Consoling Through Comparison: A Case Against the Phrase ‘It Could Be Worse’

'It could be worse' as a form of consolation

Spring (1889) by Edvard Munch

Consolation generally means the comfort that someone receives after a loss or disappointment, or while experiencing misery, distress, or anxiety. To console someone is to try to offer support, encouragement, relief, and a more cheerful attitude. Interestingly, consolation is not a uniquely human behaviour. Scientists have discovered that a range of non-human animals have the capacity to console.

For example, mice in experiments allowed to roam free will visit other mice who have been caged and injected with vinegar (this was to induce a painful experience and to then see how the mice not in pain react). Primates, especially chimpanzees, will console the losers of fights, and elephants will console each other in times of distress. These observations are indications of pro-social behaviour (behaviour that aims to benefit the group rather than the individual), which depends on empathy. To console another is to enact one’s empathetic connection with that being.

While consolation, in itself, is not a defining feature of the human species, the particular way in which we console is. We console with our words. Over the millennia, certain messages and phrases have become commonly used to console others. But despite how ingrained and important these forms of consolation are in our lives, consolation has not really garnered much focus in philosophy; although the philosopher Alain de Botton did cover this topic in his book The Consolations of Philosophy (2000).

Human suffering, its manifest varieties, and the wisdom and ethics surrounding it have become the life work of many philosophers. But how we console one another – in order to overcome our suffering – is worthy of increased attention. It is relevant in ethics since the decision to console people – including how we do it – can affect the well-being of others. These repeated actions also change our characters over time. For these reasons, consolation can certainly play a role in consequentialism, deontological ethics, and virtue ethics, as well as in Eastern philosophies, like Buddhist ethics. What we need to do, then, is work towards a well-thought-out philosophy of consolation.

One of the most common forms of consoling phrases we use in everyday language is “it could be worse”. Most of us use this phrase casually, without examining why we use it and whether it is the best form of consolation; that is, whether it is the most logical, reliable, and effective way to help lighten someone’s suffering. One philosopher who has written on consolation – and the utility of reminding oneself that “it could be worse” – is Arthur Schopenhauer.

Schopenhauer’s Consolation

In his essay On the Suffering of the World (1850), which contains one of the most well-known expositions of philosophical pessimism, Schopenhauer states:

The best consolation in misfortune or affliction of any kind will be the thought of other people who are in a still worse plight than yourself; and this is a form of consolation open to every one. But what an awful fate this means for mankind as a whole!

This form of consolation is contained in the phrase “it could be worse” – and while Schopenhauer asserts this is our best recourse in times of hardship and pain, he then admits that this signifies a very sorry state of affairs since it relies upon there being much greater suffering in the world than one’s own, that one can only find comfort in the fact that people are in a worse situation.

When reading On the Suffering of the World, it is difficult to extract any other consoling messages from Schopenhauer, as he generally opines that the human existence is terrible, a cosmic mistake, “a sort of penal colony”, as he puts it. This is based on his metaphysical assumption that the world is made up of will, a Kantian thing-in-itself (the unknowable level of reality that exists independently of human perception); it is a blind, restless, striving, inexhaustible force that objectifies itself in all inorganic and organic matter, as well as the forces of nature. Schopenhauer believed that, in humans, pure primordial will specifically expresses itself in the form of desire, in our relentless striving for satisfaction, which never reaches a point of completion. As one craving is satisfied, another one comes to replace it. This leads to endless suffering, according to Schopenhauer – and a condition in which suffering outweighs joy.

In his most celebrated work, The World as Will and Representation (1818), Schopenhauer also argued that people can find solace in art. This is because the contemplation of art can provide us with an experience that is devoid of any desire and, in turn, any dissatisfaction. Pessimistically, though, Schopenhauer states that this break from striving will always only be temporary. Aesthetic contemplation will come to an end (for who can spend every waking minute of their day making and appreciating art?). Once such contemplation ceases, the relentless drive of the will returns, creating further suffering.

The most effective solution to our suffering, in Schopenhauer’s view, is asceticism, which means being self-disciplined enough to abstain from indulging our cravings. Yet the prospect of leading an abstemious life may not feel consoling to everyone in times of distress.

Most people will console themselves or others with the phrase “it could be worse” or some variation of it during difficult times – and, like Schopenhauer, many of us believe this truly is the best form of consolation. If someone gets an unfortunate health diagnosis, it can make others feel brighter if they hear how their health could be much worse; indeed, whatever the plight may be, being reminded that others are afflicted with more agonising losses and disadvantages can put our lives into perspective and help us become grateful for the things we still have, which many others don’t.

