A defense of self-pity

A colleague on one of my (perpetual, futile) PhD programs had a huge poster hanging in the office showing a majestic Eagle and saying something to the effect that animals never pity themselves [so – implied – you shouldn’t as a human PhD student]. I’ve often seen this sentiment beaten up, but never quite understood 1) what exactly is meant and 2) why it is so undignified and loathsome.

In contrast, recently, in one of my more useful readings – Francis Weller’s “The Wild Edge of Sorrow” – I read the following:

Grieving, by it’s very nature, confirms worth.

(Said book is devoted to grief in its full length.)

I rarely copy quotes out of books (which might be why I never finished any of the PhDs … when I think about it) … but I copied that one into my blog post drafts.

The notable thing might be the context in which he says the above. The second chapter (I think; I won’t bother to look it up; another argument against the PhD) of the book talks about the “five gates of grief”, basically five paths to accumulating (and hopefully living through) grief. Some are obvious, such as losing loved ones; others are less obvious, such as the loss of older ways of life and community and nature connection that we were built for, and of nature (parts of the ecosystem) itself. Maybe even less obvious are the abstract losses, such as dreams, aspirations, images of things (people, ourselves) we’d had.

Now that latter realm skirts closer to self-pity.

But the gate of grief that struck me the most was loss of parts of the soul (self; psyche; whichever you prefer) as a source of (usually hidden, unrecognised or unidentified) grief. Essentially grief that comes from denying and sometimes under-grounding living parts of our personality, because of circumstances. Circumstances that can be hardcore (various traumas) or more soft-core (mum looked at us the wrong way when that part of us came out; it was not cool to be who we were; nobody understood).

Crying over that is certainly self-pity. Or at least could be framed as that in sufficiently evocative ways.

So I’ll call it self-pity for argument’s sake – sitting there miserably sobbing about your lost childhood / youth dream or the emotions you got so used to repressing that you ended up feeling too dead; feeling miserable over how nobody understood you; nobody was there; about (another item on Weller’s list) the things you inherently expected, but which didn’t come.

Nobody died, it’s not a war, perhaps you live in the first world and all your basic needs are met. Clearly self-pity.

On Weller’s account, feeling and facing grief for lost aspects of the self is actually healing; it strengthens and purifies us. It has a strange force of integration (now he doesn’t say that, but I say it based on my impressions).

I’m not sure why, but grief for denied, tortured, neglected, abused (even symbolically) aspects of the soul and self for some reason seems to have the power to mend some of the old cracks in the self.

I wish I had figured that out sooner – I saw the cracks even when I was 13 (I remember because at that time I visited a museum sporting a huge, hyper-realistic Dali [I think] painting of a giant crack going through a circle, or maybe square … but seeing that meters-tall giant elaborately painted crack, I internalised the image strongly as it reflected something inside me very precisely).

I can’t find the painting or anything similar to it anywhere; the closest is perhaps this random book cover.

Anyways – I wish I had known sooner, because the crack was there since before age 13, and until age 35 nobody told me that the way to fix that kind of thing is (apparently) to grieve over it.

I have no idea how (or why) it works.

But it might be because … grieving, by it’s very nature, confirms worth.

In this case, it confirms the worth of what was lost, or the destructed and disintegrated elements of the self. Of the wholeness that was lost – yes, it was worthy, it was valuable, it was holy in a way (as every soul is). And one of the wounds (a secondary wound? or a primary, root one?) has been that this was not seen and heeded at all, or enough.

In wounds and losses related to the self, perhaps the confirmation of worth can have an especially significant healing power if the initial wounds are related precisely to lack of worth and importance. What I mean is, it is good and right to grieve a person we lost and thus celebrate and confirm the huge worth they had / have to us – but that is usually kind of a confirmation of what’s obvious (or at least expected) anyways. In losses related to the self, on top of the original loss (say, of our spontaneity; or our self-assertion) comes piled the additional loss (or insult) that we pretend it doesn’t matter.

We’re pushed to pretend it doesn’t matter, or we don’t even have concepts to think about how and that such things could matter. I certainly didn’t – when I was younger, I didn’t have such concepts (I just saw puzzling, random, oppressive images of destruction in my mind’s eye).

