I recently listened to a podcast with Fr. Mike Schmitz about why self-pity is not appropriate behaviour for Christians (I think this is the same talk, although I’m in public and can’t check so I’m not 100% sure). I’ve gotta say, it burned a bit, as I’m an absolute wallower, very prone to self-pity. I’m even more keenly aware of it because my husband is the opposite – he doesn’t complain much at all and never feels sorry for himself – and I think he’s sometimes frustrated by my inclination towards “it’s not faaaair!” when things don’t go my way. But I digress!
Apart from striking a personal chord, I initially felt like what he was saying was a little unfair. I mean, some people have really terrible things happen to them, right!? It seems harsh to say that it’s sinful to feel sorry for yourself. And indeed, I do think it’s harsh. Even if it isn’t spiritually optimal, I would be loath to tell someone who just got a late stage cancer diagnosis (or whatever) that they should quit feeling so darn sorry for themselves.
But I kept thinking about it, about myself and about other people I know who are inclined towards self-pity. I realised that the danger of self-pity is often that it can lead to self-indulgence. Imagine this: you’re single, and you want nothing more than to meet the right person to marry and start a family with, but you’re in your late 30s and beginning to feel like the possibilities of this happening are diminishing with every passing day. That would *absolutely* be a hard place to be, and you would have every right to feel sad, even mad, and to wonder why God isn’t answering your prayers as you’d wish.
But imagine that you start to feel very sorry for yourself. It’s just not fair. I would make a great wife and mother, and I might not ever get the chance. All my friends are married, and some of them on their 4th or 5th kids. I am so unfulfilled by my life. Then you meet a guy, a great guy with whom you connect immediately. He desires the same things as you. However, he is in a long-distance relationship. You know this, but you text him a lot and meet up with him once or twice per week. It feels so good to finally spend time with a guy you like, and who seems to like you too!
Now, in an ideal world, obviously it would be great if he was single. But clearly this isn’t an ideal world, and his girlfriend is far away, and he seems to be into you, and nothing has *actually* happened between you… so you keep seeing him. Your attraction grows, and you can see his does too. One day, you end up kissing.
Unfortunately, this anecdote is not entirely imaginary in my case. I once dated a guy who I knew had a girlfriend, but she lived on the other side of the country. I knew it was wrong, and I knew that I deserved more than that, let alone his girlfriend. Yet I was in a place of self-pitying despair, lamenting my bad luck with men. And that self-pity allowed me to make excuses for my behaviour, and to be open to interpreting his comment that things were “complicated” with his girlfriend extremely liberally.
A more every day example would be the struggles of motherhood. The baby woke up several times in the night, your husband is working late, there’s no food in the fridge, and you’re exhausted. It’s OK to think “this sucks!”, and to let the appropriate people (your spouse, your family, maybe your friends) know that you’re very tired and would love if someone could facilitate your taking a nap. But as soon as we start to feel sorry for ourselves, it is easy to slip into justifying our rudeness towards others or snappiness with our children by thinking “well what do they expect?! I’m freaking tired!” Our self-pity makes way for self-indulgent justification of sin.
You get the picture. Maybe you are better than me about keeping your self-pity in check. For me, it was kind of a breakthrough to realise that the dangers of this tendency go beyond being annoying for others and unhelpful for myself. It actually paves the way for greater sin.
And for what it’s worth… when I finally came to my senses and ended it with the guy with the girlfriend, I met my now-husband less than a week later 😉