Seeing the smaller picture

The truth is, things do kind of suck here.

By Matt Barnum

[img id=”77046″ align=”alignleft”] As winter makes clear beyond doubt that it is upon us and finals week approaches like a death march, ominously and unstoppably, there will be one defining emotion for just about everyone on campus: unhappiness.

At this time of the quarter, when you ask people—even people you’re not close with—“How’s it going?” they’ll probably say something like, “I’m hanging in there.” And then you will both smile wryly and ironically, as if exchanging a joke about a shared misery.

The truth is, things do kind of suck here: We’re about to begin the most rigorous part of the quarter at one of the most rigorous universities in the world. It doesn’t help that it literally hurts to go outside or that the heating in your apartment doesn’t always work and you spend hours waiting, hoping, huddling under the covers of your bed mentally willing the radiator in your room to start emitting heat, and then you finally get up, only to realize that one of your particularly sly, particularly stingy roommates has turned the thermostat below 60 (!) degrees.

Or maybe that’s just me.

Everyone has sob stories—things that have gone horribly awry, teachers who have not given extensions, internal motivation that has failed to manifest itself, body parts that have been lost to frostbite. Whatever it is, it’s happened, or not happened, at the worst possible time.

And yet it’s hard to take it all seriously. People will tell you this, condescendingly, or you will realize it yourself: Things are going on in the world that are bigger and scarier and more overwhelming than our Sosc papers or physics finals. With the economy suffering, people are desperately trying to put food on the table for their families; soldiers are fighting in wars, missing their families, eating horrible food. And we complain about B-J! This is to say nothing of the plights of the world’s truly deprived. Those facing genocide or lacking medical treatment for a terminal disease or dealing with extreme poverty—how can we even come close to understanding?

What is wrong with us that we cannot see our privilege, appreciate the gifts that we have been given, the chances that we have?

The answer is: Nothing, there’s nothing wrong with us. In fact, it is human nature to see our circumstances in comparison to those around us, and to take for granted that which is granted. Research shows that most people have a certain baseline level of happiness that varies only slightly with life’s circumstances.

The idea that our misery pales in comparison to others’ will only serve to exacerbate it. Having our problems seem small and pathetic doesn’t make them go away; it doesn’t make us stop caring or worrying about them—it just makes us feel small and pathetic.

The notion of perspective, then, seems like a fallacy, or at least an ideal that will never be achieved. If we are to genuinely have perspective on things, we would go through life not caring, paralyzed by the meaninglessness of our existence, the smallness of our triumphs and our setbacks. Any perspective achieved will only be temporary. Don’t get me wrong: that moment of realization, of perspective, is important, powerful in its ability to make us understand on an intellectual level part of the nature of our existence.

But if you’re sitting in the Reg, stressing about a Civ paper, and it occurs to you that perhaps your idea of stress is a bit…absurd—that’s okay. Accept the revelation; admit its truth.

Then go ahead and finish writing your paper.

Matt Barnum is a third-year in the College majoring in psychology. He is a Maroon Viewpoints Editor.