at it than I am.