Have you heard this one before? Poor me! Poor me! Pour me another drink!
That’s a bit of the wit and wisdom of Alcoholics Anonymous. AA offers this quip as a warning against self-pity. And AA is not alone in sounding an urgent warning. Consider this from novelist John Gardner:
Self pity is easily the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality.
Both AA and Gardner describe self-pity as addictive. Why? Just about any addictive substance has an initial attraction—either some form of euphoria or some relief from pain. Then it takes over. It corrodes freedom and judgment and creates dependency. That dependency is not static; it grows, as the addictive substance demands more frequent and greater doses, no longer offering a high, not even to remain “normal,” but simply to forestall even more painful cravings. How can self-pity work like that?
There is no sin or shame in acknowledging that we have suffered pain, indignity, injustice or loss. There is a proper place for grief and lamentation in the moral life and the spiritual life as well. There is a role for extending genuine compassion to ourselves, rather than toxic shame or self-hatred for our wounds, our shortcomings, or our sins. Great saints have always known this. Two examples will suffice.
St. Thomas Aquinas taught that contrition (that is, sorrow for sin) is the greatest sorrow in the world, and also taught that the sorrow of contrition can be too great. Poor souls torturing themselves over repented sin would do well to recall the wisdom of St. Bernard of Clairvaux:
Grief for sins is necessary, but must not be perpetual. My advice is to turn back at times from sorrow and the anxious remembrance of your ways, and escape to the plain, to a calm review of the divine mercies. Let us mingle honey with wormwood, that the salubrious bitter may give health when we drink it tempered with a mixture of sweetness: while you think humbly of yourselves, think also of the goodness of the Lord.
Self-pity is compassion that is hijacked and corrupted. It is a persistent focus on self, which is also a turning away from God, who can and should be the first satisfaction of our hearts. As we are turned in upon self, the Enemy begins to whisper in our darkness, telling us that we are abandoned, that we are spiritual orphans, and that we are unprovided for.
Taking in those lies stirs up two terrible processes.
First, it foments resentment against those who may have wronged us—whether those wrongs are real or imagined. Resentment is the birth mother of many forms of malice, particularly spite and revenge, which drive charity from our hearts.
Second, self-pity clears the ground for making excuses for self-indulgence, leading to sin. The Enemy tells us, “Go ahead! You deserve it! Just this once! Life has been so unfair that it’s only right that the moral law doesn’t apply to you!’ When we start listening to that poisonous voice, we are well on our way to rationalizing even the most disgraceful sins.
Sacred Scripture offers us an alternative vision. In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus says:
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
Self-pity tells us that we should not have to suffer at all; Jesus tells us that we do not to suffer alone—embracing his yoke, we will find that he shares our burdens and gives us his peace.
The words of Jesus are confirmed by St. Peter. In 1 Peter 5:6-7, he tells us:
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.
Self-pity tells us that we are alone and we are entitled; Sacred Scripture tells us that we are not alone and that we are loved. How to escape self-pity when we feel it welling up inside of ourselves. We can take these three steps:
- Seek the will of God rather than our own will, especially when we are in pain;
- Avail ourselves of every spiritual aid, particularly Sacred Scripture and the sacraments;
- Pray the Stations of the Cross and the Chaplet of Our Lady of Sorrows.
God offers better to us than the trinkets and addictions offered to us by self-pity. Let’s act accordingly.
When I write next, I will speak of how to manage our fear. Until then let’s keep each other in prayer.
We are not confetti blown in the wind, but pieces of a mosaic: Full text of pope’s Pentecost homily