I became a fan of Robert Fulghum and his writing after I graduated from Tusculum College, now Tusculum University. He wrote an essay titled “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” included in a book by the same name. A friend gifted me with a framed copy of the essay for graduation, and I loved the message.
I figured if I enjoyed one essay that much, I would probably enjoy his other writings, so I bought his books. I have read several of them, and I’ve given them as gifts to a few folks over the years. He looks at life and its little details in a way that few people do and is an inspiration to me, my outlook, and my writing.
One of my favorite Fulghum essays has been on my mind in recent months, and I was reminded of it again as I listened to Andy Sarkaney describe his early life in a Jewish ghetto during the Holocaust. (Mr. Sarkaney’s talk was part of Tusculum University’s Holocaust Remembrance Week, along with several other presentations.)
The essay was published in Fulghum’s book titled “Uh-Oh: Some Observations from Both Sides of the Refrigerator Door,” and it is titled “Sigmund Wollman’s Reality Test.” In it, Fulghum describes working at an inn in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1959. He had just graduated college and was filled with self-righteous indignation. He was complaining to the night auditor about the owner only providing sauerkraut and wieners for lunch every day for a week.
The night auditor, Sigmund Wollman, was a German Jew who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp for three years. He listened to Fulghum’s rant and then quietly said, “Fulchum [sic], you think you know everything, but you don’t know the difference between an inconvenience and a problem. If you break your neck, if you have nothing to eat, if your house in on fire—then you got a problem. Everything else is inconvenience. Life is inconvenient. Life is lumpy. Learn to separate the inconveniences from the real problems. You will live longer. And will not annoy people like me so much.”
Wow. Perspective is a valuable asset. It reminds us that the inconveniences we have today due to the coronavirus pandemic are just that, inconvenient. The pandemic seems to have gone on forever, but Mr. Wollman was incarcerated in a concentration camp far longer.
We’re being asked to wear a cloth or mask to cover the lower part of our faces when we are in public places with others, but Mr. Wollman was forced to wear filthy striped uniforms while incarcerated and a tattoo on his arm forever. Mr. Sarkaney and millions of other Jews were forced to wear a Jewish star on their clothing to brand them as inferior.
We are frustrated that large gatherings aren’t allowed. We couldn’t attend concerts and needed to limit vacation travel this summer, but Anne Frank’s family spent more than two years confined to four rooms because their survival depended on it.
We’ve had to reschedule or cancel events, and we may need to continue to do so for a while longer. Holiday celebrations have been smaller and shopping hours are shorter than we had become accustomed to, but food, goods, and services are still available. Less convenient, yes, but still available.
Fulghum ends his essay by saying he asks himself during times of stress, “Fulchum. Problem or inconvenience?” He calls it the ‘Wollman Test of Reality.’ He concludes by pointing out that “Life is lumpy. And a lump in the oatmeal, a lump in the throat, and a lump in the breast are not the same lump. One should learn the difference.”
Thanks for the wisdom, Mr. Fulghum, and for the reminder, Mr. Sarkaney.