An Eclectic Human
A newsletter about design, community, and being a human

1.18 Careening around on my optimism

Justin and Maria helped me realize something about “at least” and its siblings in the sympathy vernacular. It’s insidious because it wants to make problems seem small.

“John’s getting kicked out of school.”

“At least Sarah is an A student.”

Or put another way,

“Your life can’t really be as bad as you make it sound. You have a student who’s getting perfect grades! Never mind John.”

The trouble is, maybe I didn’t come to you wanting to be distracted from my present concern by all the other great things in my life. Maybe I need help working through the emotions and burdens I’m carrying right now. Tomorrow I’ll probably be happy again, but for today what I really want is for you to show me that you understand what I’m going through and offer a listening, compassionate ear.

Besides that, your initial judgment of how good or bad my circumstances are may not be relevant to me, or even accurate. The better you know me, the more you will understand what it’s like to be me and the more useful your advice and insight will become. But in order to start that process, I need you to set aside what you think you might know and let me tell you. Empathy can begin by setting aside prejudice.

The Bible has a good description of what I think empathy looks like (1 Corinthians 13:4-5, NIV):

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

• • •

Here’s another side of “at least”. Because of its tendency to make problems seem small, it can be a useful tool when you’re trying to be optimistic.

The big difference here is that I’m using the phrase on myself, rather than someone else using it to pat me on the head and console me. I’m using it to “count my blessings”, as it were. I may be having a bad day at work, but at least I get to go home and relax and forget about it until tomorrow. My ankle may be broken and in a cast and my mobility may be limited, but at least I’m strong enough to careen around on these crutches and still do most of what I want.

This kind of attitude is sometimes trite and ineffective, but often it helps me be more grateful for what I have. And that gratitude can even help pull me out of the funk and increase my optimism.

So I suppose this little phrase can have power either way you want to use it.

(resisting the urge to quote Uncle Ben…)

• • •

Do you tend to have an optimistic view of life? Why or why not?

—Steve

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1.17 At least