James is walking on a downtown street one day, and he happens to see his old high school friend, Harry, a little ways up ahead. “Harry, Harry, how are you?” he greets his old buddy after getting his attention.
“Not so good,” says Harry.
“Why, what happened?” James queries.
“Well,” Harry says, “I just went bankrupt and I’ve still got to feed my family. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”
“Could have been worse,” James replies calmly. “Could have been worse.”
A month or so later, James again encounters Harry, in a restaurant. “And how are things now?” he asks.
“Terrible!” says Harry. “Our house burned down last night.”
“Could have been worse,” says James, again with total aplomb, and goes about his business.
A month later, James runs into Harry a third time. “Well, how goes it?” he inquires.
“Oh!” says Harry. “Things just get worse and worse. It’s one tragedy after another! Now my wife has left me!”
Harry nods his head and gives his usual optimistic-seeming little smile, accompanied by his usual words: “Could’ve been worse.”
This time, Harry grabs James by the shoulders. “Wait a minute!” he says. “I’m not gonna let you off so easy this time. Three times in the past few months we’ve run into one another, and every time I’ve told you the latest disaster in my life. Every time you say the same thing: ‘Could have been worse.’ This time, for God’s sake, Harry, I want you to tell me: how in Heaven’s name could it have been any worse?”
James looks at Harry with the same little wisp of a smile. “Could have been worse,” he says. “Could have happened to me.”