From Self-Pity to Connection
This week, I read this stirring piece—“One Day I Couldn’t See Right. My Life Hasn’t Been the Same Since”—by journalist Frank Bruni. I felt like I could have written it. Well, except for the fact that he’s a veteran writer, and I’m an amateur. The sentiments he expressed were deeply familiar, though. Writing about the impact of his sudden and permanent (albeit partial) loss of vision, Bruni says:
Bit by bit, the people around me came into sharper focus, by which I mean that their fears, struggles, and triumphs did. The paradox of my own situation—I was outwardly unchanged but roiling inside—made me newly alert to a fundamental truth: There’s almost always a discrepancy between how people appear to us and what they’re actually experiencing; between their public gloss and private mess; between their tally of accomplishments—measured in money, rankings, ratings and awards—and a hidden, more consequential accounting. I’d long known that. We all do. But I’m not sure how keenly we register it, how steadily we remember it. . . . To feel sorry for yourself is to ignore that everyone is vulnerable to intense pain and that almost everyone has worked or is working through some version of it.
Of course, to feel sorry for yourself is also just plain human.
I felt awfully sorry for myself last weekend. This self-pity only lasted for a day or so, but it’s remarkable how deep I can dive in the space of a few hours. I took my kids to see a movie—in a theater!—for the first time since the start of the pandemic. We had all just made it through another round of Covid, and we were going to yank off our masks and eat popcorn in public like it was 2019!
It’s not 2019, though, and my body has changed considerably since then. This recent round of Covid has kicked up my light sensitivity and brain fog. They felt manageable, though—until the movie. Two hours of flashing lights sent me over the edge. The drive home was a struggle. Once there, I crawled into bed and stayed for hours, unable to tolerate noise or light. A week later, I’m doing much better, but I still haven’t returned to my January levels of cognitive function.
I’d like to blame my hours of wallowing in anxious self-pity on cognitive impairment. It wasn’t me! It was the brain fog, I swear! But the truth is, I don’t judge myself for any of it. Because any degree of disability is hard. The fact that it is undoubtedly harder to live through genocide or lose your entire family in a car wreck or endure a lifetime of extreme poverty doesn’t make it unhard to find your brain suddenly unable to function at its usual level. It doesn’t make it easy to live with an up-and-down, unpredictable level of disability.
Within a day or so, I remembered—in the bone-deep way, not just the monotone-voice-in-my-head way—that it’s okay for things to be hard. It’s okay to find yourself plummeting from time to time.
Here’s the thing about a plunge into my own pain: An open-hearted plunge into my particular pain lands me, always, in universal waters. We all dogpaddle this sea of finitude, suffering, fear, grief, and loss. We are never alone in the water; everyone gets dunked in this sea. And bobbing alongside all the things that hurt are the things that make this swim worthwhile—love, beauty, connection, courage, truth, compassion, creativity.
Sometimes, we imagine that we shouldn’t allow ourselves the ‘indulgence’ of grief because others have it worse. But if we won’t or can’t feel our own pain, how will we ever truly sit with anyone else in theirs?
Perhaps the key to empathy is this, then: opening into the fall. When hurtling toward water (or yikes, the ground!), our instinct is to curl and close. Landing in a cannonball sounds infinitely safer than landing in a belly flop. But in the process of bending in on ourselves, we so easily become self-absorbed, self-pitying, self-isolating, self-punishing. To open while plummeting is to see the water. To see how it teems with lives beyond our own. To see our place in the whole. To sense our fundamental, unbreakable interconnectedness—even in our most broken moments. It isn’t strength, perfection, or invulnerability that makes us human. It’s the plunge, the belly flop, the sting of salt and suffering, the pull of gravity and grief. That, and our breathlessly beautiful capacity to feel beyond the borders of our particular pain and swim together in these universal waters.
Whatever pain you are swimming (or splashing and flailing) with today, please know that you aren’t alone. If you need a place to share your particular story and be heard, consider posting a comment below.