Guest post: It Could Always Be Worse

Guest poster Pres. Katherine Baker weaves her own life wisdom in with the Rabbi’s good advice as she reflects on this popular folk tale.

In the children’s book, It Could Always Be Worsedelightfully told and illustrated by Margot Zemach, we meet an unnamed Jewish man from 80 or 100 years ago. He looks to be from a Russian village; the story could be a prequel to Tevye’s life in Fiddler on the Roof except he has sons, and his elderly mother with him this time, and they all live in a one-room hut. The large family quarrels in their close quarters and are miserable together.

The poor man goes to his Rabbi for advice. The Rabbi listens carefully, strokes his beard, and inquires, “Tell me, my poor man, do you have any animals, perhaps a chicken or two?” 

What is the Rabbi’s solution to the problem of close living quarters and quarreling family members? Add a bit more chaos! He insists that the chickens, rooster, and goose move into the tiny hut with the family.

Illustration from the story of animals living in the house with the people.

As you can imagine (and as the illustrations hilariously portray) on top of their other troubles, there is honking, clucking, crowing, and feathers in the soup! The many quarreling children “seem to grow bigger and the hut just seems to grow smaller.”

The poor man returns to the Rabbi within the week to beg for help again. The Rabbi is patient and compassionately responds, “Tell me, poor man, do you happen to have a goat?”

With a butting animal, things get worse, and the unfortunate man goes back to the Rabbi within a week, crying, “Holy Rabbi! My life is nightmare!” The thoughtful Rabbi ponders the poor man’s lot and responds, “Tell me, my poor man. Is it possible that you have a cow? Young or old doesn’t matter.” The man has begun to doubt his Rabbi’s method, but the Rabbi is firm: “Do it at once.” Within a week,  the poor man is once again at his Rabbi’s door.

“Help me, save me, the end of the world has come! …It is worse than a nightmare!” The Rabbi listened. At last he said, “Go home now, my poor unfortunate man, and let the animals out of your hut.” 

The animals go out, and the family passes the night in quiet peace, in tidy surroundings, and as we see in the illustrations, smiling in their sleep. The next day, the man races back to his Rabbi.  “Holy Rabbi you have made life sweet for me. With just my family in the hut, its so quiet, so roomy, so peaceful…. what a pleasure!” We are not given the Rabbi’s response, but the subtle expression on his face is worth the price of the book – something like mild exasperation and bemusement, artfully depicted in a few careful strokes. 

And so the poor family that was miserable at the beginning of the story has curiously achieved peace, even pleasure, by recovering the same circumstances they had in the beginning. 

Arriving Where We Started

T.S. Eliot said in his poem, Little Gidding, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Having gone through a simple lesson of loss, the family comes to appreciate what they have. One hopes they have learned: 

The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav’n of Hell, a Hell of Heav’n. – Milton, Paradise Lost

and

…for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.  (Hamlet II, ii, 249) – Shakespeare

St. Paul tells us we should “not be conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind…” (Romans 12:2) It is not so much the outward circumstances of our lives which determine the degree of our misery or pleasure as it is how we choose to think about those circumstances. This is a foundational principal of cognitive behavioral therapy. This successful method of psychotherapy uses logic to help cure us of troubling thoughts and relieve us of unnecessary and self-inflicted mental suffering. It is also an ancient technique of Christian ascetical practice.

In It Could Always Be Worse, we encounter a family of have-nots. Their living conditions are poor compared to those of most people nowadays (though, as a mother of six, certain of the more zany illustrations bore more relation to my own household than I am comfortable admitting).

This poor family is clearly on a low rung of the socio-economic ladder, but curiously we see that they are not bound to misery or elation based on that fact alone.  It appears that great pain and great pleasure are both available to them, even in poverty, depending upon the gratitude with which they receive what they do have and to the degree that they avoid bitterness and strife with each other. 

The Matthew Principle

Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. – St. Matthew 13:12

Marc Chagall, Over Vitebsk

This is not a nice verse. It seems terribly unfair. Economists, philosophers, and mathematicians refer to the “Matthew Principle” to describe the way the world works: the poor get poorer and the rich get richer; wealth begets wealth and loss begets loss. Could that be all that Christ meant? Would God become human and come to earth simply to give us bad (and familiar) news?!? How can we understand the Matthew Principle to be compatible with a good God, “the lover of mankind” and “giver of every good thing,” supremely merciful and utterly just? Knowing the context of the verse helps.

Then the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Why do You speak to the people in parables?’ He replied, ‘The knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. Whoever has will be given more, and he will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what he has will be taken away from him. (St. Matthew 13:10-11)

The topic at hand is clearly spiritual gifts, not earthly, physical ones. And it’s not an insignificant gift, but the very “knowledge of the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven.” It seems that it is my choice whether I’ll be “one who has” or “one who has not”; otherwise, we cannot speak of God as just.  

Chagall - The Poet, Reclining
Chagall, The Poet Reclining

If I wake up thinking of myself as a have-not (as if my life is “a perfect graveyard of buried hopes,” to quote Anne of Green Gables), I might as well pull the covers over my head and not even try. And of course, if I do that, I lose what little I have. I am bitter and angry over what I think I should have and jealous and vengeful toward others. I become spiritually impoverished.

When I climb out of bed and look at myself as one who has, with thanksgiving for my many gifts, the wealth of the present moment grows to yet more wealth in the form of a day well spent, time with friends, and energy. I grow spiritually rich. 

Circumstances?

“But,” we might say, “certain circumstances preclude happiness!” Isn’t it unfair to those deeply suffering to suggest that it’s all in their mind? 

It Could Always Be Worse, set as it is in a Jewish village of old Russia, suggests anti-Semitic pogroms, a cause of great suffering. If we learned anything from the 20th century, it is that humans are capable of organizing great evil against each other.  But as Christians, we also know many saints who, by some grace, did not allow their outward situation to determine the level of their misery. 

I would never say, “You are not really suffering” to a person who is terminally ill, mourning a loved one, in a labor camp, or at a loved one’s deathbed. Their suffering is real, but so is their power to deepen that suffering. To put it simply, “Things can always be worse …. and it is often us who can make it that way for ourselves.” In this vale of tears, we can torture ourselves by negative thoughts or comfort ourselves with thoughts of what we still have. 

…whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. – Phillipians 4:8

Chagall, White Crucifixion

It is easy to be miserable, and to find people to agree that you should be miserable. There can be a perverse pleasure in victimhood. There can even be a social need for victims to nurture their pain as a testimony against that social oppression, no matter the spiritual cost.  

It is harder to give thanks, in spite of suffering, for what we still possess; it is harder, but it makes us spiritually rich! 

In It Could Always Be Worse, the relief from acute suffering was the catalyst that showed the poor man’s family what to be thankful for. (One does wonder if it will last….?! ) Perhaps our individual suffering now is only the strange method of the Wise Rabbi, Christ, preparing to teach us thanksgiving by mischievously sprinkling some feathers in our soup. Perhaps we would be wise to say Thank You before He brings in the goats and the cow! 

Chagall, Solitude

About the Author

Katherine Baker is a widowed Presbytera raising six children. She enjoys listening to audio books and lectures while working on permaculture projects. 

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