So yes, it matters, and grieving it (let it look like self-pity) is important because if we are lucky, it restores us (somewhat). At least in my case, the change is noticeable. It’s legit and useful to grieve even if we (comparatively) live a life of (material) sufficiency or luxury – mending the soul might as well enable us to make better use of that for self and others. Might impart some of the strength that it takes.

Another thought thread weaving in and out is related to some article someone posted somewhere, this one – the main argument is that artificial gratitude is useless as a remedy for depression. I concur 100%. But this set me thinking about the aspects coming up above, on being materially OK but still miserable on a soul level. And the “right” to be miserable even if it is really true that one is far better off than many others – like the scene when I was a white European-passport holder funded on a uni scholarship and depressed, and my south Indian housemate sticking in my face how that doesn’t make sense because he had worked his way up to the same place from wretched poverty with years of hard manual labour along other efforts and deprivations.

Circumstances like these (being keenly aware of being privileged in relation to many people, as my comparison baseline was never the “1st world”) for a long time paralysed my self-pity (or my ability to grieve for things that genuinely hurt me). It just didn’t seem significant … like “1st world problems”, as they call it; I was kind of ashamed of my mental state.

I think it is true that sufferings are wildly disproportionate across the world and even across the neighbourhood; still, to empower myself and also – this is true – to develop more compassion, I needed to grieve abstract losses of self; subtle losses of soul, emotion – whatever the moral judgment, denying or belittling things that genuinely hurt never let me move on or genuinely get stronger (in handling self and others in stable, grounded ways). Confirming the value of self by grieving, despite all, somehow does; so my conclusion would be that this is what has to be done.

Weirdly, not sure whether Weller says this or not, but for sure the DEI “school of feeling” says it – grief is deeply “connective” or (as they say) “boundary-dissolving”. It’s as if confirming the value of the self goes so deep the the core that at the same time it also confirms and honours the value of the core in everything, everyone – of something like the identical, shared core of the Earth (not sure if that extends to the cosmos :).

I’m not sure why this is, but it clearly feels like this is exactly what happens.

A final reflection on grief, self-pity, and “greater sufferings”. After reading the above-linked article and posting somewhere that I agree with it, artificially inventing gratitude for example by comparing yourself to others who are more miserable seems wrong, and also doesn’t work to help anyone (the latter I can attest) … just a few days after writing this, a situation happened that seemed to prove the opposite.

[content warning: next paragraph is about suicide, addiction and sex work]

I called a friend to ask what’s up … and found out that her ex-lover had just died unexpectedly. The person had been addicted to at least 2 hard drugs and alcohol, had heavy diagnosed mental problems, and was living off sex work because she had been in the country illegally for 10 years – no way back to an abusive past, also no way to work or pay rent legally. Her sublet had been terminated on short notice, and a few days later she was found dead from overdose.

I had been moderately depressed in the days leading up to these news, and for some reason it actually worked. Since I had known the story but not expected this finale, I was in shock for a day. Then I made some inner gesture of compassion, grieving and honouring that soul for even having survived that up to that point, thinking how much hell it must have cost to get out of it (if it were even possible). Then for the next days I was knocked out of my depression, somehow – it was gone. I thought of how life is fragile and how thin the veil is that separates the living from those that just disappear like that. I got perspective; I felt somehow smaller – my problems still existed, but looking at them from the perspective of random mortality and the fact that I had somehow stayed out of this level of mayhem made me willing even to see the humour in the absurdity of some of my deadlocks and double-binds. It’s bizarre – so what? Maybe I have to do things people deem strange – so what? In the end, in finite-ness, mortality, there is some level of freedom – one small person with some small issues (like me) is not that over-archingly important.

Maybe here’s the paradox – I never felt that so clearly before, and I wonder if I could have felt this modicum of lightness and perspective before grieving the abstract, first-world problems of loss of self, throwing this small inner self-pity-validation party, before really knowing my small sufferings and valuing them. It is as if confirming value, self-value and soul-value also enables perspective, paradoxically; makes it more Ok that the self is not invulnerable and not infinite; makes it clear that this is ultimately a connection and rooting point.

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