Every Sunday during the summer I drive my 92 year old Grandpa home from family dinner.
During the drive I like to ask questions. Questions that probe into 1930s life. To gain a deeper understanding of what fighting in WWII was like. To understand my Grandpa's relationship with his parents, and his grandparents. To understand the world that my Grandpa lived in compared to ours today.
My Grandpa Bernie was enlisted in the United States army at the age of 18. He will occasionally bring up one story that resonates with me about his crossing of the Rhine River in Southwest Germany
He always undersells the story. It was just a light skirmish on the outskirts of the war zone. Grandpa Bernie plays it off like no big deal: “Well we got across the river — Hitler youth shooting on the other side you know — and then when we got back to the other bank the rest of the army was gone…. So we left with them.”
Even though Ive heard the story a few times, in a few different iterations, it still shocks me. Every time.
It leaves me responding “that is insane, I cant even imagine.”
And I really cant imagine. Can you imagine a world where your friends go to Germany to fight in WWII instead of studying abroad? Can you imagine a world where your cousins would invite you on weekends to catch trout in Central Park Lake (also a true story) for dinner? Can you imagine a world of being shot at by enemy soldiers?
My Grandpa’s stories help me appreciate the progress that makes my life unequivocally easier. His accounts of fighting in WWII and growing up in Brooklyn are reminders of the societal, cultural and structural differences that shaped his threshold for a challenge or failure (and consequences for failure) compared to mine.
Take for example, my recent trip from SFO to LAX. For almost an hour I waited outside LAX furiously tapping away at my phone and muttering under my breath — stress level high — as the cellular reception cut in and out, Ubers canceled on me, and I canceled on Ubers. $35 for a ten minute ride — ridiculous!
That was the most challenging part of my day. Other days my biggest challenge is not getting distracted at work by a barrage of text messages or how to decide where to eat — the 4 star Korean BBQ place or the 4.1 star Italian-Asian fusion restaurant.
By absorbing my Grandpa’s stories, I become aware of the experiential biases in how I shape my definitions of key emotional terms, such as: challenge, happiness, fear, anger, fun, failure and frustration. My Grandfather’s experiences helped shape his definitions of these terms as my experiences have shaped mine.
When I compare my young adult life to Grandpa Bernie’s, my definitions are suddenly way out of proportion. They become sort of trivial. And that removes some of the frustration, challenge and emotional weight of my choices and experiences.
Imagine there are two scales:
- The Grandpa Bernie challenge scale.
- The Ilan Siegel challenge scale.
One scale measures a challenge based upon the life of Grandpa Bernie. The other measures a challenge based upon the life of Ilan Siegel.
Where do you place crossing the Rhine River while being shot by Hitler Youth on the Ilan Siegel Challenge Scale?
Where would you place having an Uber cancel your request on the Grandpa Bernie Challenge Scale?
Cant really compare them, right?
By becoming aware of what I am exactly frustrated with — and comparing the brevity of that situation to my Grandpa’s — I find myself better equipped to take a deep breath and see the experience in perspective. Suddenly, what I initially viewed as a major event has become minor. By placing my experiences on the Grandpa Bernie Challenge Scale, I can become more aware and happy with the situation or challenge I am currently facing.
This doesnt necessarily mean that I completely disregard mine or another’s struggles. There are still hundreds of problems that I face in my day to day life that are not to be ignored or even trivialized. However, I am saying that I should take these struggles into perspective and I use my Grandpa as a way to appreciate the size (or lack thereof) of my scale. If my scale were bigger that would only mean more suffering and hardship.
So next time the Uber cancels on you or the Amazon Prime package takes three days to arrive instead of two, appreciate the underlying fact that that comfort exists at all. Try to find the sweet spot of still trying to improve your life while at the same time recognizing how lucky we already are and how short the modern challenge scale really is for many people.
Finally, I challenge anyone reading this article to spend a little more time learning about the childhood of their Grandparent or older relative. It is humbling, thought provoking, eye opening and makes their day too :).