Have you ever noticed that some folks have to win all the time even if the trophy is for the title of “Worst Life Ever”? Life is a competition, even if it’s a race to the bottom. I once got trapped in a conversation with a man who bragged that he was on several psychotropic medications and had seen the devil up close and personal. He relished telling me the gory details of his hallucinations and showed an odd pride in his disorders. The message he gave me was that his life, screwed up and damaged as it was, was much more interesting than mine.
I’ve learned that it’s never wise to respond honestly when someone asks, “How are things with you?” It’s better to say “Great!” if things are just okay, and “Okay,” if things are horrible. I can sort out good friends from acquaintances by following this rule: a good friend is willing to share both happiness and pain; an acquaintance, even one who appears on the surface to wish me well, doesn’t want anything more out of a conversation than shallow pleasantries.
Many respond to a report of bad news by walking away or finding a means of negating the seriousness of my situation. An example: An older student asked me why I had cancelled a class on short notice the week before. I told him that I had to fly out of town to attend my sister’s funeral. He said, “I thought that it was something like that…You know, I’ve lost three brothers. You get over it.” His unsympathetic tone implied that I should buck up and wipe that sad look off of my face. He had faced much worse.
It’s better in most circumstances to pretend that life has been an extended version of an episode of “Leave it to Beaver”. I once told a massage therapist, who was busy grinding her elbow into my pecs, one of my sad, sad stories about childhood. I said, “My grandmother came over when I had chicken pox to see how I was doing. I was five and I complained about the scabs itching, and she sternly lectured, ‘Young man, if that’s the worst thing that ever happens to you, count yourself a lucky little boy!'” The massage therapist stopped grinding and said, “The same thing happened to me, but my grandmother slapped me in the face.” Then she probed ever deeper into a joint as if to assure me that she was there to show me what real pain was all about.