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Legend tells us Cleopatra killed herself dramatically by submitting her breast to the bite of an asp, a deadly poisonous snake. Most of us aren’t big on kissing snakes, even when they aren’t poisonous. But we all like to poison ourselves—just a little—from time to time. The poison of preference is self-pity.
This isn’t one of those posts in which I graciously tell you how you can aspire to be as wonderful as I am. If it were, the lightning of justice would burn me to a crisp. I’m the one who wrote a memoir, AN INCONVENIENT WOMAN (unpublished and locked away, thank goodness), of me whining about how life overlooked me. Bleah!
Are some people dealt a dreadful hand by Fate? Sure. You don’t have to look hard to see brilliant, capable people who have no chance at all of ever prospering. Sometimes, it looks like there are entire world populations that are lucky to survive to adulthood, much less have a shot at self-fulfillment. Beside them, just getting up in the morning to eat breakfast is a HUGE gift.
When I was teaching, many students passed through my doors who had suffered physical and/or emotional abuse, neglect, and deprivations of intellect and/or opportunity to thrive. Beside them, I hit the lottery jackpot every day of my life.
But we’re talking about self-pity. It’s a perception that doesn’t have to be reasonable to have power. Sometimes it begins with a well-meaning someone saying, “You deserve so much better!” Sympathy can easily be the starter dough for a big old loaf of self-pity.
Sometimes the idea begins with jabs that show us people who are more beautiful (especially with photo-shop), more accomplished, and richer than we are. Did you see the YouTube video of little Johnny playing Chopin at age two? Betty just received a zillion dollar grant for her research. Weren’t you two in the same class? Where’s your name on the list of platinum donors in your alumni newsletter? Your old locker partner just swam a marathon in just under Olympic time and won a Grammy the next day. When we see promotions like these, we have to fight to avoid feeling deficient.
However self-pity starts, if you drink too deeply from the cup, it’s poison. It can blind you to the talents you could use to create a fulfilling life. It tarnishes the gifts in your life and encourages you to look for people and circumstances to blame. We start measuring everything by our expectations—regardless of how practical those expectations are. The old saying goes, “You get what you need, not necessarily what you want.” Most importantly, self-pity gives you a pass when you opt to stop trying, when you wallow instead of having the courage to move on emotionally or physically. I tell myself, “Don’t kiss your asp. You don’t need it.”