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Self-Pity and Self-Satisfaction Opposite Sides of the Same Self-centered Coin

July 23, 2012

In a recent blog post entitled “Get Tough With Yourself”, the author relates the unavoidable pitfalls for people who give in to self-pity.  I’ve broached this subject before in a previous post (Patristic Cognitive Tools for Coping With Bad Thoughts) in which I related the AA slogan “poor me, poor me, pour me another”.  Self-pity is one of the first signs of giving up, throwing in the towel, and beginning the downward spiral of comfort-seeking rather than virtuous striving.

Here’s an excerpt from the “Get Tough With Yourself” blog post,

Anytime a man is in a downed place—i.e. he’s annoyed, angry, tired, hurt, lonely, stressed, or frustrated—he is tempted to become overly sympathetic with himself. He gets that insidious, creepy, pampering mindset that tells him he deserves a break—just this once.  I’m not talking about kicking back on the couch with a bag of Doritos. Not that kind of a break. I’m talking about blowing it: the lie that it’s okay to run to a favorite vice. We’ve all got them. We run to whatever ultimately harms us, because we’ve convinced ourselves it helps. It’s the worst form of coddling.”

The author correctly points to a reality with interrelated spiritual and psychological dimensions.  When we find ourselves struggling and when the struggle feels difficult, it’s time to strengthen our efforts.  This is most especially true with prayer.  Saint Ambrose of Optina makes the point when he states, “If you do not feel like praying, you have to force yourself. The Holy Fathers say that prayer with force is higher than prayer unforced. You do not want to, but force yourself. The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force.”  With force, not only is prayer offered, but even the self is offered to God; you get out of the self-centered orbit of how you feel and into the God-centered orbit that alone can fill the soul with warmth and light.

A similar phenomenon, the flip side of our self-centered coin, occurs in the person who becomes self-satisfied.  We need only look at the biblical example of King David who, after a satisfying military conquest, is strolling around his palace rooftop when he spots Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah.  Because his nous was not in a state of watchfulness, he pursues her and sins with her, having Uriah murdered in the process.  Some of the church fathers refer to this state as the “devil of noon day” whereby the enemy attacks at the weakest, unguarded point.

Both self-pity and self-satisfaction are dangerous states because they lure the soul to stasis, a spiritual lethargy where comfort and pleasure are lurking in the weeds.  Someone in either of these states is in grave danger.

The Way Out: Kinesis

Both cognitive therapists and the ancient ascetics offer a comparable strategy for the person caught in either trap.  I discuss this in detail in chapter 7 “Following Ariadne’s Thread”.  Here’s a brief excerpt:

“Both church fathers and cognitive therapists view experience or experimentation as necessary in order for someone to be able to test the validity of his ideas, personal hypotheses, and convictions.  They both recognize that mere words are too weak to persuade a person that a given practice is beneficial, harmful or neutral.  The ancient fathers note that without engaging in such experimentation, a person will have trouble gaining self-knowledge and an appreciation for the value of the virtues.  He will, moreover, be in danger of growing obstinate and narrow-minded.  Cognitive therapists would hardly disagree.”

It’s not enough just to toy with thoughts of self-pity or self-satisfaction in your mind, you’ve got to do something and experience something outside of those ultimately constricting and self-deluding frameworks. For the ancient fathers, the way out is movement, generally understood in terms of praxis and theoria. Another passage from my book might illustrate the point-“The reciprocal interdependence of praxis and theoria has therapeutic import.  Actions not only provide clues about thoughts, but also can be purposefully altered in order to influence those thoughts, for ‘the soul is affected by what the body does’ and becomes like its bodily occupations.”

The therapeutic cure for self-pity and self-satisfaction are rooted in positive behavioral change, which in turn roots out the self-pitying or self-satisfying thought processes.  Action and real effort are required in both the cognitive and ascetic models.  Stasis is the enemy of the soul.  Kinesis, movement from death to life and from earth to heaven, is the soul’s true friend, encountered solely through the consistent and persistent practice of virtuous behavior.

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