Friday, June 17, 2011

Mark Twain and the Measurement of Misfortunes

Ever since reading Mark Twain’s autobiography years ago, I have, with some regularity, found myself presented with situations that brought the following passage to mind. Another such situation arose recently, and caused me to search out the passage, as my memory had stored the lesson well enough, but had come up lacking in the matter of retaining the story sufficiently to pass it along properly when it needed passing along. With the passage located, allow me to share it with anyone who can find good use for it, which, roughly speaking, I think is every human being who can still draw breath.

From The Autobiography of Mark Twain, edited by Charles Neider, pp. 251-253:

[...] Susy aged seven. Several times her mother said to her, “There, there, Susy, you musn’t cry over little things.”

This furnished Susy a text for thought. She had been breaking her heart over what had seemed vast disasters—a broken toy; a picnic canceled by thunder and lightning and rain; the mouse that was growing tame and friendly in the nursery caught and killed by the cat—and now came this strange revelation. For some unaccountable reason these were not vast calamities. Why? How is the size of calamities measured? What is the rule? There must be some way to tell the great ones from the small ones; what is the law of these proportions? She examined the problem earnestly and long. She gave it her best thought from time to time for two or three days—but it baffled her—defeated her. And at last she gave up and went to her mother for help.

“Mamma, what is ‘little things’?”

It seemed a simple question—at first. And yet before the answer could be put into words, unsuspected and unforseen difficulties began to appear. They increased; they multiplied; they brought about another defeat. The effort to explain came to a standstill. Then Susy tried to help her mother out—with an instance, an example, an illustration. The mother was getting ready to go downtown, and one of her errands was to buy a long-promised toy watch for Susy.

“If you forgot the watch, mamma, would that be a little thing?”

She was not concerned about the watch, for she knew it would not be forgotten. What she was hoping for was that the answer would unriddle the riddle and bring rest and peace to her perplexed little mind.

The hope was disappointed, of course—for the reason that the size of a misfortune is not determinable by an outsider’s measurement of it but only by the measurements applied to it by the person specially affected by it. The king’s lost crown is a vast matter to the king but of no consequence to the child. The lost toy is a great matter to the child but in the king’s eyes it is not a thing to break the heart about. A verdict was reached but it was based upon the above model and Susy was granted leave to measure her disasters thereafter with her own tape-line.

Perspective that extends one’s understanding beyond one’s own experiences seems to me to be a key component of wisdom. However, denying anyone’s pain legitimacy because it doesn’t measure-up to some external yardstick, is an exercise in intellectual negligence and emotional denial, because it fails at the most basic task of understanding in such situations: realizing that the pain is fully real and deeply felt to the person experiencing it, and that attempting to deny the legitimacy of their experience of that pain—as a whole, or by degree—will not help them deal with it, and to the extent that it encourages the sufferer to deny or repress their pain, rather than process it and come to grips with it, the application of that external yardstick is, I believe, a destructive folly.

So, full points to Susy, aged seven, for raising a profound issue. And my thanks, again, to Mark Twain for so openly and ably sharing his experiences in his autobiography.

Finally, to the people I’ve known, some gifted with great intelligence, who have admonished suffering people that their problems are trivial compared to those of person X or Y, a reminder that intelligence does not automatically supply wisdom, and that a genius may, therefore, also be a damn fool.