How to Overcome Self-Pity | Motivational Podcasts

Welcome to the Inspirational Living podcast, brought to you in part by Book of Zen, makers of wearable inspiration for a better world.Today’s podcast has been edited and adapted from the book entitled Health Through Will Power by Dr. James J. Walsh, published in 1919…

The worst brake that we can place on the will to be healthy & well is undoubtedly the habit that some people have of pitying themselves, and feeling that they are eminently deserving of the pity of others because of the trials (real or supposed) which they have to undergo. Instead of realizing how much better off they are than the great majority of people—for most typical self-pitiers are not real subjects for pity—they keep looking at those whom they fondly suppose to be happier than themselves and then proceed to get into a mood of commiseration with themselves because of their less fortunate situation.

Just as soon as men or women assume this state of mind, it becomes extremely difficult for them to stand any real trials that appear in their lives or maintain any feeling of robust energy. Self-pity is ever a serious roadblock to healthy vitality.

A great many things in modern life have distinctly encouraged this practice of self-pity to the extent that it is now almost commonplace for people to feel that they are suffering. We have thus become extremely sensitive to contact with suffering.

Many film-makers today refuse to produce movies that have unhappy endings, because people do not care to see them. The story may have some suffering in it and even severe hardships, especially if these can be used for purposes of a dramatic climax. But by the end of the story everything must have turned out “just lovely”, and it must be understood that suffering is only a passing matter and merely a somewhat unpleasant prelude to inevitable happiness.

Needless to say, this is not the way of life as it often must be lived, in what many generations of writers once called “this vale of tears.” For a great many people have to suffer severely and without any prospect of relief—none of us quite escape the necessity of suffering—and as someone has said, all human life, inasmuch as there is death in it, must be considered a tragedy.

The old Greeks did not hesitate (in spite of their deep appreciation of the beauty of nature and enthusiasm for the joy of living) to emphasize the tragedy in life. They were inclined to think that the sense of contrast produced by tragedy heightened the actual enjoyment of life, and that indeed all pleasure was founded on contrast rather than positive enjoyment. One may not be ready to agree with the saying that the only thing that makes life worthwhile is contrast, but certainly suffering as a background enhances happiness as nothing else can.

Aristotle declared that tragedy purges life, that is, that only through the lens of death and misfortune can one see life free from the dross of the sordid and merely material to which it is attached. His meaning was that tragedy lifts us above the selfishness of mere individualism. And by showing us the misfortunes of others, it prepares us to struggle against whatever misfortunes might come, as they almost inevitably will. At the same time, tragedy lifts us above the trifles of daily life into a higher, broader sphere of living, where we better realize our true selves and powers.

For humankind is distinctly prone to forget about death and suffering, and when we do, to become eminently selfish and forgetful of the rights of others and our duties towards them. The French have a short saying (which is delivered with an intervening shrug of the shoulders) that is extremely illuminating on this matter. They say that the usual thought of men and women when brought face to face with the fact that people are dying all around them is: “People die—Oh, yes, other people!”

We refuse to recognize the fact that we too must go, until death is actually forced upon us by advancing years or by some incurable disease. As for suffering, a great many people have come almost to resent that they should be asked to suffer, and character dissolves in self-pity as a result.

Instead of being absorbed in our popular media, which emphasizes the pleasures of life and pushes its pains into the background, students should be taught from their early years to read the lives of those who have endured successfully hardships of various kinds, and have succeeded in getting satisfaction out of their accomplishment in life, despite all the suffering that was involved. These are human beings like ourselves, and what one mortal has done, other mortals can do.

There was a school of American psychologists before the first World War who had come to recognize the value of that old-fashioned means of self-discipline of the mind, the reading of the lives of the saints. For those to whom that old-fashioned practice may seem too reactionary or religious, there are also the lives and adventures of early travelers to Africa and Asia, as well as early polar explorers, which can be used as a resource.

War books of course are also a valuable resource in this regard. For they lead people to contemplate the hardest kind of suffering—and very often in connection with those who they feel a certain kinship with— and thus they make the reader understand something of the possibilities of human nature to withstand enormous trials and sufferings.

