That’s a hard thing to read, isn’t it? Self-pity is a choice. We can’t always choose other things. Illness strikes; people turn against you; hatred is spewed at you; life breaks down around you; the system works against you… all the tragic circumstances that aren’t necessarily within your control. And how do we react to these situations? Certainly anger, grief, frustration, and confusion are all justifiable emotions- necessary even. If you don’t allow yourself to feel the resulting emotional forces from life’s inevitable roller-coaster rides, you will turn stone-cold in your boxed-up misery and denial.
There is a 1978 sci-fi thriller called “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Half hilarious, but also half sobering if you know what it feels like to be totally soul-numb and devoid of all feeling in real life. In summary, it depicts humans in San Francisco being replaced with clones bereft of emotion- robots inside human bodies. Their human bodies are invaded by alien plant-like spores while they sleep, and a silent, painless transition from human to clone takes place. The only indication of the change is that the clones’ behavior is completely emotionless, but also violent in their attempt to capture and change others. Please don’t ask me how or why I know this movie exists.
However, self-pity is a similar monster. It’s a cancer that feeds on the “victim” mentality; that life is unfair and the universe owes us something. In reality, life IS unfair, but the universe owes us nothing. God owes us nothing. He gave us life, souls, the ability to love as He loves, free-will to make our own choices, and the gift of eternal life through Jesus. The rest is up to us. What you choose to make of this life and your circumstances is your responsibility.
But just as those alien plant-like spores took over human bodies, so our misery often loves the company of other’s. If we can’t be happy we don’t want to see other people being happy. And instead of channeling our energy to find solutions to the problems, we use it instead to project our negativity and complain about how unfair life is, hoping to make other people feel sorry for us and rope them into our woeful vortex of self-pity in order to feed the rotation and make it spin faster. It’s such a waste of time. And in the end nothing changes. The problems are still there waiting.
“He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work. It wasn’t just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that–it didn’t work.” (Gary Paulsen, Hatchet)
It’s easier to blame our problems on everyone and everything else, though, isn’t it? Instead of doing the hard work of processing through the hardships and pain, we try and make it someone else’s responsibility to make it all better. That’s just not the way of it, though. That’s a hard truth about real life. You alone are responsible for your words, actions, and reactions. “But he/she made me do it!” just isn’t true. If you want things to be different, then you do something different. Otherwise, the misery vortex will continue.
Relationships are a great example of this. There have been more than a few times when my husband and I have experienced break downs in communication; words get thrown around (or the silent treatment ensues), feelings get hurt, and nothing gets resolved until one of us (usually my husband) decides to put on some grown-up pants and start sorting through it. I tend to take the route of self-pity and feel sorry for myself, dwelling on thoughts like, “he just doesn’t understand me!”, “It’s all his fault that I’m so unhappy right now!”, “If he would just…” And on and on it goes. The truth is, it’s easier-and way more self-gratifying- to complain about all the things he’s doing wrong than to take a magnifying glass to my own behavior and figure out what I need to change. Heaven forbid I actually have to do some real work to become a better human being! Because despite what I may think sometimes, no- I am not always right.
Self-pity is also a strong catalyst for soul-numbness. The further you sink into that bitter pit, the less your heart is able to feel and know the wellspring of hope, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When your focus becomes internal, you lose sight of the external; your vision becomes narrow- like a horse wearing blinders; often resulting in numbness and apathy. If you only focus on your own misery, it becomes impossible to care about others. And if you’ve ever reached that place of total numbness and apathy, you recognize that your ability to “feel” has dissipated. Consider your body snatched, because you are no longer yourself; instead owned by the doom and gloom creature of your own creating.
I’ll just pause with all the “teaching commentary” for a minute and say this so you can see that I am very much a work in progress when it comes to self-pity: My morning today was rough. And it was rough because I chose to make it so. I had a bad attitude, unjustly casting the blame of my unhappiness on my family and using minor incidents like spilled milk to feed my inner feelings of frustration. Crazy that a four year old would ever spill milk, right? Well, all morning I walked around this house looking for ways to be mad because I wanted everyone to feel my vexation and annoyance at their existence in my space. Meanwhile, I was mentally listing all the reasons I was justified in my misery. The list was not adding up, which only caused to further irritate me because then I became consumed by guilt on top of it all, which then resorted to self-deprecating thoughts of unworthiness and being a terrible mother, etc., etc. You see where this is leading? Down an endless, dark rabbit hole. It doesn’t solve any problems. It doesn’t make me feel any better – quite the opposite, in fact. It only serves to compound the misery by making everyone else around me feel just as unhappy as I do. Not quite the vision I had in mind for my family dynamic, nor is it God’s. Lord, forgive me.
If you live life looking for ways to feel sorry for yourself and things to be angry about, you will undoubtedly find them. It’s not hard, especially when tragedies occur. The truth is, we live in a very broken world full of imperfect people- every one of us. Nobody is out there getting it right all of the time. It’s daily, conscious decision-making to choose a different, better way- and that better way is rarely gratifying to our human nature. If it makes you feel good in the moment, but later on less than good in your spirit, you have chosen wrong.
We can’t necessarily control what emotions charge up to our mind’s doorstep, but we can control what we do with them. We can’t always control the tragedies and obstacles happening around us and to us, but we can control how we react to those experiences and how we choose to build our life-road with those heavy bricks. Do you lay them haphazardly, filling your path with potholes, ruts, and confusing twists so that it’s misleading and frustrating and nearly impossible for anyone to follow? Or do you make conscious decisions in the placement of each one- taking the time to line them up and space them properly, filling in the cracks so that people can use your experiences and reactions as a safe, reliable guide in navigating difficult circumstances?
I know I want my children to follow a better path than the one I’ve been creating so far. That’s a hard truth to come to terms with, but a very important one if I’m going to continue forward in developing something of more excellent quality- a road actually worth following.
When self-pity attempts to creep in, immediately start asking yourself questions: Is there anything about this situation that is within your control to change? What learning substance can you glean from it? How can you use the experience for positive, personal growth or character strengthening? How could you use this event to effectively lead others through something similar? How can you rearrange your thoughts to center on the positive aspects instead of the negative ones?
Then determine instead to do the hard work of fashioning your piles of ashes into works of exquisite art that create a vivid and vibrant story worth sharing. Your human life and God-given soul are worth the effort. After all, even a homely desert cactus surrounded by dry, rocky soil and covered in prickly skin can bloom a stunning display of blossoms worthy of wonder and admiration.
“Rebellion against your handicaps gets you nowhere. Self-pity gets you nowhere. One must have the adventurous daring to accept oneself as a bundle of possibilities and undertake the most interesting game in the world — making the most of one’s best.” –Harry Emerson Fosdick
Stop choosing self-pity. Look for the bad, and you will find plenty to drown in. Look for the good, and you will encounter the insatiable enjoyment of the infinite wonderful things this life- your life- has to offer.
Peace & Love, Amy