The lamentable change is from the best, / The worst return to laughter.
—William Shakespeare, King Lear
This quote has been coming to my mind often, for the simple reason that, nowadays, it is a common joke to call something “the worst.” Saying this is inevitably ironic, if only because, as Shakespeare also pointed out in King Lear, “The worst is not / So long as we can say ‘This is the worst.’”
As long as we have the presence of mind to call something “the worst,” chances are that things could get worse still. In the worst conceivable situation, I don’t think we would have the time, ability, or inclination to be wondering if things could go still more downhill.
All this sounds like a joke; but consider how often we give negative labels to things in our lives. As soon as you say, “I’ve had the worst day,” you begin, intentionally or not, to go through all the things that went wrong: the disappointments, the frustrations, the bad luck, and all the unpleasant moments.
To label something is to reduce a complex object to a supposedly essential quality. In the case of a negative label, whether it is an insult, a vulgarity, or “the worst,” we reduce a varied and textured experience to its most disagreeable elements, and use those elements to define the whole.
Even on the worst days, there are inevitably things that went well—things unnoticed, taken for granted, overlooked. Even in the worst situation you can find things to be thankful for. Nothing in the world is so simple as to be wholly bad or good; and even if there were such things, the badness or goodness would only be a result of our perspective, not inherent in the thing itself. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” What is terrible to one may be beautiful to another; and reminding ourselves of this subjectivity is an excellent way to transcend the egotism of judgmental labeling.
But even if all this were untrue, if we found ourselves in a wholly bad situation, bad essentially and objectively, Shakespeare gives us another reason to be optimistic: there is no direction from the bottom but up. All change from the worst is good change.
Right now I am reading Man’s Search for Meaning, by Erich Fromm. In that book the author relates how, once, while living in a concentration camp, he saw one of his fellow prisoners suffering from a terrible nightmare, writhing and moaning in his sleep. Fromm’s natural impulse was to wake the man; but then he reflected that any nightmare would be better than camp life. Thus there are even situations when a nightmare is a desirable change.
It is a story told and told again: about how someone “lost everything,” and after “they had nothing left to lose” they began to rebuild their lives. It is cliché nowadays, but clichés become clichéd for a reason. Most of the things we fear are associated with external things; we fear heartbreak, loneliness, failure, rejection, mediocrity, poverty, humiliation. All these, in one way or another, involve failing in the social world, economically, professionally, romantically, or otherwise.
But after all these external forms of validation are stripped away, you will find that you are no less a living, breathing person, a person of flesh and bone. And all those validations only have meaning in a certain social context, a context that is ultimately superficial and transitory. Thus you are reconnected with the basics of life; and in this state, because everything that could be done has been done to you, and you are nevertheless alive, there is nothing left to fear. Indeed, you may find yourself laughing. The values of society are rather amusing from the outside.