The Stoics also promulgated such an approach to dealing with suffering. The philosopher William B. Irvine, in his book, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009), termed this practice ‘negative visualisation‘. It refers to the Stoics’ recommendation of constantly reminding ourselves of the very worst that can happen. This negative visualisation, the Stoics argued, helps to foster gratitude and contentment in the face of things no longer in our control.

However, negative visualisation may be counterproductive for those prone to anxiety, who may already be distressed by catastrophic thinking (imagining the worst outcomes). Then there are other, more general issues with finding solace in possible greater misery and misfortune, which deserve consideration.

The Problem With Telling Yourself or Others ‘It Could Be Worse’

Thinking in practical terms, imagine you receive a diagnosis of a health condition that, while presenting some distress and physical pain to you, is not chronic and not life-threatening. Now, imagine that, upon disclosing this diagnosis to a friend, he or she says, “it could be worse, you could have a terminal illness.” This may make you feel better, but picture yourself with this condition and now meeting someone who is in the late stages of a terminal illness, you tell them of your diagnosis, and they ask you, “what helped you in dealing with your diagnosis?” Would you be honest and say, “knowing that people like you had it much worse helped.” Most decent people wouldn’t say this, yet this may be exactly what did alleviate some of your distress.

This should underline the issue with the phrase “it could be worse”. For those we imagine who do have it worse, what sort of consolation can those people enjoy? Of course, defenders of this form of consolation might recommend that whoever has it worse, who is providing comfort to those who have it better, should be consoled by the fact that others have it even worse than they do. Someone with an advanced terminal illness, then, might be consoled by the fact that at least they have the support system of loving friends and family to be there for them, which others don’t have. But then, how should the isolated dying person console themselves?

As we can see, the worse the suffering, the harder this form of consolation becomes, since the number of people who have it worse decreases as the magnitude of the suffering increases. Thus, when it comes to the more unbearable situations and circumstances that befall people, if “it could be worse” is the sole form of consolation to be relied upon, such people will not be able to look out in the world and find the same degree of relief as those in a better situation.

It is always easy to imagine a worse situation, but there’s nothing to stop this exact worse situation striking one further down the line. If this happened and someone said in response, “it could still be worse”, this might not mitigate the horrified shock of the current situation that this person was previously grateful they weren’t going through. Moreover, since things ineluctably get worse as one ages, especially in the later stages of life, what sort of consolation is available to those going through the acute suffering they are likely to experience in old age and in the dying process?

Here, one might postulate that saying “it could be worse” is still the best practical form of consolation, even if it’s not the best possible way of comforting someone. For instance, we can imagine that a belief in eternal paradise after one’s death is consolation for every second of suffering experienced in the course of one’s lifetime, but sceptics will rebuff this by saying that this is an unfounded form of consolation. Belief in an afterlife can help you deal with death anxiety or fear of death (thanatophobia), which includes anxiety or fear related to the process of dying or ceasing to be, which particularly afflicts the elderly and those with terminal illnesses; however, the promise of everlasting bliss in a supernatural realm will not provide any meaningful solace to the non-religious, atheists, or sceptics.

Diametrically opposed to the vision of heaven is the notion of hell, the worst imaginable picture of human suffering. But when consoling others with the phrase “it could be worse”, we don’t say, “it could be worse, you could be in hell” partly because hell is too far removed; it’s too fantastical.

Since a supernatural kind of consolation is ungrounded and not applicable to all people, we can conclude it is not an ideal form of consolation. But this doesn’t mean that reflecting on the greater misfortune of others is, therefore, free from criticism.

There is also something problematic about the logic of the saying “it could be worse”. For if worse outcomes for others should make us feel better, then, by the same token, the more favourable situation of others should make us feel worse. In some ways, this flipside seems absurd, but it is probably as common an experience as consolation in the misery of others. On the one hand, while many people might look at billionaires and feel a sting of resentment and bitterness about how easy and enjoyable their lives must be, most of us aren’t deflated by knowing how much Bill Gates earns. On the other hand, it seems to be the case that we often feel much worse when we discover the success of those in our peer group, those who we grow up with, who are closer to our situation than Bill Gates is.

De Botton explored this latter phenomenon in his book Status Anxiety (2004). In it, he proposes that we experience status anxiety ­– worries about our level of status in the world – not in relation to those who are far removed from ourselves (e.g. Bill Gates) but to those closer to our situation. The philosophy of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ refers to this tendency to worry about how we stack up against our friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. Our feelings of status, success, and failure are dictated more by comparisons to our peers than comparisons to the impoverished and the extraordinarily successful.

