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It Could Always Be Worse

By Margot Zemach, FSG


When a poor unfortunate man can take the pains of his cramped noisy impoverished existence no longer, he seeks the advice of his rabbi, who tells the man to do some very strange things. Will the rabbi's advice actually work? Will the poor unfortunate man ever get a decent night's rest again?

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

By Jayme Johnson

It Could Always Be Worse provides a sweet reminder that things are not always as bad as they seem. Life is hard for the poor family in the story, and the father can take the loud, distracting, and cramped quarters of his shack no longer. So what does a clever rabbi do to show the man that things are really not so bad? He tells the father to do things that will make the situation worse! Philosophically speaking, an interesting theme that emerges in the story comes with the realization that while the life conditions are the same for the old man at the beginning of the story as they are at the end, something else has changed. It must have, for in the beginning of the story the man is overwhelmed with frustration at his inability to get a decent night's sleep, and at the end, he is sleeping soundly. So what changed? It would seem that the old man's perspective changed. It wasn't that his conditions were less cramped or less difficult. As I said, at the end, his home is exactly like it was at the beginning. To cause this change in perspective, the wise old rabbi tells the old man to bring all of his animals in to the hut with him and his family. Of course, additional problems abound as the situation inside the cramped hut reaches a fever pitch. Only when things reach this boiling point, does the rabbi tell the man to let all the animals out of the hut and back into the yard.

But if the situation in the farmer's house is externally exactly the same at the end as the beginning, and all that has changed is that the man has realized how much worse it could be, why then is this enough to change climate of the house? How exactly does a change in perspective do this, and more importantly, what does it tell us about the world? The suggestion that seems to be waiting in the wings to offer itself is that one's perspective of a situation can dramatically change how one feels about the situation they are in; that even if we cannot change the external conditions of an unpleasant situation, we can actually change the situation by changing our perspectives. The interesting thing, again, is that nothing in the external world of the man's life has changed. What has changed is something inside of himself. When he goes to the rabbi initially, he desires advice about how to change his external surroundings so that he can be at peace. But the rabbi instead, by showing him how much worse things could be, gets the man to change something inside himself rather than the outside it. This seems to suggest that our perspective have a lot of power in shaping how we will experience something. In short, we do not seem to be passive recipients of the world we encounter, even when we find ourselves with very little control over that external world. If perspectives have this kind of influence, then one might suggest that our experience of the world comes partly from the information we are receiving from the world, and partly from within ourselves as subjects of those experiences. In short, the suggestion in the story seems to be that we add just as much to our experiences from within as is put in from without. Of course, this is a debatable, and historically much debated point. Two philosophically inclined psychologists Gibson and Gregory engaged in just such a debate. On the one hand, Gibson believed that our experience of the world comes just from what we recieve from the world, and that's it. Gregory on the other hand, believed that our own perspectives added something to our experiences that may not have actually been out there in the world. Bringing this back to the story, if it was really the case that our experience of the world comes solely from the world itself, then the old man should have been just as miserable at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. But he was not. Thus, it seems that if the story's message is correct, even when everything seems to suck, we just need to reflect on all the ways it could be worse, and we can change our perspective, which will in turn, concretely change our experience of the world.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

By Elena Betts; edited by Jayme Johnson

The man goes to the Rabbi for advice at the beginning of the story

  1. Why did the man go to the Rabbi for advice?
  2. How did the man feel at the beginning of the story? Why?
  3. How would you feel if you were living in that house?
  4. How did the man feel in the middle of the story, and why did he feel that way?
  5. How did the man feel at the end of the story and why did he feel that way?
  6. If you were the man, would you feel the same way?
  7. Is he really “happy”? Or is he just happier than before?

The family is appreciates the calm and quiet at the end of the story

  1. Did the family live any differently at the end of the story than in the beginning of the story? Did anything change?
  2. Let’s say you are carrying a pile of three books, and you are unhappy because they are heavy. Then I put one more book on the pile, so you are even more unhappy. If I take one book off the pile, and you are back to three books like you had at the beginning, how would you feel?
  3. If nothing actually changes, than can you really be happy in the same situation that made you unhappy before?
  4. So does happiness depend on your experiences?
  5. Do you think something can make you unhappy sometimes and make you happy other times?
  6. Is happiness an attitude, a way you think about something?
  7. Can you choose to be happy?

This book module deals with the mind and ethics. It is suitable for intermediate philosophers. You can buy this book on Amazon.

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