by Alex Peeples
Picture this; a man strapped to a cross in biblical times, but he is not who you think he is. He is actually a British comedian named Eric Idle, singing among a chorus of men sharing the same brutal fate, all of them whistling and singing a song entitled “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”. It’s terribly embarrassing to admit that I’m envious of a man on a cross. The scene that I just mentioned is not a true account, but from the Monty Python movie Life of Brian. And while it’s completely fictional, I am jealous of the rows and rows of men nailed to crosses on the screen. Why? Because they have something that I am very unfortunate not to possess, and I took it away from myself single handedly. That thing is optimism.
According to Social-Learning theorists and my last trip to Wikipedia, self-pity is a psychological state of mind. While it is a psychological condition, it is a very special one. Unlike your typical psychological condition, no one is born with self-pity; it is an entirely self-inflicted mental condition. It does not involve birth defects, injured brain tissue, or genetics. It’s the same as getting a tattoo, it is entirely one’s own choice and in the future it is guaranteed to be accompanied by regret. Most theorists have observed that children who possess self-pity grow up to be self-dependant and lonely people, who either give attention to themselves or become forced to ask others for attention. Upon learning this information only a few minutes ago, I felt something in my stomach knot up like a rope tied by a jaded sailor. While I desperately don’t want to admit it to myself, I’m afraid that these statistics have a chance of including me within the next few years, if not sooner. Self-pity has also been called “healthy”, as long as it results in a change in the given situation. If self-pity is healthy, than mine has been buttered, deep fried, covered in powdered sugar, and served with a milkshake from Burger King. It has benefitted me at times, but without lasting effects, thus barely making them beneficial. What makes self-pity such an agonizing addiction is that if it doesn’t help you, it’s guaranteed to hurt you.
Maya Angelou once said, “Self-pity in its early stage is as snug as a feather mattress. Only when it hardens does it become uncomfortable”. While it is a very a fitting simile for self-pity, I would have used something besides a “feather mattress”. I see self-pity as more of a cloud, you look at one and you instantly assume that there could be nothing softer and more relaxing to lie down on. How could anything possibly go wrong on top of a cloud? So you choose to lie down on that cloud, and before your feet even touch the pillowy surface, you fall through. Self-pity does not simply leave you uncomfortable; it leaves you soaking wet and falling a million miles toward the surface of reality, and it does it instantly. At least that has been my experience with it. Self-pity became a consistent characteristic of mine sometime around the fifth or sixth grade. I had three very close friends, all of whom were popular and funny, and the time that I spent with them was some of the best moments of young life. I remember running into the middle of pickup football games on the playground just to mess with the jocks, saying “bad words” for the first time and knighting ourselves as “official badasses”. I couldn’t have been happier. One day they finally broke the news to me that they were not really my friends, that they had grown tired of me, and other things that inconsiderate pre-teens say to each other. And now the only days I remember from that school year are the ones when the sky was completely gray, and it seemed like all of them were.
Subconsciously, everyone fears friendlessness, especially as a young teenager. Of course, because it’s a subconscious fear, some people simply don’t realize it, and those were typically the people who always had friends. I was not one of those blessed people. The match that struck my long and continuing streak of self-pity was merely my deep fear of not having friends in the fifth grade, which as I look back on it, was a pretty stupid reason for starting a flame that hasn’t shown any signs of going out in the last five years. I remember taking the smallest aspects of the day before and twisting them into what you would’ve thought were life changing events for me. It might’ve been stubbing my toe while walking up a series of steps, my mother getting a little miffed with me because I left my shoes in the middle of the living room. This was more than self-pity; it was a serious mental disorder. I would mope around classes feeling sorry for myself, hoping that someone would feel the same. And I’m sure that my classmates felt truly sorry for me, just not in the way that I hoped.
Half of my fifth grade memories are of the gray sneakers I wore because they were all I saw when I trudged down the hallways of Ashley River Creative Arts Elementary School. I’m sure it’s not uncommon to see a scrawny white kid wearing glasses hang his head low in elementary school, but at the consistency that I hung my head, I probably caught some people’s attention. The people who actually were my friends started to be concerned and began treating me like a leper. My parents are the people that I feel the guiltiest about affecting. They began to worry about my mental health, they were forced to prod me with questions about how I was feeling and if anything was wrong. My response was always the same, “I don’t wanna talk about it.” Of course this fueled them find out even more, and while they never got to the bottom of it all, I can see that they are still somewhat concerned about me even when I’m at my happiest. Of course I was oblivious to my parents’ genuine concern at the time and just saw it as another way to gain attention. I would dream of reasons to be sad in order to garner the sympathy of my peers, and on occasion I still do. The Bible states that “we rejoice in our sufferings,” and that was always my motivation. I have matured from always wishing that something tragic would happen in order to boost my social status, and whenever a thought like that enters my mind now, I see the demented, almost serial killer-like logic behind those thoughts. But it does still happen, and when it does, it isn’t a thought, it’s a shadow. Not one of those large, looming shadows that people usually associate with addictions, but a seductive shadow, an incarnation of Aphrodite that my anxious psyche tries desperately to push away. But then it warmly embraces me, and I can’t let go.
As I mentioned before, I have been robbed of optimism by my own hand. And that has been the most substantial consequence of my self-pity. And my consistent pessimism has had the same consequences as my self-pity, so you could say the overall consequences have been doubled. Both have left me stamped in bright red ink with the label of “downer”. Being considered a negative person is not an easy way to go through life, and people gain a fear to approach you, a fear to work with you, a fear to do anything that may in any way, shape, or form, involve you. Insulting yourself leaves people feeling uncomfortable, and it never does anything to help. Self-pitying leaves you even more alone than you were at the beginning. Having to come to terms with all of these facts has been a difficult and somber few days. Realizing that my immense self-pity was caused by one day in the fifth grade and about a thousand others caused by myself has been embarrassing. I still wish that I had the mindset of Eric Idle in Life of Brian, and every day I look in my mirror and say that I can be a whistling man on a crucifix. But in order to see that person I have stare down my pessimistic self first. Looking in my mirror and seeing the person that I sculpted with my own two hands using this one state of mind is a dismal feeling. The cold marble of this statue’s eyes follow me wherever I go, and I hope to one day gouge them out. I pity myself for having built it. I pride myself for wanting to tear it down.
Life of Brian. Dir. Terry Jones. Perfs. Monty Python. HandMade Films, 1979.