It might be that comparative consolation (consolation based on comparison with others) follows the same pattern as status anxiety: we will be best consoled by the misfortunes of those in our peer group. Or it may be that comparative consolation is effective only when it concerns suffering we have witnessed first-hand (which naturally tends to apply to our peer group anyway, since we spend so much time with them). We might imagine someone experiencing a real-life tragedy and try to find solace in this, but this may not provide the same consolation as actually being exposed to this form of suffering.

If we buy into the logic of comparative consolation, then we have to accept that there is every reason that the success of others should bring us down, just as the predicaments of others uplift us. For many, this would make one’s happiness quite unstable, as it would always depend on how others are faring. There is also something inherently unsatisfying about these relative comparisons.

For example, if we need the suffering of others to get over our own suffering, this doesn’t actually address our own moment-to-moment, lived experience of suffering, which is continuing, regardless of who else is struggling. What can be done if comparative consolation doesn’t ease our distress? After all, this form of consolation often fails us. Conversely, if we have achieved something important to us but look to someone who we perceive has achieved something greater, this would, by the same logic of comparative consolation, make us unable to ever feel gratified by our achievement.

Another issue with comparative consolation is that it appears to involve an implicit wish or need for worse suffering out there in the world. If the greater suffering experienced by an imagined or actual person is the only thing that soothes one’s pain, then it would follow that one places a positive value – a utility – on the suffering of others. Undoubtedly, to explicitly wish for suffering in others would be callous, but since more significant suffering is benefiting an individual experiencing misery, he or she may implicitly think, Thank God I’m not going through that other person’s awful experience; I do feel a bit better knowing they have it much worse than I do.

Any person with a modicum of compassion would wish for the alleviation of the suffering of others. However, if one expanded this compassionate feeling and wished for this to happen to everyone (as is practised in the Buddhist meditative practice of metta bhavana, as well as in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition of taking the Bodhisattva vow), then this outcome (although not achievable) would eradicate the possibility of comparative consolation. So what consolation remains when comparative consolation is removed from the equation?

It’s my belief that we don’t have to use the suffering of others as a form of consolation. There are other truths about the human condition that are also comforting, which avoid the pitfalls of comparative consolation. 

Alternative Forms of Consolation

Although I stated before that you’d be hard-pressed to find any consoling messages in Schopenhauer’s writings, not everyone shares the same view. After all, not all of Schopenhauer’s writings were focused on the misery of existence; he also, for example, covered the question of free will. And it’s from his account of this subject that Albert Einstein finds comfort. In The World As I See It (1934), Einstein wrote:

I do not at all believe in human freedom in the philosophical sense… Schopenhauer’s saying, ‘A man can do what he wants, but not will what he wants,’ has been a very real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life’s hardships, my own and others’, and an unfailing wellspring of tolerance. This realization mercifully mitigates the easily paralyzing sense of responsibility and prevents us from taking ourselves and other people too seriously; it is conducive to a view of life which, in part, gives humour its due.

So, if we ever made a choice or serious of decisions that led to our own suffering, rather than burden ourselves with guilt and shame, we could console ourselves with the Schopenhauerian view on free will, which says that we can choose to act on what we desire, but we cannot choose what desire.

Nevertheless, the nature of free will – including the big question of whether it exists in the way we imagine – is subject to intense debate. And if you don’t subscribe to Schopenhauer’s analysis here, then it will fail to provide consolation. Furthermore, even if one does accept his outlook on free will, this form of consolation doesn’t apply to situations in which human decision-making is absent, such as in the case of diseases caught unluckily, natural disasters, and other accidents and tragedies in the world.

An alternative method for consoling oneself and others can perhaps be found in Buddhism. For example, in Vipassanā meditation (or insight meditation), the aim is to gain insight into the true nature of reality, or what is known as the three marks of conditioned existence in the Theravada tradition: annica (impermanence), dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), and anattā (non-self). For many Buddhists who realise and internalise these three truths about existence, they can end up providing a substantial degree of solace. This especially applies to the truth of impermanence, one of the deepest truths, according to Buddhism.

While we may commonly say “it could be worse” in response to someone’s complaints, another universal phrase of comfort we try to get across is that “it will pass”, or as the Persian proverb goes, originating from the Sufi saint Attar of Nishapur, “this too shall pass”. Nothing lasts, including our suffering. And communicating this truth to oneself or others can help to put trying times into perspective. In times of serious distress, one might despair and be unable to see that, like every other experience in phenomenal existence, the pain will subside. This, of course, applies to happiness too, and although Attar describes this as a curse, the impermanence of happiness can help us to become less attached to it, saving us from disappointment about its eventual passing.

