Sometime in the last few weeks, after another year of even more pervasive awfulness, a new mantra floated into my consciousness — not gently, like a serene butterfly alighting on my psyche, but like a sharp, loving slap in the face: “People have real problems.”
I think I saw a writer I admire but can’t remember say it in a tweet I can’t find anymore. Apparently it’s also the title of a recent Sia album that I didn’t know about, though maybe I subliminally absorbed this information. Maybe it came to me at the post office, trying to return a pair of pants, where I stood in line for about two hours one day; or when I realized I had done an entire work Zoom with a dime-size piece of spinach in my teeth. At any rate, “people have real problems” is the rubric I am taking with me into the New Year, and I invite you to join me.
You might be thinking, Hey, that’s mean, my problems are real, and let me say unequivocally: Yes, you are right about that. Of course your problems are “real,” in that some of them are probably very serious, harmful, and have caused or are causing suffering, and that matters. Many of my problems are real too, in that sense. I know the issues I mentioned above (post office, spinach) were deliberately small and silly, falling in the annoying/embarrassing category. Not all problems are like this, obviously. But even some of those are “real” — for example, the fact that I could only buy two COVID tests yesterday for $50 in the richest country in the world, that is a very “real” problem, though I was able to overcome it pretty quickly after some vigorous gesturing and grumbling to myself about Joe Biden. That problem, though small, implies a near total failure of government, and really matters. So let’s get that out of the way now. This is not to discount your problems!
In fact, the reason I like “people have real problems” is because it feels, to me, like a triage strategy, a way of establishing a hierarchy among the things causing me a range of reactions from annoyance, to anxiety, to true terror, like a little mental field hospital. It is a prompt to treat my problems accordingly, helping me to spend time and energy where I really need it.
In its bluntness, it is a kind of anti-mantra against the Big Anxiety Industrial Complex that seems to have a special interest in flattening all of our sources of unrest, both ambient and aggressive, into the same category of “mental health.” I can’t stand “mental health.” Instead of normalizing all my bad feelings, trite messaging from celebrities, brands, apps, and advertisements that “it’s okay not to be okay” makes me feel overwhelmed, like I’m swimming in an ocean of problems. Each one, weighing equal, adds up, pulling me under. If Gwyneth Paltrow, an extremely wealthy person, is having just as bad anxiety as I am, and she presumably has access to every resource and treatment in the world, where does that leave me?? (Cue an advertisement for the Better Help app or CBD gummies.)
Reminding myself to have perspective, by contrast, is a relief. On an acute, physical level, it brings me outside of my body. It helps to bring the rest of the world closer. And it is in that way a tiny bit political: “People have real problems” is shorthand that pushes back on the now extremely disproven idea that this pandemic is an equalizer, that some kind of universal “we” are all experiencing the same thing. On the contrary: Yes, I have problems, but more than that, I am lucky they are not worse.
I’ve introduced my new mantra to friends over dinner and to my sister on the phone and not everyone has liked it, to be fair. For some people, being told others might be suffering more than they are seems like a chastisement, like something condescending moms used to say to their kids to get them to eat their vegetables (“People are starving in x country”). I don’t mean it that way. “People have real problems” is just a little helpful zap of nuance that actually calls up all the ways that you are okay, your life is okay. And suddenly even your problems seem okay, too.