Trick Question

Which of the following first person stories seems more plausible?

1) “There were these two sets of double doors between the dining room and the kitchen. I carried trays stacked high with the leftover food from the plates of the patrons. On the way to hand the trays to the dishwasher, I had three steps, about two seconds. With good balance and a little luck, I could inhale a quick mouthful of half-eaten food.”

“Disgusting? Maybe. Unsafe? Probably. But the food was great and the alternative was hunger. Sometimes people would hardly touch their meals and I could scarf down half a hamburger or a handful of French fries. For two years, the best food I ate was during those trips to the kitchen.”

“My mom left when I was 16, took off to California to be with her boyfriend, a used car salesman. She said she's send money every month, but I wasn't surprised when she never did. I missed some meals, sure, but I was lucky to get that job at the Eden Roc, busing tables. My dad had disappeared years before. I don’t have any memories of him. There was no social safety net in those days; there were no family members who could take me in. So I finished high school and got another job that got me through college. I spent a year in the service then went to medical school. Of course, I always worked. Sure, I was hungry most of the time and tired all of the time. But I made it through.”

“Now I have a successful medical practice. I still work half a day on Saturday although I guess I don't really need to. Old habits die hard. My daughters are grown, but they live close by and we have brunch every Sunday. They bring the grandchildren. It’s a joy to watch them grow up. I’m glad that I am able to provide for them so that they don’t have to work quite as hard as I did. They're good kids. I'm happy for them.”


2) “My mom is such a bitch. Why is she always waking me up to go to school? School is stupid. I’m not learning anything and the stuff they teach is so useless. If she would just leave me alone and let me play Mindcraft, everything would be okay. It’s not like I want to play “Call of Duty” like my friends. That game is addictive and bad. Mindcraft is good for you. I learn more from that game than I would if I paid attention in school.

“And what is up with her sending me to that stupid therapist? What a waste of time. So I smoke a little pot, so what? First of all pot is good for you. It’s not addictive like alcohol or cigarettes and all my friends smoke pot anyway. If my therapist tells me to stop smoking pot, I’m not going to go to therapy anymore. And don’t even get me started about my stupid tutor. I can’t believe my mom is throwing money away on that idiot. Math is such a waste of time. Doesn’t he understand that I have a learning disability? I just don’t get math and I don’t care.”

“What’s the worst of it? My dad is never around; he works all the time. Which is fine. He’s an idiot too like my mom. But I told them that if they’d get me a car for my birthday last month that I wouldn’t yell at them when I have friends over. Of course, I reserve the right to call my mom a bitch when we’re home alone because she is a bitch. But anyway, they got me this Lexus. And then they told me that I have to get a job to help pay for gas, that they would pay for 99% of the gas, car insurance, and maintenance but that I would have to contribute one percent for the rest. Are they kidding? I’m not going to get some stupid job just so I can pay one percent. I already told them that I’m not good at math; I can’t figure out what one percent is. And besides, I don’t want a stupid Lexus. I want a BMW. See what I told you? My parents are both so stupid.”


Which of the monologues above is accurate? It was a trick question. Actually both of them are as close to word for word transcriptions as I could come without betraying the confidentiality of the speakers. The only difference is that the doctor quoted in the first set of paragraphs is older that the student speaking in the second set.

For whom would we predict a more content life, the doctor who was given nothing or the young man who has been given everything? Who is more likely to be successful? Who is more likely to feel fulfilled?

Needless to say, I am not advocating for child abandonment and abuse. The doctor’s mother behaved despicably, putting her own needs--trotting off to California with her lover--above the needs of her child. Mom should have done what she needed to so that her son could have a place to stay, food to eat, and an easier path through medical school.

But the snarky, spoiled child has been abused too. He will never experience the deeply felt joy that comes from seeing the fruit of his own hard labor; he will never be able to appreciate the peace that comes from knowing he has done the best he could and that he has triumphed against long odds. He will never even learn that working for an hour at nine dollars the hour allows you to buy a sandwich and a drink and have two dollars left over. Simple arithmetic can be a joy.

And a little adversity goes a long way.

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