By Robert Fulghum (1937- ), from his 1991 book “UH-OH!” Fulghum was also the author of the best-selling All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (1989).
It was the summer of 1959. At a resort inn in the Sierra Nevada of Northern California, I had a job that combined being the night desk clerk in the lodge and helping with the horse-wrangling at the stables. The owner-manager was Swiss, with European notions about conditions of employment. He and I did not get along. I thought he was a fascist who wanted peasant employees to know their place. I was 22, just out of college, and pretty free with my opinions.
One week the employees were served the same thing for lunch every single day. Two wieners, and mound of sauerkraut and stale rolls. To compound insult injury, the cost of the meals was deducted from our paychecks. I was outraged.
On Friday night of that awful week, I was at my desk job around 11:00 p.m., and the night auditor had just come on duty. I went into the kitchen and saw a note to the chef to the effect that wieners and sauerkraut were on the employees menu for two more days.
That did it. For lack of any better audience, I unloaded on the night auditor, Sigmund Wollman.
I declared that I had had it up to here, that I was going to get a plate of wieners and sauerkraut and wake up the owner and throw it at him. Nobody was going to make me eat wieners and sauerkraut for a whole week and make me pay for it, and this was un-American, and I didn’t like wieners and sauerkraut enough to eat them even one day for Pete’s sake, and the whole hotel stunk, and I was packing my bags and heading for Montana where they never even heard of wieners and sauerkraut and wouldn’t feed that stuff to pigs. Something like that.
I raved on this way for 20 minutes. My monologue was delivered at the top of my lungs, punctuated by blows on the front desk with a fly swatter, the kicking of chairs, and much profanity.
As I pitched my fit, Sigmund Wollman sat quietly on his stool, watching me with sorrowful eyes. Put a bloodhound in a suit and tie and you have Sigmund Wollman.
He had good reason to look sorrowful. He was a German Jew, a survivor of three years in Auschwitz. He was thin and coughed a lot. He liked being alone at the night job. It gave him intellectual space, peace and quiet, and, even more, he could go into the kitchen and have a snack whenever he wanted—all the wieners and sauerkraut he wished. To him, it was a feast. More than that, there was nobody around to tell him what to do. In Auschwitz he had dreamed of such a time.
The only person he saw at work was me, the nightly disturber of his dreams. Our shifts overlapped an hour. And here I was, a one-man war party at full cry.
Sigmund said, “Lissen, Fulchum. Lissen me, lissen me. You know what’s wrong with you? It’s not the wieners and kraut and it’s not the boss and it’s not the chef and it’s not this job.”
“So what’s wrong with me?” I asked.
“Fulchum, 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 is 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 you will not annoy people like me so much. Good night.”
In a gesture combining dismissal and blessing, he waved me off to bed.
Seldom in my life have I been hit between the eyes so hard with truth. There in that late night darkness of a Sierra Nevada inn, Sigmund Wollman simultaneously kicked my butt and opened a window in my mind.
For 30 years now, in times of stress and strain, when something has me backed against the wall and I’m ready to do something stupid with my anger, a sorrowful face appears in my mind and asks, “Fulchum, problem or inconvenience?”
I think of this as the ‘Wollman Test of Reality.’ 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.
Good night, Sig.
“We don’t see things as they are; we see them as we are.”
Philippians 4:11b-12 — I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.
I Timothy 6:6-8 — Godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that.
Hebrews 13:5b — Be content with what you have.
Romans 8:18 — I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.
Colossians 3:15 — Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.
Help me, Lord, to see what I need to see.
Help me to learn what I need to learn.
Grant me the grace to apply these lessons in my life.
Enable me, Lord, to manage my thoughts and emotions so that I may have the proper perspective and response to my challenges.
Though my burdens seem heavy, I pray that you direct all my steps toward you.
In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen.