by Catherine Breese
“Unhappiness is the ultimate form of self-indulgence.” Tom Robbins
Old people complain a lot, or so the stereotype says. Recently, I encountered a real superstar in the world of kvetches who served to reinforce my vacilating prejudices. We were seated at the same banquet table at a luncheon by chance, and this woman complained from the moment she sat down until the final applause. She wasn’t served quickly enough, the food was bad (it was pretty typical banquet food, you knowーmeh?) and, crime of the century, we weren’t served any bread. She griped to two different waiters about their being no bread and was scolded by another woman at our table for doing so, because, after all, “the waiter doesn’t plan the banquet, he/she only brings the food.” So then she asked to see the manager. At one point when speaking with the manager she uttered the words, “This is the worst food I have ever eaten in my life.” Now this woman was seventy years old if she was a day. If this were actually the worst food she had ever eaten, well, that says a lot about the comforts of her life. I surmise it was hyperbole, but it was terribly ill-placed. At a table full of educated American adults, surely we can rise above petty complaints and attempt some more positive human interaction. Books, movies, travel, life experiences, heck, I would even prefer to listen to a good surgical story rather than listen to this rude old woman expound upon how she’s been wronged by a hotel banquet.
I admit, her age probably had little to do with inspiring such bad manners. It’s more likely that she had always acted this way. This state of perpetual dissatisfaction appears bred in some. Some rube is always driving in their lane. Some idiot is always preventing them from doing a good job at work. Some jerk is always ruining their chance at fun or victory or honor. It is a story people tell themselves and it is self-fulfilling and self-perpetuating.
Last weekend when we were doing some grocery shopping I became keenly aware that everyone in the store, shopper and employee alike, was bitter and angry. There was a palpable mood in the store, like civility-be-damned and watch-out-cause-I’m-comin’-through. Every shopper for himself! Shoppers of all ages and nationalities crashed their carts into my ankles, reached over top of me for the romaine, and forced me to flatten myself up against canned goods while they barreled down the aisle, picking up the very important items that they need for their families, their church potlucks, or their dinner parties. At the end, the bagger overfilled my bags (tomatoes and bread be damned) and gave the buggy a mean little shove. “Have a nice day”. So many unhappy people, so very very unhappy.
I see an obvious correlation between self-centeredness and unhappiness, but I guess it is not so obvious to the narcissist. There are people who seem to prefer to be in a constant state of dissatisfaction. We all probably know someone like this. Thanks to Facebook, we all probably know too many. And I don’t have an answer. My standard solution is simply to avoid them as much as possible.
When I was eleven years old and had broken my toe chasing the dog around the sofa, my mother made me take a bath before she would take me to the emergency room. Let me add a little visual detail here: the little toe on my left foot was sticking out at a 90 degree angle from my foot. My mother didn’t make me take a bath because she was a cruel person, but rather because she believed in doing things a certain way. You didn’t take a dirty child in dirty clothes to the hospital. When we went to the hospital, my parents joked and smiled with the nurses and doctors. No drama. Just polite conversation and pleasant requests. I held my breath and made not a peep when the doctor gave me a shot of local anesthetic, grabbed my toe and wrenched it back to being relatively parallel to the other toes. We all laughed on the way home. Don’t get me wrong; I am not nostalgic for the imaginary past of my parents simple values. I am saying, though, that being nice works a whole lot better in this world than its negative counterpart.
People who are louder and meaner and uglier don’t get their way more often, despite what they believe. Nope, they get their food spit into. (Sorry about that preposition at the end.) They get everyone around them flustered and leave a wake of discontent and sadness. And, I think most importantly, they don’t accomplish good in the world.
Yes, sometimes I do have a really horrific day, too. And I am just pretending to be delightfully pleasant to the tired woman at the customer service window of the DMV. But, feigning politeness and being polite in utter sincerity have the exact same consequence: a more perfect world.