joan didion, “the year of magical thinking”

“People in grief think a great deal about self-pity.  We worry it, dread it, scourge our thinking for signs of it.  We fear that our actions will reveal the condition tellingly described as ‘dwelling on it.’  We understand the aversion most of us have to ‘dwelling on it.’  Visible mourning reminds us of death, which is construed as unnatural, a failure to manage the situation.  ‘A single person is missing for you, and the whole world is empty,’ Philippe Aries wrote to the point of this aversion in Western Attitudes toward Death.  ‘But one no longer has the right to say so aloud.’  We remind ourselves repeatedly that our own loss is nothing compared to the loss experienced (or, the even worse thought, not experienced) by he or she who died; this attempt at corrective thinking serves only to plunge us deeper into the self-regarding deep [emphasis mine].  The very language we use when we think about self-pity betrays the deep abhorrence in which we hold it: self-pity is feeling sorry for yourself, self-pity is thumb-sucking, self-pity is boo hoo poor me, self-pity is the condition in which those feeling sorry for themselves indulge, or even wallow.  Self-pity remains both the most common and the most universally reviled of our character defects, its pestilential destructiveness accepted as given.  “Our worst enemy,” Helen Keller called it.  I never saw a wild thing / sorry for itself, D.H. Lawrence wrote, in a much-quoted four-line homily that turns out on examination to be free of any but tenditious meaning.  A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough / without ever having felt sorry for itself.

“This may be what Lawrence (or we) would prefer to believe about wild things, but consider those dolphins who refuse to eat after the death of a mate.  Consider those geese who search for a lost mate until they themselves become disoriented and die.  In fact the grieving have urgent reasons, even an urgent need, to feel sorry for themselves.  Husbands walk out, wives walk out, divorces happen, but these husbands and wives leave behind them webs of intact associations, however acrimonious.  Only the survivors of death are left truly alone.”

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