Let it go, and go and get what you need from God and people who can give. ~ Cloud & Townsend
As I kissed the cold forehead of my father-in-law lying in his casket, my soul sighed. It had taken this man, who adored his eldest son (my husband) and viscerally resented every moment I’d stolen of his child’s attention, to unveil the depth of my self-pitying vanity. It had taken this man’s unforgiving disapproval of me to teach me to forgive fully and, once and for all, turn my face toward God. I patted his stiff, stilled arm and whispered, “Thank you.” But, I get ahead of myself.
Long before the death of my father-in-law, over decades of practice, I had perfected the art of self-pity as a primary response to unjust situations, unkind remarks and unfair accusations. As I detailed in Pitithetic I, I had become addicted to the “poor me” buzz I added to console my pain, providing the sympathy for myself that others so often, mysteriously, withheld. I took each situational blow like a rogue wave breaking upon me, dashing me onto the beach where, faultless, I allowed myself to lie quietly, waiting for warm blankets, professional attendants and an endless supply of the hot, sugary tea I richly deserved. Basking in self-pity, I imagined Pity Parties filled with pity pill popping and pepperoni pizzas, as guests exchange their laminated Self-Pity Lists for comment and consolation.
It was all fantasy, of course. Self-pitiers never get the sympathy they long for and loathe being around each other. In fact, languishing in self-pity isolates, like a long, slow bourbon binge that slurs speech, stumbles step and smells foul. No one can understand you. No one wants to be with you. It was that isolation that caused me to tackle my own self-pity tendencies.
1. Choose. I had first to convince myself that I actually had a choice in the habit of self-pity. I had grown up mistakenly believing that some people by temperament are deeply sensitive, hurt easily, sulk long and regularly, needing tender, patient empathy for recovery. Others, I believed, had sturdier constitutions seemingly immune from self-pity, who offer consolation to the more sensitive people. I had originally thought that I was of the latter character, but time and travails proved my claim upon the former and I began to indulge regularly. My crusty, son-worshipping father-in-law came into my life and reminded me in every interaction how worthy was my claim for sympathy. He could not lay eyes upon me without being provoked into some verbal or physical impropriety that, it seemed, I was expected to absorb. So well-versed did I become in his thorough disapproval of me that I turned on my self-pity tape days, sometimes weeks, before his expected arrival. If his bad behavior was my excuse to savor self-pity, I was seldom disappointed.
2. Forgive. Once I chose to “seek,” I quickly learned that my spiritual advisor expected me to start with forgiveness. “Forgive my father-in-law,” I moaned in dismay. “How many times am I supposed to forgive him, honestly?” Well, of course I knew the answer to that question and I became remarkably rehearsed and versed in forgiveness. I became a forgiveness super star.
3. Distinguish suffering. Forgiveness loosened the spiritual grip of wrongs done to me, but forgiving did not touch the emotional pain, the too frequent sense that I was a victim without recourse. I considered uniting my self-pity with the suffering of Christ, but incurred objections from my spiritual advisor. “You have to get at the root sin, Marjorie,” he coaxed, disturbingly unwilling to make suggestions. I knew that some of my melancholy ebbed and flowed from sin-free hormonal cycles, but I resisted the notion that my interior suffering arose from personal sin rather than wrong-doing imposed by an offender or situation. I clung to my beach where I could wallow, fully forgiving each wave that smacked me, obstinately unwilling to consider my role in my own misery.
4. Center God. As I sought through prayer, spiritual direction and secular counseling, I began to hear a gentle whisper. “Look at Me.” “Turn your face this way.” “Look at Me.” On occasion, I felt softness cup my face, like the tender hands of my toddlers who had so often held my face to their gaze. I felt frightened but the message persisted. Was God actually talking to me? ~ directing me, directing my gaze? One day, March 8 precisely, I knew it was so. God wanted me and He was begging me to come.
5. Confront vanity. Under God’s direct gaze and protection, I met my root sin: Vanity. It’s hard to admit to this “very refined, very subtle form of ambition and vanity” (De Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life) which to the sinner seems more like a righteous response to injustice. But seeking, knowing that God was leading me, I could not look away. The depth of my vanity overwhelmed me during an hour at Perpetual Adoration. I filled with shame and with relief as I realized that, for example, my father-in-law’s behavior was not and had never been the real cause of my self-pity. The real cause was my own personal demand that he love me, an insistence that I visited and revisited in our every interaction, no matter how poorly he behaved. I cared more about my father-in-law’s opinion of me than I did about God. “What,” my secular counselor asked later, “was your greatest fear when your self-pity seemed overwhelming?” I haltingly admitted, “They will not love me anymore if I object. I behave to please, to keep everyone happy, so they will love me.”
6. Die into God. For me, that admission ended self-pity. It was abrupt, to be honest. I went to Reconciliation and confessed that I had selfishly tried to please others, that their approval of me and contingent affection for me had guided my decisions, my behavior, my mood and focus. I confessed that pursuit of my father-in-law’s approval was sinful, in thought and deed, because I sought a mortal man’s approval, over God’s abundant love, and obsessed upon my failure. After Reconciliation, I gave my desire to change my father-in-law, please my husband, procure family harmony to God and trusted Him to guide me on these pursuits if they were His will. Then, there was one thing left. I chose what was better, and determined that it would not be taken from me. LUKE 10:42.
7. Set boundaries. Serious boundary work remained. “Boundaries are our way of protecting and safeguarding our souls. Boundaries are designed to keep the good in and the bad out.” (Cloud and Townsend, Boundaries.) If I was going to own and manage my emotion so that I protected my soul, then I had to learn my limits and lovingly but firmly let others know. This work initially felt “selfish” and it most certainly upset several relationships I had to establish anew. I had to remind myself that what was selfish was wasting the love and talents God had given me wallowing in a pitithetic pursuit of the approval of others. “Selfless” unto God did not mean enduring whatever people threw onto me. They, after all, are not God. I had lost much precious time. I had been distracted from God and the work he wanted me to do – all because I would not let go of the vain pursuit of earthly approvals.
I withdrew from situations which I knew would provoke hurt and self-pity. I started saying “no” when I recognized my “yes” had been to impress or to please or to avoid disapproval, not to serve God. I won’t lie. My heart pounded the first time I told my father-in-law that I could no longer permit certain behaviors in front of me or the children. It was difficult to tell my husband that he would have to visit his Dad alone and that I had to limit my interaction with his father. While his was my worst pitithetic case, the ownership I took of my feelings and caring for myself so that I could focus upon and follow Jesus Christ affected every aspect of my life. There was nothing left to roll over from year to year, like tax benefits. No debt remained unpaid to me. The emotion I’d tendered so long, faded, died and expired. I stood up and walked off the beach, out of the reach of rogue waves that had pummeled me because I had refused to move. I walked off the beach and into the embrace of my loving God who had long overdue work for me.
Next: Pitithetic III and consideration of hope and humor.
Topics: Personal Growth