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It Could Always Be Worse

by Margot Zemach


It Could Always Be Worse introduces relativism, arguing that our interpretation of experiences matters more than the experiences themselves.

When a poor unfortunate man can take the pains of his cramped, noisy, impoverished existence no longer, he seeks the advice of his rabbi, who tells the man to do some very strange things. Will the rabbi’s advice actually work? Will the poor unfortunate man ever get a decent night’s rest again?

Read aloud video by AHEV Library

Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion

It Could Always Be Worse provides a sweet reminder that things are not always as bad as they seem. Life is hard for the poor family in the story and the father can take the loud, distracting, and cramped quarters of his shack no longer. So what does a clever rabbi do to show the man that things are really not so bad? He tells the father to do things that will make the situation worse! Philosophically speaking, an interesting theme that emerges in the story comes with the realization that while the life conditions are the same for the old man at the beginning of the story as they are at the end, something else has changed. It must have, for at the beginning of the story, the man is overwhelmed with frustration at his inability to get a decent night’s sleep, and at the end, he is sleeping soundly. So what changed? It would seem that the old man’s perspective changed. It wasn’t that his conditions were less cramped or less difficult since in the end, his home is exactly like it was at the beginning. To cause this change in perspective, the wise old rabbi tells the old man to bring all of his animals into the hut with him and his family. Of course, additional problems abound as the situation inside the cramped hut reaches a fever pitch. Only when things reach this boiling point, does the rabbi tell the man to let all the animals out of the hut and back into the yard.

But if the situation in the farmer’s house is externally exactly the same at the end as the beginning, and all that has changed is that the man has realized how much worse it could be, why then is this enough to change the climate of the house? How exactly does a change in perspective do this, and more importantly, what does it tell us about the world? Ultimately, it might be that one’s perspective of a situation can dramatically change how one feels about the situation they are in; that even if we cannot change the external conditions of an unpleasant situation, we can actually change the situation by changing our perspectives. The interesting thing, again, is that nothing in the external world of the man’s life has changed. What has changed is something inside of himself. When he goes to the rabbi initially, he desires advice about how to change his external surroundings so that he can be at peace. But the rabbi instead, by showing him how much worse things could be, gets the man to change something inside himself. This seems to suggest that our perspective has a lot of power in shaping how we experience things. In short, we do not seem to be passive recipients of the world we encounter, even when we find ourselves with very little control over that external world. If perspectives have this kind of influence, then one might suggest that our experience of the world comes partly from the information we receive from the world, and partly from within ourselves as subjects of those experiences. In short, the suggestion in the story seems to be that we add just as much to our experiences from within as outside forces do. Of course, this is a historically debated point. Two philosophically inclined psychologists Gibson and Gregory engaged in just such a debate. On the one hand, Gibson believed that our experience of the world comes just from what we receive from the world, and that’s it. Gregory, on the other hand, believed that our own perspectives added something to our experiences that may not have actually been out there in the world. Bringing this back to the story, if it was really the case that our experience of the world comes solely from the world itself, then the old man should have been just as miserable at the end of the story as he was at the beginning. But he was not. Thus, it seems that if the story’s message is correct, even when everything seems bad, we just need to reflect on all the ways it could be worse, and we can change our perspective, which will in turn concretely change our experience of the world.

Questions for Philosophical Discussion

The man goes to the Rabbi for advice at the beginning of the story.

  1. Why did the man go to the Rabbi for advice?
  2. How did the man feel at the beginning of the story? Why?
  3. How would you feel if you were living in that house?
  4. How did the man feel in the middle of the story, and why did he feel that way?
  5. How did the man feel at the end of the story, and why did he feel that way?
  6. If you were the man, would you feel the same way?
  7. Is he really “happy”? Or is he just happier than before?

The family appreciates the calm and quiet at the end of the story.

  1. Did the family live any differently at the end of the story than in the beginning of the story? Did anything change?
  2. Let’s say you are carrying a pile of three books, and you are unhappy because they are heavy. Then I put one more book on the pile, so you are even more unhappy. If I take one book off the pile, and you are back to three books like you had at the beginning, how would you feel?
  3. If nothing actually changes, then can you really be happy in the same situation that made you unhappy before?
  4. So does happiness depend on your experiences?
  5. Do you think something can make you unhappy sometimes and make you happy other times?
  6. Is happiness an attitude, a way you think about something?
  7. Can you choose to be happy?

Original questions and guidelines for philosophical discussion by Elena Betts and Jayme Johnson. Edited June 2020 by The Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics.

Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our Resources page.

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Back to All Books Cover image for Margot Zemach's book It Could Always Be Worse with a cutaway illustration of an old house with one room. It's packed with a large group of people doing all sorts of things, including dancing and sleeping on top of a cabinet. Download & Print Email Book Module

About the Prindle Institute

As one of the largest collegiate ethics institutes in the country, the Prindle Institute for Ethics’ uniquely robust national outreach mission serves DePauw students, faculty and staff; academics and scholars throughout the United States and in the international community; life-long learners; and the Greencastle community in a variety of ways. In 2019, the Prindle Institute partrnered with Thomas Wartenberg and became the digital home of his Teaching Children Philosophy discussion guides.

Further Resources

Some of the books on this site may contain characterizations or illustrations that are culturally insensitive or inaccurate. We encourage educators to visit the Association for Library Service to Children’s resource guide for talking to children about issues of race and culture in literature. They also have a guide for navigating tough conversations.  PBS Kids’ set of resources for talking to young children about race and racism might also be useful for educators.

Philosophy often deals with big questions like the existence of a higher power or death. Find tips for leading a philosophical discussion on our resources page.

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