Monday, April 10, 2017

The asymmetry of gratitude and discontent

From Why Is My Life So Hard? by Stephen J. Dubner.
The idea should be familiar to anyone who cycles or runs for exercise. Sometimes you’re running or cycling into the wind, and it’s not pleasant. You’re aware of it the whole time. It’s retarding your progress and you can’t wait until the course changes so that you get the wind at your back. And when that happens you’re grateful for about a minute. And very quickly, you no longer notice the wind at your back that’s helping push you along. And what’s true when it comes to running or cycling is true of life generally.
Reminds me of a Norwegian folktale from my youth. Stranger comes to a discontented village. Everyone thinks they have it hard; harder than everyone else. There is a pall of discontent over the whole place.

The stranger can solve the problem. He strings a rope across the town square. Everyone is to put their problems into a bag and bring it to the town square and hang their bag from the rope. He then lines everyone up on the far side of the square and tells them that they can each choose which bag they want but they cannot claim the new bag until he tells them to go.

They stand there staring, each initially assessing which is the smallest bag. Everyone's bag of cares is smaller than their own. The stranger stands silent. As the morning progresses, each person begins to notice that the new bag they are eying might actually be bigger than their own. They start changing their minds. Noon comes and passes. Into the afternoon they stand, beginning to realize the burdens and trade-offs that others have that they never considered.

Then they begin to get concerned that others might be interested in their own smaller bag of cares.

As the sun begins to set, the stranger calls out "Go" and every villager races to his own bag of cares and concerns, desperate that they not have to take on the woes of others.

As they head home, newly contented with their pre-existing conditions, the pall of discontent dissolves and dissipates.

I always thought that was a wonderful story.

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