Self-Pity Is a Place

Self-pity is superglue that binds us to our past.
- Dr. Henry Wright

If they could bottle self-pity, it would knock crack cocaine off the market. - Marvin, quoting Some Smart Guy.

"Don’t get stuck on Gripe." - Dorothea Wierwille


On a recent evening, I was tempted to have a bout of self pity. I talked to myself thusly:

One afternoon thirty years ago, I slid off my couch onto the living room rug, crying enough salty tears to fill a bathtub, because I felt ill-used in an impaired relationship. I had entered what I call the “I ALWAYS... they NEVER...” zone.

And I was having, I realized, a really good time. To this day, I count it as a gift that I recoiled in horror when I recognized that I was having fun. Since that fateful pity-party, I have tried to keep a sharp eye out for my tendency to perceive myself as a victim of some meanie’s bad behavior.

How do we frame things? Our lives are a series of things that happen to us, but like icing on cake, how we think about those things can become a bigger deal than what actually happened. Many people tolerate cake for the sake of the icing. Many people allow junk in their life in order to top it off with the feelings they’re comfortable with, and many people are comfortable with self-pity.

How am I going to tell the story of my life? Am I the much-put-upon hero of a sad, sad, tale? What an attractive possibility – surely someone will have to set aside their life to come rescue me. I won’t have to do a blessed thing except be pitiful, and I will be bathed with attention.

If we could see the map of our soul we would recognize: Self-pity is a place. We travel there on a road paved with past events, rolled out in one cohesive narrative: Someone done us wrong. The same pavers can be used to build a road to Always Angry, or another suburb of the soul called Hardness of Heart.

Try building a road to Gratitude or Joy, with the same stones. Reframe the facts. Even nasty, hard facts can form a road to those heart-places, much nicer neighborhoods. Such construction takes heavy lifting. Under every rock of tragedy and hardship in my life - rocks I never bothered to budge - I found God's presence when I looked. Only after I looked, could I rearrange the stones.

Rearranging the stones is different from burying them and pretending they’re not there. I once belonged to a group that said,Renew your mind!” like a parrot repeating its only phrase, whenever someone had an ugly feeling. It was a statement to be taken like a word-pill, an Rx for every negative emotion. Looking under the rocks was a solecism. We were first-class feeling stuffers.

My current pastor is lenient about self-pity and other negative emotions. He says whatever state we’re in – mad, bad, or sorry for ourselves - is the only place God can help us. The only place He can love us is where we are. We can’t fool Him by pretending we’re not mad, or bad, or sorry for ourselves. He knows, and envelopes us in His astonishing love.

So I don’t want to beat myself up when I feel sorry for myself. But when I recognize self-pity, I can back away from self-indulgence. I don’t have to take a bath in it. Sure, I feel the way I feel – but I can take my pitiful self with a grain of salt. And look up, from wherever I am on the map of my soul. Someone’s watching over me.

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