Sinclair Lewis said…

“There are two insults which no human will endure: the assertion that he hasn’t a sense of humor, and the doubly impertinent assertion that he has never known trouble.”

He could only sit for portraits sarcastically

Sinclair Lewis was one of the great authors of the early 20th century, going so far as to be the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lived hard and wrote all the time, and most of his best quotations – and there are a lot – are simply dripping with a certain cynicism and world-weariness.

This line comes from his book Main Street, about a big-city woman, Carol Milford, who marries a small-town doctor and moves to his small town with him. In one scene, one of the women of the town is talking about how other people are talking about Carol. At one point this woman makes the assumption that Carol has never really known hardship, which instantly incenses her. Over the course of the book, she discovers that small-town people are every bit as petty and unpleasant as city folk, and ends up leaving the tiny town of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota for a while. She returns, hoping she can still have a life in this conservative, backstabbing town, but she’s not too optimistic about it.

Actually, the first thing to pop into my head when I read this quote was Anne Romney – something that doesn’t happen often, I assure you. Her job on the campaign has been to try and humanize her husband for the voters. To that end, she tells us about how her Mitt really does have a good sense of humor and how they “ate a lot of pasta and tuna fish” right after they got married. Anne’s job, especially during the Republican National Convention, was to sink Sinclair Lewis’ intolerable accusations before they could go much farther.

It didn’t work, mind you. I still see him as a grinning robot who’s lived an extraordinarily privileged life. But I give her credit for trying.

Thing is, the Romneys aren’t unique in this regard. Watch almost any election, and the candidates will fall all over themselves to prove how down to earth they are, how real their lives have been – how much they’re Just Like Us, even if they’ve never been like us in their lives. Oh, they’ve had trouble, friends and neighbors, and it has, of course, made them into better – or at least more electable – people.

Story of my life, sister…

But here’s the key – “trouble” is an entirely relative concept. It’s almost impossible to gauge your troubles against another person’s if you have never been there yourself. So for a person born into wealth, having to send your child to Yale instead of Harvard because he didn’t study hard enough and the goddamn Rothschilds outbid you on the library wing again is a real problem that cuts to the bone of that rich person. It may be objectively less troubling than not being able to send your kid to college at all because you make too much money for federal aid, but not nearly enough to pay tuition, but – and here’s the important point – trouble isn’t an objective thing.

It’s entirely in the mind of the troubled, and the only person qualified to judge if you’ve known trouble is yourself. Now, does this mean that you can kick poor people out of the way and scream, “Pity me, poor monster that I am, for my wi-fi connection doesn’t reach all the way into my bathroom!”

Of course not. That would make you an asshole, just as it would if you looked at a rich person and made a blanket judgement that they have never known a hard day in their lives. It would be, to use Lewis’ word, “impertinent.”

What is required, then, is empathy. You shouldn’t make those assumptions about other people because you don’t know them. And even if you do, it’s not your place to decide what bothers them and what doesn’t. Other people are not required to conform to your perspective on the world, no matter how much you wish they would.

The flip side is that if you are fortunate enough to have First World Problems, you need to be able to put them into a less personal perspective. Yes, it’s sad that you only have a hundred million dollars instead of a hundred and fifty, and maybe that screws up some of your dreams, but you should know better than to look for sympathy amongst people who dig through couch cushions for spare change to buy gasoline.

As for not having a sense of humor, well, again – some people think Carrot Top is funny, so I suppose there really is no accounting for taste.