I sometimes think I’m reliving Groundhog Day with some people. You might know such individuals too. Take any grievance across the spectrum of human experience today: office politics, insufferable personal relationships, struggles to pay the bills, turmoil and gridlock in the governing classes, getting divorced, that guy who just cut me off on the freeway. When they bring such issues up for the umpteenth time, over coffee, at lunch, or anytime they have a chance to moan about it, they might not see it as a grievance at all, but rather as their lived reality. They’re just being honest and straight talkers, and they may well be right. There is also a need for friends and family to productively discuss, deliberate, and yes, every so often, vent at ridiculousness, awful luck, and injustice.
How often had you had a friend or relative who seems to be stuck in a loop, who seems to even take some perverse kind of pleasure in dwelling on unhappy matters? Merriam-Webster defines self-pity as: “pity for oneself; especially: a self-indulgent dwelling on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes.”
I believe that, to some extent, we are only as good as the world allows us to be. We need to empathize with violent children who grew up in broken homes, and we can try to see why a man who grew up in a poverty-stricken area might be avaricious and selfish in his professional and social life. And it’s not just the powerful who hurt others: those who have suffered abuse and dehumanization can replicate that against those with less agency and weaker voices. We can “replace our self with the other,” as Shantideva would say, to try understanding why people feel the way they feel and do the things they do.
Initially I wasn’t sure how to distinguish between genuine, compassionate acknowledgment of one’s problems and self-pity. After all, am I allowed to feel sorry for myself once after a bad thing happens? What about twice? What about four times over a month? That would mean that I feel sorry for myself about that incident once a week, which seems pretty good to me. That frees up some of my self-pity quota for something else that affected me negatively. What if I dwelled on several different unhappy things every day of the week?
Here we get to the real problem of the self-pitier. It’s never even been about the bad things happening to them. It’s all about them. Bad things, big and small, are all taken personally as slights against them, insults to their very person. Sorrows and misfortunes are real, but the self-pitier very quickly makes it less about the problems themselves and more about their own inadequacies and neuroses. Yes, there are certain circumstances beyond our control, and these occurred either long before we were born or were forces we had no influence over. We don’t need to worry about those. Yet the self-pitier takes not just the mistakes that were within his or her control, but all things, even those beyond their power to shape, and frames their struggle as one of “them” against “the world,” as if the universe has it in for them and will act to frustrate, disappoint, and injure them at every turn.
Spirituality and selfishness are closer to each other than we like to think. Both are turned inward; they are natural activities that approach the illusion of the ego. But whereas authentic spirituality dispels that illusion, selfishness (and spirituality infected by self-regard) feeds that ego, expanding that bubble until it bursts into the nothingness that it really is. At some point personal responsibility must be introduced into the mix, but arguably an even more important indication of emotional maturity is how impersonally one manages pain. Pain is universal; suffering is psychological. The Buddha died of dysentery, from a physical perspective. Yet he felt no suffering whatsoever. The quality of an arhat and other enlightened beings is to never, ever take pain personally and hence introduce the mind to all that attachment and aversion, which will be followed inevitably by suffering.