7.3 Editor's Pick
May 20, 2020

Why “Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff” is a bunch of Malarkey.

Elephant’s Continually-updating Coronavirus Diary. ~ Waylon


My dad and I, in a recent conversation, chatted about all the kinds of pain and loss people are experiencing in this time of COVID-19.

At some point, I added how sad it was that my youngest daughter would not get to celebrate her high school graduation the traditional way, have a traditional senior prom, or get to throw the senior parties and pranks she was so looking forward to.

I followed this with the obligatory, “But of course, her losses are nothing in the face of the tens of thousands who have lost their lives, and the millions who have lost their jobs.”

“Yes,” my dad replied. “But her losses matter too, and she should be allowed to grieve.”

I agreed. We then discussed the saying, “I once felt sorry for myself because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.”

And we agreed that it was a bullsh*t expression.

We agreed that those who have no shoes should be able to grieve, too. Because eventually, the person with no feet will come across another who has no legs. And so on. Who gets to grieve and who doesn’t, under this kind of comparison philosophy?

Some minutes later, my dad said, “Well, your mom and I are doing fine. Of course, she can’t go play bingo and I can’t drive Uber, but that’s no big deal in the scheme of things.”

I replied, “Dad, remember, the man who has no shoes gets to mourn too.”

“Yes,” he answered with a knowing chuckle. “Yes, he does.”

So. Much. Loss.

This pandemic has, in a few short months, created so much loss.

I don’t even think it’s possible to wrap our heads around the numbers. Over 68,000 people dead in the United States alone—it’s unfathomable. Each one of those 68,000 was a loved one who left behind friends and family, and who made a special, inimitable contribution to society.

Then there’s the loss of jobs, livelihoods, and incomes, along with the loss of the intangibles that come with a job: the daily satisfaction of a job well done, the social connections, the excitement of the next challenge.

Then, yes, there’s the loss of graduations, proms, and senior parties. The loss of first job start dates, internships, and summer travel.

And of course, there’s the loss of our morning coffee stop, our afternoon bingo game, our favorite brand of frozen spinach.

But wait, what? Frozen spinach?

Mourning the loss of a brand of frozen spinach, in the midst of a global pandemic? Isn’t that a little ridiculous? A bit far? Because, as we know, so many people have lost so much more, including their own lives.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff,” we’re told. “People have it much worse,” we’re reminded. “Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill,” “Keep things in perspective.”

But here’s the thing: our pain is only a molehill if we diminish it into one. By itself, it is just pain—and it may as well be a mountain. Maintaining perspective assumes an outward gaze, not an inward one, which doesn’t honor our own pain in any way. And, there will always be people in worse situations than our own.

Consider two people: a ruler of a country and a nine-year-old child. Imagine they are both betrayed by a close friend by the breaking of a promise or confidence. One incident will make the news and one won’t, but are their emotional sensations really all that different? Should the ruler be permitted their emotions, but the child expected to keep things in perspective because there are great rulers who suffer far greater betrayals, with far greater consequences?

We are taught to not mourn (or feel, or worry about) the “small” things. It’s part of our cultural conditioning, i.e., our collective belief system that operates within us almost without us even knowing. Through cultural conditioning, handed-down expressions, and examples from those around us, we learn that there is a bar to reach in order to legitimately express sadness, and ours rarely rises to meet it.

With this judgmental approach to our emotions, eventually we might believe we have no right to express any sadness at all, let alone the small things, because others have lost so much more. There is always someone who has lost so much more.

So, we stiffen our upper lip, raise our chin, and deny ourselves the right to, and the gifts that emerge from, our grieving.

But, perhaps the sadness around the loss of our coffee stop in the mornings was not primarily about the coffee, but about the brief engagement we had with the regular barista, whose stories made us laugh and think. We remember how much we really do value hearing people’s stories.

Maybe the loss of afternoon bingo has less to do with the bingo game itself, and more to do with the joy found in being part of a group filled with anticipation and excitement.

And maybe that brand of frozen spinach was for our vegetarian lasagna, and all the other brands were too watery. More than that, our vegetarian lasagna is the one dinner that brings the whole family of outspoken, picky eaters to the table. Maybe we didn’t even realize how much we appreciated this ritual and all its memories until the spinach was gone.

In essence, our small, seemingly unimportant losses are stand-ins for greater losses, making them natural gateways to deeper knowledge about what we value the most. We may never know what new awareness awaits behind that recognition of that seemingly small loss—unless we seek.

If a sadness arrives, we ought not spend so much time weighing its worth, but rather inviting it in, giving it space. Otherwise, we risk this sadness getting stuck in our body, collecting and building around other ignored emotions, and eventually solidifying into bitterness. Because if we aren’t willing to feel our sadness, we soon won’t be able to feel joy, either.

But, when we honor our sadness, our hearts break open a bit.

This opening gives us the chance to learn more about ourselves.

When we learn more about ourselves, we begin making choices that better reflect who we are. We begin to treasure our time, however brief, with those who seemed peripheral to our life before. Even loud family dinners with loved ones, over vegetarian lasagna, become more memorable, and welcome.

This is how recognizing even the smallest sadness can lead us to greater truth about ourselves, and the alignment and joy that emerges from that.

We don’t need anyone’s permission or approval to grieve. It doesn’t have to be a mountainous loss to feel okay about feeling sad about it. After all, it’s not really about the graduation, the afternoon bingo game, or the frozen spinach. It’s about the growth, the knowledge, and the opportunity to live a fully awake human life that comes through the grieving process. We should not allow old cultural norms to deny us these gifts.

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