Life in larger families in olden days afforded more opportunities for the proper teaching of the place of suffering than in the smaller families of modern time. Older children, as they grew up, had before them the example of their mother’s trials and hardships in bearing and rearing children, and so came to understand better the place of hard things in life.

In a large family, it was very rare when one or more of the members did not die, and thus growing youth were brought in contact with the greatest mystery in life, that of death. Very frequently at least one of the household (and sometimes more) had to go through a period of severe suffering with which the others were brought in daily contact.

It is sometimes thought in modern times that such intimacy with those who are suffering takes the joy out of life for those who are young, but anyone who thinks so should consult a person who has had the actual experience. While occasionally it may be found that someone with a family history of this kind may think that he or she was rendered melancholy by it, nine out of ten or even more will frankly say that they feel sure that they were benefited.

There is nothing in the world that broadens and deepens the significance of life like intimate contact with suffering, if not in person, then in those who are near and dear to us.

As a physician, I have often felt that I should like to take people who are constantly complaining of their little sorrows and trials, who are downhearted over some minor ailment, who sometimes suffer from fits of depression precipitated by nothing more, perhaps, than a dark day or a little humid weather, or possibly even a petty social disappointment, and put them in contact with cancer patients or others who are suffering severely day by day, yes, hour by hour, night and day, and yet who are joyful and often a source of joy to others. Let us not forget that over a half a million people die every year from cancer in this country alone.

As a physician, I have often found that a chronic invalid in a house becomes the center of attraction for the whole household, and that particularly when it is a woman, whether mother or elder sister, all of the other members bring their troubles to her and go away feeling better for what she said to them. I have seen this not in a few exceptional instances, but so often as to know that it is a rule of life.

Chronic invalids often radiate joy and happiness, while perfectly well people who suffer from minor ills of the body and mind are frequently a source of grumpiness, utterly lacking sympathy, and are impossible as companions.

When pity is properly restricted to practical helpfulness (without any sentimentality), it is a beautiful thing. There is always a danger, however, of its arousing in its object that self-pity which is so eminently unlovely and which has so often the direct tendency to increase, rather than decrease, whatever painful conditions are present.

Crying over a severe loss is healthy and to be expected. But crying over oneself is always to be considered at least a little hysterical. It is often said that a good cry, like a rainstorm, clears the atmosphere of murk and the dark elements of life, but it is dangerous to have recourse to it. It is almost invariably a sign of lack of character and when indulged in to any extent will almost surely result in deterioration of the power to withstand the trials of life, whatever they may be.

William James suggested that not only should men and women stand the things that come to them in the natural course of events, but that they should even go out and seek certain things hard to bear, with the idea of increasing their power to withstand the unpleasant things of life. This is, of course, a very old idea in humanity, and the ascetics from the earliest days of Christianity taught the doctrine of self-inflicted suffering in order to increase the power of resistance.

It is usually said that the Christian hermits and the saintly personages of the early Middle Ages inflicted pain on themselves in order to secure merit for the hereafter. Something of that undoubtedly was on their minds, but their main purpose was quite literally ascetic. Ascesis, from the Greek, means (in its strict etymology) “exercise”. The ascetics were thus exercising their power to stand trials and even sufferings, so that when these events came, as inevitably they would, they would be prepared for them.

The ascetic practice of self-flagellation is of course extreme, and I am not recommending we bring back the practice. But any psychologist of modern times who has given this subject any serious thought will recognize, as did William James did, the genuine psychology of human nature that lies behind these ascetic practices. Nothing that I know is so thoroughly a remedy for self-pity as the actual seeking, at times, of painful things in order to train oneself to bear them.

This is not to say that human nature must not be expected to yield a little under severe trials and bend before the blasts of adverse fortune, but that there should not be that tendency to exaggerate one’s personal feelings, which has unfortunately become characteristic of many people in our current age. Not that we should encourage stony grief, but that sorrow must be restrained and, above all, must not be so utterly selfish as to be forgetful of others.

Tears should, to a large extent, be reserved for joyous rather than sad occasions—for no one ever was supremely joyful without having tears in their eyes. It is when we feel most sympathetic to humanity that the gift of tears comes to us, and no feeling is quite so completely satisfying as that which comes from tears of joy.

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