Self-Pity: A Quiet Snare

St-Theophan-Recluse-pravoslavie“Self-pity is the root of all our stumblings into sin. He who does not indulge himself is always steadfast in good.” – St. Theophan the Recluse

I recently experienced the death of a friend. During that time I realized one of the keys between healthy grieving and sinful despair is the focus of our thoughts. When I began dwelling upon, “I’ll never get to see her again,” or “She’ll never be able to make me laugh again like she used to,” I found it was quite easy to slip into despair.

There is nothing wrong with grieving. Writing to a man who lost his wife, Saints Barsanuphius and John counseled the man that of course he should feel pain, “the two become one flesh” and just as a man who has lost a member of his body feels immense pain for a time, so will someone feel emotional pain over losing a spouse or anyone who was dearly loved.  Even Christ wept when coming to the grave of his friend Lazarus.

However, our imagination is, more often than not, the playground of demons. When we visualize how pitiful we must be, we are entering into dialogue with ones who only wish to torment us. Oddly enough, there’s a sick sort of fascination and “comfort” we receive while engaging in this self-pity. It is not natural to us, and therefore does not bring any true fulfillment…just a deeper emptiness or bitterness.

Self-pity enters not only in times of grief, but in nearly every aspect of our lives, as the opening quote by St. Theophan above expresses. During this time of Great Lent, it is easy for us to feel overwhelmed by the rigorous fasting, frequent church services, and communion preparation for the services. Our fleshly crutches have been kicked out from underneath us and we fall upon the ground imagining our tears of self-pity are something holy.

We realize during this time just how weak we truly are. If we could hold to that idea, without feeling sorry for ourselves, without making excuses, simply hold fast to, “God, I am ridiculously weak,” while simultaneously forcing ourselves to our feet to begin the good work, then perhaps God’s grace could finally penetrate through the wall upon which our ego sits.

So we fast, we become hungry and grumpy, irritable about our busy lives and the demands of the church upon us, and we (hopefully) are constantly running to God saying, “I simply cannot do this on my own. I am so much weaker than I thought.”  Even that thought, though, is useless if we do not “gird up our loins” and begin the work in front of us.  I have found this forward movement to be much less difficult than I anticipated if I merely cut off my imaginings and self-pitying thoughts.

As we approach the borders of the paradise of humility, God’s grace splashes upon us. We reject every thought that would cause us to pity our flesh, to feel like the church is demanding too much from us. We cast aside every “Woe is me!” while actively engaging in the salvific work of the church.  All the while, grace begins to quietly and invisibly work upon us.

In this way, perhaps we can begin to understand Great Lent.

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