The truth of dukkha may also help some deal with suffering by serving as a reminder that suffering is the norm. It is not out of the ordinary to suffer and to suffer immensely at times. Often, when a bad fate visits us, it may feel like the world is crashing down, that something is going seriously wrong, that this shouldn’t be happening, that we are not equipped to deal with it, and able to move on. However, some may find some semblance of comfort in the knowledge that everything that happens to us is the result of being human, of the human condition expressing itself and simply running its course.

Lastly, as outlined in the Theravada tradition, one should aim to understand the egolessness of one’s existence. This is to say that there is no ‘I’ setting behind conscious experience. The Scottish philosopher David Hume gave a similar account of selfhood in his Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40), where he argued that there is no essence to the self; it is merely a collection of perceptions and emotions (this is known as Hume’s bundle theory of the self).

But how does this console someone in distress? Well, by coming to terms with the fact that there is not a ‘me’ who is suffering, that there is just suffering, we can do away with the ‘story’ we create about our suffering. After all, the way in which we weave a distinct, essential self into the experience of our suffering is partly what worsens our well-being. From the Buddhist perspective, the belief in a permanent, substantial self is one cause of our suffering.

Connected to the truth of non-self is the truth of emptiness (suññata), as the mind and body are empty of self. But emptiness is also much more fundamental than this. In the Heart Sutra of the Mayahana tradition, it is stated “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form”, and that “emptiness is the nature of all things”. Nothing contains an intrinsic nature or substance. When the Buddha tells the monk Ananda that “I often abide in emptiness” in his Discourses on Emptiness (Suññata Sutta), he describes a meditation practice in which the “field of perception” eventually becomes “empty of the taints”, that is, traces of undesirable qualities. Thus, both the understanding of emptiness and the visceral experience of it can show that the badness we attach to certain sense experiences is not substantial, but rather a mental projection that we attach to phenomenal forms.

By seeing the insubstantial nature of all form and our thoughts, we can stop reifying everything that causes us to suffer. Indeed, it can be a relief to catch oneself in the midst of inner turmoil and to see that both the thoughts and objects of thoughts involved in the turmoil are empty. This moment of clarity can cut through the drama and make everything feel much less serious and heavy. In summary, we can view Buddhist-influenced consolation as a kind of absolute consolation, rather than comparative consolation, since it is based on absolutes in reality, rather than relative comparisons.

Another alternative form of consolation can be found in the proverb, “It’s all grist for the mill”. The literal meaning of this phrase is to do with grain. Grist refers to corn taken to a gristmill, a machine that grinds the corn into flour. Grist is, therefore, a useful ingredient that can be used to turn a profit. Figuratively speaking, ‘grist for the mill’ means anything that an individual can use to their advantage, and in everyday usage, it tends to apply to unfortunate and distressing experiences.

By viewing suffering as added material that one can use productively in the name of something positive that transcends the suffering (e.g. self-education, wisdom, resilience, gratitude, compassion), then this can make the suffering something of value. Finding meaning in suffering is a core aspect of the human condition – and a reliable means for consoling ourselves in times of sorrow.

Following this discussion on the philosophy of consolation, it’s important to keep in mind that a Buddhist approach – or any particular approach – to consolation may sit well if applied to oneself, but may rub the wrong way when made categorical, and directed at others who are distressed. Even if a piece of consolatory wisdom seems to be based on an absolute and helpful to oneself, someone on the receiving end of it may find it is actually diminishing their suffering. To hear that “it will pass” may not lessen the felt intensity of a negative experience but might instead feel like the person is ignoring the poignancy of the situation.

Furthermore, some consoling messages could come across as patronising. If you just lost a loved one and someone tries to explain, in Buddhist terms, that “it’s all empty” or that “there’s no ‘you’ who is suffering”, this might just cause irritation, which is the opposite of what consolation should do. The most helpful form of consolation can also depend on the particular loss, disappointment, or distress involved. One kind of consoling conversation may suit the loss of a job but not the loss of a parent.

In trying to formulate a philosophy of consolation, and in understanding consolation as an empathic connection with another, it’s best to think of consolation in broad terms. There are many ways to soothe the suffering of another. Consolation doesn’t always have to involve trying to shift someone’s perspective with a specific worldview. Consolation can also be wordless. By empathetically listening to someone, for example, you can allow that person to express their distress as fully and clearly as possible and convey to him or her that you understand their experience. This mutual understanding and trust is reliably a great source of consolation.

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