Maurine Proctor’s column appears regularly on Tuesdays.
Sometimes when the Spirit speaks to me, I am learning and comprehending as if, suddenly, I see with new eyes. Intelligence about the matter comes quickly and clearly, connections are vivid, flashes of understanding are clear.
It is so much a whole way of seeing, like getting a glimpse of the earth from a satellite, that when I go to write it down, it is difficult to confine what I have just glimpsed into linear thoughts that I could put on a page.
How can you contract a universe of understanding from the Spirit into a sentence?
Still, there are other times when the Spirit is succinct with me, giving me something short, but so memorable that I can never forget. “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12).
Such it was on one morning years ago, when I first awoke-that time of sure impressions-and heard four words that burned straight into my soul. These were the words that I knew were directly from the Lord to me: “No more poor me.”
I knew what it meant. The meaning was quite clear. Enough of feeling sorry for myself.
This message, though delivered with love, was not given as a suggestion. It was an admonition, meant with great sobriety, not just to brace me, but to heal me. It was a commandment.
Now, more times than I can count I have had the Lord comfort me when faint, whisper not to be afraid, buoy me with confidence, remind me of promises when I hang back, yet this time, I knew, he was giving me an additional piece of valuable insight that I could not ignore.
It was counsel for handling difficult times. It was not a soothing “there, there” like I am wont to croon to people who are hurting, but an invitation to self-analysis.
I could imagine what someone was like who was swimming in self-pity. Ask them how they are doing and they begin to rehearse their aches and pains, their outlook is always gloomy. A cartoonist would draw them as carrying around their own weather system, a personal rain cloud.
But was this me just now? I didn’t think so. I was not indulging in self-pity, but responding with legitimate pain to difficult circumstances that seemed to hang on and on. I was carefully managing myself not to inflict my burdens on others. But the Spirit speaks truth, so I could not ignore the words. Were there tendrils of self-pity creeping their way through my outlook? And, though my circumstances were difficult just then, was my own response to it what was causing most of the pain?
Was I beginning to paint myself as a victim, playing over and over again the hurts I’d felt in my life or the disappointments or the dashed expectations? If I changed the way I thought about things, could I move myself to a happier place?
These questions matter, not just to me, but to all of us. Life does offer its blows, and we are left bleeding. We would be blind not to acknowledge that loss is real, that we don’t grieve over imaginary, but actual pain. Sometimes when we feel like a victim, it is because we have actually been victimized.
Still, acknowledging all of the above, are we, too often, more miserable than we really need to be? Is there a stream of light and joy available to us as God’s children that we do not drink from because we have become slaves to our own sorrow?
Joseph Smith had a vision and described it: “I saw the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb, who are now upon the earth, who hold the keys of this last ministry, in foreign lands, standing together in a circle, much fatigued, with their clothes tattered and feet swollen, with their eyes cast downward, and Jesus standing in their midst, and they did not behold Him. The Savior looked upon them and wept.”[i]
We are comforted that the Savior wept with them in their discouragement, but we cannot help but notice something else in this vision. The Savior was right in the midst of the Twelve, in their very presence, but they were too cast down to behold him or feel his comfort.
We do not want being “cast down” to become a habit because it blinds us to the truth.
We can become a victim in our minds and hearts without even knowing we’ve taken that journey. We may not say it to ourselves in so many words–I have come to see myself as a victim–but that outlook may have permeated our souls nonetheless. We must make no mistake– if we have come to see ourselves as a victim and our place in the universe as helpless, awashed and overwhelmed by events too big for us, we may be suffering from a soul sickness. We can choose to do better and recover.
Here are key questions to consider:
Do we find that we rehearse our trials again and again to ourselves in the private chambers of our minds? Do our disappointments play in our psyches like a low hum that knocks our ability to find joy?
Do we have a sense that life has been unfair to us? Do we sting with a sense of injustice?
Do we ever say to ourselves, “Oh what’s the use? It won’t work out anyway? My efforts are worthless. Nothing I do makes a difference.”
Do we feel overlooked by God, short-changed in the blessing department?
Do we feel that we are powerless over certain elements of our lives that logic tells us we should be able to master?
Do we feel that our expectations have not been met, that we were owed something by life that it didn’t deliver?
Even if we are not playing a victim in every area of our lives, if we are plagued by some of these attitudes in a few areas, they have the power to hobble us. We can play a helpless victim to our weight, to a particular habit, to our past, to one dashing disappointment, to one harrowing loss, to someone’s opinion.
The voice of self-pity and powerlessness that sometimes beckons us may only be one voice among many vying inside of us for attention, but it can be a powerful and debilitating one.
We can feel put upon, helpless, unable to move and become stuck in a habit of self-pity.
Being the victim in any area of our lives is like allowing a slender vine to begin to snake up the tree of our identity. You’ve seen such vines. In the forest where we walk, the smallest vine will begin to coil delicately up a tree, but when no one removes it while it is young and tender, that vine thickens like a thumb and multiplies and eventually strangles the tree altogether.
The tree falls behind in its growth. It cannot get nourishment. It becomes overtaken and dies.
The problem with thinking of ourselves as a victim of forces we can’t master and things that seem unfair is that it completely stymies growth. Victimhood demands our attention and is self-absorbed. It takes so much energy to be lamenting-even in some part of our souls-oh poor, poor me.
We may fool ourselves that we will take time for charity, take time to have clearer eyes for others’ needs tomorrow, when our own self-pity isn’t clamouring so, but if this form of self-absorption becomes our habit, there is no different tomorrow, because it looks just the same as today.
A sense of victimhood paralyzes us. We are stuck in place. Believing that we have been burdened and strait-jacketed on every side, our hope is dashed. We do not want to try. It seems easier to sit this one out-only “this one” is a whole section of our life.
