A few days ago I was feeling tired and overwhelmed with too much to do, as I stood in line at the grocery store. I had been asked by the cashier if I would change lines since he had a “situation” that might take a while. I changed lines and then noticed that the woman in the other line, standing with her preteen son, hadn’t brought enough cash for all the food she wanted to buy. Now most of us travel with credit or debit cards, so not having enough cash on hand in not an issue. Sometimes, however, I have swung by the store while on a walk and without my purse and realized that my $20 bill wasn’t enough, but was happy to put the lettuce back. This seemed different. There was a desperation on the woman’s face, even though she was only $7 short. I quickly handed the money to the cashier to help finish the transaction, but what astonished me was the woman’s reaction. She must have thanked me ten times and made sure her son thanked me too. I looked into her eyes and realized that even in our upper class town, there are poor living among us. This might have been all the money this woman had for a while.
The next day I was feeling sorry for myself because my husband and I are applying for a HELOC and have discovered all sorts of legal errors from our past mortgage that was never discharged and recorded properly. After four hours on the phone and doing research, we still felt like we were spinning our wheels. It just felt awful to waste all that time trying to address a problem that I couldn’t figure out how to solve yet and that was based on other people’s errors. And then I thought of the children of Aleppo. I looked up the images of children stumbling through the wreckage covered in blood, searching for their parents. And then I felt ashamed for forgetting about the people who are really struggling.
I’ve heard Americans laugh about how they only have first world problems, as though only people in third world countries suffer. While it is true that we have clean sources of water and access to vaccines, the United States still has one of the highest percentages of children living in poverty in the world, which is shameful given how rich our country is. And even in wealthier communities, there is still suffering. My neighbor Anne died of breast cancer at age 40 a few weeks before her oldest child started first grade this fall. Her younger child is probably too young to remember her.
The problem with our culture is that we have this belief that if we work hard enough and focus enough, nothing bad will happen. We will have perfect abs in 15 minutes per day. We will make millions while working 4 hours per week, sitting on a beach. We will always look 25 no matter our age and we will always be happy. This is the world that Facebook shows, but most of us know that it isn’t real. The fact is that we have very little control over so much of our lives, in small things and large things. I can’t control that my son broke our dishwasher playing with a friend, that kids in middle school can be mean, that some people are rude and have bad manners, that the weather in Boston changes every five seconds, and that drivers are crazy and unpredictable. I also can’t control that I have suffered from unremitting eye pain for 5 years, and no amount of wishing or praying or trying makes it different. But I can remember that when I am struggling, whether with the drudgery of life or the fact of living with pain, that I can remember Aleppo. I can focus on the people who need us the most, whether the woman in the grocery store or the children searching in the rubble.
To find your world stage, remember that the reason to strive for greatness is so that you can help others to see their own. Striving to become rich is an empty goal unless you have a larger mission like Bill Gates, using his money to reach so much of the world. Trying to be famous so more people will like you (and LIKE you and FRIEND you) is an empty goal. But becoming known so that you can have a greater impact is something worth striving for. This week, when you feel down or overwhelmed or frustrated, remember Aleppo, and it will put it all in perspective.