You bet I was upset, and I let the store manager know it: the priceless reels of our old home movies, dating back more than fifty years, had been lost. Uncle Jack, Aunt Minna, Grandpa, and the cousins, gathered round the sizzling grille of my childhood summers — all lost. My wife and I had taken the film to a local pharmacy, which was supposed to have sent it to some photo lab for conversion to DVDs. Nobody could tell us where all that brittle celluloid had ended up.
We found out about the lost movies a day after Continental flight 3407 went down, just a few miles from the small town in western New York where I grew up. And as the magnitude of the disaster became clear—as the stories of so many bright lives snuffed out unfolded — I began to feel slightly ashamed and foolish. The people on that plane would never again have to worry about lost home movies, or paying taxes, or where their next meal would come from. They would never again have the opportunity to burn a piece of toast, wreck a relationship, or be on the receiving end of a pink slip. The passengers who lost their lives on flight 3407 would now have no problems at all — and would never have problems again. Having problems means you are alive. It is a great gift that we often mistake for an insufferable burden.
As a psychiatrist, I am usually focused on helping people overcome their emotional problems. So are most of my colleagues in the mental health profession, and that is as it should be. People come to us with various crises and in various states of suffering and incapacity. We do what we can to help them get back on their feet. But with the exception of some who practice an existential form of psychotherapy, we rarely teach our patients the spiritual value of having problems — which is to say, the value of the ineffably precious and fleeting gift of life.
In the Jewish tradition, there is a folk saying: “When a Jew breaks his leg, he thanks God he did not break both legs. When he breaks both, he thanks God he did not break his neck.” This is not quite the same as being thankful for one’s problems, but it does acknowledge, with gratitude, that one’s problems could be much worse.
In Islam, the well-known declaration usually translated as, “God is great!” — the takbir — is spoken both at times of joy and on occasions of mourning. And the German Christian monk, Thomas a Kempis, taught that, “…it is good to encounter troubles and adversities, from time to time; for trouble often compels a man to search his own heart.”
Let me be clear: I am in no way endorsing the misguided notion that clinical depression is somehow “good for the soul”, or that it is represents a state of heightened spiritual or artistic awareness. This myth has been thoroughly debunked by my colleague, Dr. Peter Kramer, in his book Against Depression. But I am saying that when we find ourselves dealing with everyday problems, we can find a measure of consolation in the fact that we are troubled only because we are alive — and life is something we must never take for granted. Just as the philosopher Martin Heidegger argued that the awareness of death allows us to live a more intense and “authentic” life, I believe that the embrace of our problems leads us to a deeper appreciation of our pleasures.
The medieval philosopher Boethius observed that, “Good fortune deceives; adverse fortune teaches.” I believe he meant something like this. We are often lulled into a false sense of complacency by the good things that happen to us. We win the lottery or make a killing in the stock market, and we imagine that good fortune will always be ours. The present financial crisis befalling the nation has shown us the emptiness of such ersatz optimism. On the other hand, adversity points us toward a hard truth: we are all just flesh and blood; we are all mortal. It is silly to fuss and fume over a few lost reels of film. The tragic end of flight 3407 has deprived fifty of our fellow human beings the rich pleasure of having problems. We can honor their memory by living our lives more authentically, and rejoicing in the sweetness of our adversities.