You can hear the voice of self-pity and helplessness sometimes in yourself. “I can’t have self-discipline about this; it’s impossible for me.” “My life is nothing but a story of sad events and trials.” “I am stuck. I am frozen. I am bound and unable to move.”
Believing that we are a victim, we are not only drained of energy, we are drained of gratitude. Far from being the recipient of gifts, we have only received serpents.
It is clear when Satan attempts to rob us of our agency by sin. We see with eyes wide open that sin makes us smaller and despairing, that our possibilities plummet. We mourn, for example, for those caught in the web of pornography and addiction, see that Satan wants to encircle them in his chains.
What is less clear is that we are also robbed of our agency by a choice to act like a victim, powerless before life’s challenges, when we shrivel up rehearsing our woes to ourselves. Every day in every aspect of our life, we have a choice, “Am I an agent? Or am I a victim?”
Even if we don’t have much power to change our difficult circumstances, we can change our minds about how we regard them.
Viktor E. Frankl who was cruelly and despicably treated in a Nazi prisoner of war camp said, “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.”
Frankl also reminds us, “Everything can be taken from a man or woman but one thing: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
We participate in the act of becoming a victim in part by the way we tell our story to ourselves. I know of one woman who describes her life in such terms of woe one could only cry to hear it. She had a dysfunctional family, suffered a mean divorce, struggled with health, lost her job, had a child who was sickly. It does sound bad, but as one who has seen her life from the outside, I can only see the rich blessings that have constantly flowed to her, the gifts, the opportunities. Are we talking about the same life?
What do we tell ourselves about the story of our life? In the thousands of moments that we have experienced, which ones have we chosen to cling to and rehearse? Which have we let stand out by their repetition in our inner dialogue? Which elements of our existence have we hammered together to create the framework of our life’s story, the framework upon which we hang more and more similar experiences?
We choose how we tell our life’s story to ourselves. We choose how we tell the elements of any event. We can be a victim or an agent. In our story, we can be the hero of a great tragedy or the recipient of boundless blessings. Undoubtedly we have experienced the range of possibilities along that spectrum; how we decide to color and emphasize those experiences will in large part determine our outlook.
I am not so nave as to suppose that telling alone makes it so. Life does offer hard things that make us grieve, but again and again we can choose agency. We can choose to see how we were strengthened, remember when we were treated kindly, acknowledge God’s hand in every good thing. We can continue to act boldly instead of being quick-frozen in place before our most daunting challenges.
Self-pity is no friend and we do not have to consent to be victims. Ironically, there’s nothing Satan would like better than for us to give our agency away by our own choice. Self-pity can become a habit, but it is one we cannot afford. Like biting our fingernails, we have to break it. We have to stop now.
Here’s a sad story. I know a man who was called on a mission to a city that was hostile. The people there belittled and scoffed at him, calling him names and belittling his message with disdain. They called him foolish and became so worked up they joined together, a hostile mob, and reviled him and spit on him and drove him out of town.
Of course, he felt terrible and was weighed down with much tribulation, and in his utter despair he was flooded with self-pity. What kind of a God would allow me to experience such misery, he whined? I will never trust Him again and I rue the day I ever went on a mission.
He seems justified in those feelings, doesn’t he? After all, his pain was real. It is humiliating to be spit upon and threatened, beat up verbally and maybe physically, too, by a mob.
Oh, but wait, this isn’t a sad story at all, and I’ve got parts of it wrong. The hero of this story is Alma and the place is Ammonihah. He was indeed reviled, spit upon and driven out of town, and he did indeed feel much anguish of soul, but what he didn’t do was become paralyzed with self-pity or say that he didn’t trust God for sending him into such a situation. In fact, though weighed down, he was told by an angel to “lift up thy head and rejoice, for thou hast great cause to rejoice” and then asked to go right back into town where they despised him and try again (Alma 8:15).
At that request he did not proclaim “I can’t.
Don’t make me.” He didn’t wail, “I am undone. Poor me. Poor me.” No, without an ounce of self-pity, he “returned speedily”. What? No feet dragging? No excuses? He went speedily. It is breathtaking. (Alma 8:18).
My mother-in-law, Martha Proctor, is a powerhouse. At 91, with her boundless head of white hair, she is charming, thoughtful and lively. You can count on her to be a marvel of good cheer under any circumstance. Three years ago when she redid her kitchen, she put in double ovens so she could better entertain the many guests she constantly has at her home.
When she redid that kitchen, she said something that became a model for me about how to frame such a happy outlook. As she was cleaning the dishes out of the old cupboards to strip them from the kitchen, she found that where there had once been twenty-four plates in a set, now there were 13. The goblets that used to weigh in at 18, now could only be counted to 8.
With the rough and tumble of life, breakage happened. Elegant sets were no longer complete. Decades of dining had taken their toll. Did she lament? No, she just shrugged her shoulders in her good-natured way and said, “State of normalcy.”
Life in a fallen world is marked by breakage. That’s the state of normalcy. Yes, we grieve, but we refuse to participate in Satan’s attempt to cast us as a victim so that we develop the habit of self-pity and paralysis. It may be easy to say “state of normalcy” about something relatively small like broken china, but it is the way of looking and accepting life that is powerful in that story.
“No more, poor me.” I am grateful for that kind message from the Spirit on an early morning years ago, and I have reminded myself of that truth a thousand times since, when I am tempted to feel picked on by life or that it is just too much for me.
If the adversary of my soul wants me to cast myself as a victim, I want to refuse to participate.
[i] Joseph Smith, History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., 2d ed., edited by B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-51), 2:381.