It’s Not Your Circumstances that Matter
But What You Do with Them
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying
The Potentially Helpful
In my ragged copy of a 1969 book, Journey to Freedom, I find a quote from Tennessee Williams’s, Camino Real, in which one character (Quixote) tells another (Kilroy), “Don’t! Pity! Your! Self! The wounds . . . the many offenses our egos have to endure being housed in bodies that age and hearts that grow tired, are better accepted with a tolerant smile . . . Otherwise what you become is a bag full of curdled cream – leche male, we call it – attractive to nobody, least of all to yourself! Have you any plans?” Kilroy answers, “Well I was thinking of going on from here.” Quixote responds, “Good! Come with me!” (Dowdey, 25,26)
The idea is at least as old as Stoicism: don’t let anything that happens outside you touch and hurt your soul. The common versions might be expressed as, “Don’t let life get you down,” and, “Your life is what you make of it.”
Surely self-pity is a trap – in John Bunyon’s allegorical terms (The Pilgrim’s Progress), a “slough of despond” that, as we say, bogs us down. As long as we remain stuck in this bog of self-pity, we go nowhere. So, very often in life, what we do with our present circumstances determines whether we go on from there.
Bravado’s overblown version of the indomitable human spirit finds voice in William Ernest Henley’s poem, “Invictus.”
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.
The call to rise above our circumstances and live again with courage can, indeed, be inspirational and may even be just what we need to hear from ourselves at certain dark times in our lives. Self-pity is a bog, and it will in time repulse other people, even friends, pushing them away from the one wallowing in that bog. We do need to go on from here, wherever here may be when we get stuck, but I do not believe we need to go on unmoved, untouched, unhurt. Self-protection, self-insulation, can become as dangerous as self-pity.
The Personal Danger: Hardening
Part of Paul Simon’s lyrics for the song, “I Am a Rock”:
I’ve built walls
A fortress, steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain.
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.
I am a rock
I am an island
Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
And I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried
I am a rock
I am an island
. . .
And a rock feel no pain
And an island never cries.
If I won’t let myself feel my own feelings, how will I empathize with anyone else? If I try to make myself emotionally invulnerable, how can I allow myself to be loved? If I won’t acknowledge my own pain, how will I not become hardhearted and perhaps even cruel?
As we mature, we undergo of necessity a certain degree of hardening. We dare not allow every little slight, injury, or unfairness to get us down. It is neither wise nor safe to go out into the world looking wounded, both because the jackals will move in upon us and because friends will move away from us.
Compassion (suffering with another person enough to be moved to care about that person’s plight) requires vulnerability and the strength to allow myself to be so moved, but how much vulnerability is enough and how much would be too much? In the Gospel of John, Jesus uses a Semitic expression that translates literally as something like, “What to you and to me?” (John 2). The idea is that for another individual’s problem to become mine, there must be some relational context that draws us together in the matter. Otherwise, the problem as presented may be none of my business, which is not the same as saying, “I don’t care,” but does recognize that I am not responsible for solving that problem. I find this expression helpful for guarding against being drawn into others’ relational conflicts in which I have no rightful part. Of course, there may also be good reasons for me to accept that I really do have a responsibility within the matter, but the question, “What to you and to me?” asks what those reasons are. For example, a man demands that Jesus tell his (the man’s) brother to share with him properly the inheritance from their father. Jesus asks the man who made him an arbiter between the two brothers, then tells him he would do well to make his priority reconciling with his bother. The relationship has greater value than the money or property, and Jesus will not insert himself into their family dispute.
If, however, I decide that outward circumstances really do not matter to human happiness and should not affect the soul, then I make myself as nearly as possible invulnerable to other people’s sufferings as well as to my own. In so doing, I am making myself less and less human. I develop a “get over it” attitude toward grief. I dismiss concern about injustices. If necessary for self-protection, I blame people for their sufferings: “No one else does anything to you, except as you do it to yourself by allowing them to trouble you.” So the abused and exploited, the many victims of human cruelty or random misfortune have our self-righteous condemnation of their unhappiness added to their pain.
If everyone is responsible for his/her own life and happiness, then what place remains for concern about social injustices? Are human systems exempt from the demands of justice? If circumstances don’t matter, what need is there to improve them? Let everyone take care of himself (traditionally women have been expected and forced to accept their circumstances as dictated to them, even as divinely ordained).
Two great lies buttress this hands-off attitude. The first is the lie that we are individuals with no crucial relatedness to each other, that relationships are optional, that one’s life and self are completely one’s own. The second is that prevailing social structures and hierarchies are somehow natural and proper. The truth is that the poverty of many greatly benefits the relatively few who prosper from it, and social hierarchies are enforced to maintain and increase that benefit for the relatively few. Most of us who call ourselves middle class can maintain that status only because poorer people suffer to provide us with goods we otherwise could not afford. Until we recognize our interrelatedness and interdependence, we will continue to live in a world of so-called winners and losers, and the losers will continue to suffer for the benefit of the winners while being blamed for their own misery and the futility of their efforts. For this reason, charitable giving (while better than not giving) serves to blind us to inequities and shield the conscience from the unfairness of “the way things are” while stroking the egos of those with money to spare.
For this reason, also, we love the exceptional, the one who makes it up out of poverty, despite discrimination and the systemic heel on his or her neck. “See!” we tell ourselves, “that one did it, and so what excuse have the rest?” From the back of my mind echoes Buffy Sainte-Marie’s question, “Can’t you see that their poverty’s profiting you?” (“My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying”).
Is there a conclusion? I suspect that in one way or another we must, each and all, transcend our circumstances. Can the well-off rise above their prosperity to recognize their privilege and so arrive at the possibility of redemption? Can the crushed rise up with hope above their pain and bitterness? Can the grief-stricken go forward in hope without denying their love and the pain it will suffer as long as they live? Can I tell myself not to get bogged down in self-pity without turning and oppressing others with my platitudes about their happiness being their own responsibility and no one else’s?
Abraham Heschel told us the world does not need more people who love justice – the great and wonderful ideal of justice – but more who cannot abide the injustices done to others. Circumstances do indeed matter, and I really don’t believe we should make peace with evil, personal or social. It should matter that a child has cancer. It should disrupt our happiness that a girl is told she cannot become what she could be, all because she is not a boy. It should grieve us that so many women find expression of a truth of their lives in the “Me too” movement. It should trouble us that people have to insist, against the prevailing attitudes, that “black lives matter.” Circumstances do indeed matter!
We do not need to shield ourselves from grief by denying love. We do not need to minimize our love of life when faced with our own mortality more immanently than we expected. We do not need to put on a happy face. I have known couples who desperately needed to talk with other about their griefs, fears, and losses but, instead, protected each other by keeping silence about impending death until one was gone.
Self-pity is a bog we must escape and keep escaping. And denial of our feelings, needs, and disappointments is a fortress-prison we must escape also. Either trap keeps us from each other, from life, and from honesty with ourselves.