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The Column

Don’t Sweat It
6/8/03

Your problems are not the end of the world. Unless your job is to prevent the end of the world. Then you're allowed to complain.

It's a hard thing to fathom that our lives are not the most important thing to other people. Most of us think that every time we chip a tooth or break a nail, everyone in our immediate vicinity needs to know the exact details. Our immediate vicinity includes our homes, our hangouts, our buddylists, and half of northern Iowa.

I don't care that your friend Sarah totally bought the same shirt as you. I don't care that Bob at the office mistook your lunch for his. And I certainly don't care that you had the weirdest dream, only you can't really remember what happened in it. And if you did remember, guess who still wouldn't care. If you could see me right now, I'd have both of my thumbs pointing squarely at the center of my chest.

I will be the first to admit that I tell a lot of stories where I'm the main character. It'd be difficult to do otherwise. If all my stories started with "I knew this one guy," not only would I be pathetic for living vicariously through other people, my next three words would probably be "at band camp."

My issue is not with people who tell stories about their lives - we all do that. It's how we allow other people to relate to us, how we kill dead air, and how we try to land a sit-com. My issue lies with people who think that the problems around which their stories revolve are more monumental than everyone else's. If your problems mattered so much, wouldn't we already know what they were? I'd be pissed if the world's media were not covering the most important story out there.

"This is Christiane Amanpour with CNN. Today, someone's friend Sarah totally bought the same shirt as her."

When you're in high school, you don't see much of the outside world, so you think that the biggest problem you'll ever face involves your classmates' opinions of you. When you're in college, you don't see much of the outside world, since your biggest problem is how to make things stop spinning. Once you're out of college, you have no excuse at all. What I'm saying is this: when you're reading about wars and czars and scars and SARS, it doesn't matter that someone cut you off on the way to work. Even if "cars" does rhyme with all those important problems.

It is more common to hear "me, me, me" in a conversation than it is to hear it at an opera. And the worst part about this phenomenon is that people force themselves to ask poorly thought out questions about their conversation partner in an effort to appear less solipsistic. I spoke to a friend shortly after I moved to a new city, started dating someone, and released my first book. I filled her in, and then she actually asked me what else was going on, as if that was not enough. She had unfortunate timing - the very next week, I cured cancer. That would have kept the conversation going for at least another minute before she started talking about herself again.

I do not mean to discourage conversation about oneself. Especially since that's how I make my living. But I do mean to remind people that when you're discussing that chipped tooth or that broken nail, know that even you will forget about it in a week. Please remember that there are bigger things out there - that you can wear another outfit, that you can buy another lunch, and that the guy who cut you off on the way to work may have needed to get to the hospital in order to remove the pole from his ass.

In other words, look around once in a while and realize that your problems aren't all that bad. That your day, no matter how poorly things may appear to be going, is just a day, and will be completely different tomorrow. Unless your job is to prevent the end of the world. Then you're allowed to complain.

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