Hard Times: It's All relative

These are hard times, a college professor of mine used to say, strolling the lecture hall aisles and distributing Oreos. He was talking about the upcoming Ancient History exam, or the term paper due on Monday, no exceptions. You'd think that the cookie handout might seem a bit patronizing to a roomful of 20-year-olds. In fact, it was manna. Not that we were starved for sugar, just in need of a kind word, a benevolent gesture.

Wrapped in February malaise, I remember Professor Burrows and his eccentric efforts to sweeten the dreary round of duty. I find myself wishing he would appear at my door in his tweed jacket and shabby muffler, peering at me through his thick glasses and taking the measure of my drooping spirit. Hard times, lamb, he would say, slipping me two Oreos. No free pass on the exam. No extension on the paper. Only the acknowledgment that some days try the soul.

I am beset with a host of first-world problems, domestic disasters so trivial in the overall scheme of things that I am ashamed to list them, even to myself. Count your blessings, I say sharply. Stop whining. You think you're the only person in the world with failing major appliances, a leaking chimney, and a sinus infection? The car will go next, I mutter in dark counterpoint. Any minute now.

A quick scroll through the CNN website should be enough to amp up my gratitude level. Wars and rumors of war. Murder. Mayhem. There are moments when I can take the global view, actually see beyond what David Foster Wallace called my tiny, skull-sized kingdom. There's a whole world of trouble out there, and a whole lot of people who would happily trade their misery for my iffy hot water heater and rain-damaged ceiling.

The reality check fades fast. I think uncomfortably of the days after 9/11, how much better I was going to be. As I recall, I was never going to complain about anything again. I was going to live absolutely in the present, and make certain all of my relationships were in perfect repair. I was going to look beyond transient everyday worries and see the inherent beauty in small, inconsequential things: the pattern of branches against the winter sky, the smile of a stranger. I was going to say the word that lifts up, not the word that casts down. I was going to stop waiting for my real life to begin and pay attention to the one I'm living.

But no. Before long, I was back to my old center-of-the-universe self, mired in mundane problems. I put CNN on mute and returned to the dripping faucet, the unpaid bill, the vast conspiracy of traffic lights, checkout clerks, and bank tellers intent on slowing me down, making me late, ruining my day. Hard times? Don't get me started.

Happiness is equilibrium, wrote playwright Tom Stoppard. Shift your weight. And maybe that's the answer here, restoring a sense of proportion. There's tiresome, and then there's cataclysmic. I seem to have lost my ability to distinguish between the two. Whatever happened to a measured response?

Now I'm wondering if an entire package of Oreos would be enough to shift the balance, given my present state of mind. Probably not. Kind words, benevolent gestures—they might do the trick. Or the sentiments expressed by another of my favorite philosophers, my 6-year-old granddaughter. There's a song she sings to us when times are hard, an original composition that is elegant in its brevity: "It's terrible, it's terrible/ But really it's not/ so terrible."

And really, it's not.