Goats, Falling Pianos, and Dementia

By Carol Colvin

The Law of Relativity states that nothing is either good or bad unless and until it is compared to something else.  Nothing can be up unless something else is down, no one can be tall unless someone else is short, etc.  Awareness of this law is nice, but unless we act on that awareness in the right way, it is not very helpful.

Consider the law of gravity.  We are all aware of it.  If you drop something, it falls. This is good to know, but knowing the law alone will not save you from certain death if a piano falls out of a 6th-story window directly over your head and you don’t move out of the way.  The smart person knows the laws and uses their knowledge to make life better.

We all want to be happy and to have enough of the world’s goods to enjoy peace and contentment.  How much of the world’s goods is required for happiness, peace, and contentment depends on the person and how they compare what they have with what they wish they had.  Wealth is a relative term.  People in some developing countries think that wealth consists of owning more than one goat.  If all I owned were a few goats I’d consider myself very poor.  But I feel pretty confident in guessing that the man in the developing country who has 3 goats – the one the man with only one goat envies, thinks he is poor because he knows another man with 7 goats.  The problem here is that all these men are perfectly aware of the law of relativity, but they are using their knowledge to make themselves miserable instead of happy – like the man who knew the piano was going to land on him but failed to use that knowledge and just stood there and was crushed.  They are comparing their “wealth” with those who have more instead of those who have less.  This is the one time in life that up is the wrong direction to look.  When we compare our circumstances with those of others, we need to look down.   If the man with 3 goats wants to feel good about his life, he should be comparing his lot with the man who has only one goat.  If he did that he would feel quite wealthy.  What should the man with only one goat do?  He should compare himself with the man he heard about in another village who is so poor he only has a chicken.  So how does this apply in my real life, right here, right now?  In all circumstances, to be happy with what IS, I must get used to saying, “It could be worse.”  I must look down at something less desirable than what I am currently experiencing so that I feel relatively happy.

My mother has dementia.  For a while after her diagnosis I compared up.  I looked around at my friends’ moms, at other women around her age, who were still doing their own grocery shopping, reading books, going to the movies, going out to lunch with their friends, and remembering all of it later to post on Facebook.  I was envious, I was angry, I was afraid.  It’s been a few years now since Mom started to tell the same story to the same person over and over at 5-minute intervals.  Now she sleeps about 14 hours every night, she spends the day doing crossword puzzles, and we coax her to walk to the end of the hall and back before and after meals to get exercise.  She still corrects our grammar and she can still sing along to songs she knew back in the day.  She laughs when someone says something funny, and she’ll laugh again at the same funny thing every time we repeat it.  She remembers all of our names, and she tests herself every day on our children’s and spouse’s names and who lives where.  She can’t remember what we had for dinner ten minutes after we eat, but she always insists that she didn’t have dessert.  My brother started getting photo evidence of her eating it so we could more easily convince her she didn’t need another Fudgesicle.  She’s still my mom.  It could be worse.  I have learned to compare down.  There are many women my mom’s age whose dementia is much worse.  Many have Alzheimer’s and don’t know their own family members.  Many are depressed or angry and have outbursts and even hurt their caregivers.  It could be much worse.  My mom has a wonderful husband, my stepfather, who loves and takes care of her daily needs.  Many older adults with dementia and other cognitive issues have to live in nursing homes.  It could be so much worse. 

Awareness of the law of relativity leads to happiness and peace and can be quite useful when we act on our knowledge of the law by comparing down instead of up.   Wisdom will come through experience, mostly when you do it wrong.  When you find yourself comparing up and feeling miserable, turn your thoughts to ways things could be worse and you will begin to feel gratitude for what is.  Like the man who jumped out of the way when he saw the piano demonstrating how the law of gravity works, you will whisper a quick “Whew! That was close,” when you quickly make the choice to use the law of relativity to see your circumstances from a more helpful point of view. 


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Carol Colvin
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