On Self-Pity: Go Eat Worms

From The Poetry Foundation:

I like to ask people if they have a hyperbolic self-pity phrase they repeat to themselves for pleasure and comfort. One writer told me his phrase is, “You’re minor.” Another said, “For me it’s always ‘I wanna go home’ even when I’m already home.” My personal go-to is, “Nothing good ever happens to me.” This little sad-sack mantra really does seem to help. It makes my suffering theatrical. Children love screaming when nothing is wrong because something has been wrong, something will be wrong—don’t worry about the timing, just get your catharsis in when you can.

The logical leap between “Nobody likes me, everybody hates me” and “Guess I’ll go eat worms” is something I have thought about a lot. What impulse is being served? Does the speaker of these lyrics think worms are delicious (“big, fat juicy ones”)? Is it a bid for attention—is it supposed to make his enemies feel bad for him? Do the worms get you high? I go back and forth on whether the song is supposed to evoke death, the worms of the grave. But don’t the worms eat you? I think the worms are ultimately literal, a form of self-punishment. I think of Jude, in my favorite scene in Jude the Obscure, who feels so low he jumps up and down in the center of an iced-over pond hoping to fall in and drown. The ice cracks but doesn’t give, so Jude supposes he is “not a sufficiently dignified person for suicide.” What options now—what is even “less noble” than “self-extermination”? He decides to get drunk.

Bugs are useful figures in the literature of self-pity—bugs, that catchall category that includes insects and spiders and things with a thousand legs, any loathsome, creepy creature that dwells in the dirt under rocks or the slime of a drain. I once heard, anecdotally, not from an entomologist or anything, that stink bugs, an invasive species with “long, piercing-sucking mouth parts” as one pest management handbook puts it, are notorious for hanging out in spots where they are likely to get smashed and killed, such as a doorframe. Recently my husband found one perched on the edge of a tissue poking up from its box. “That’s convenient,” he said, using said tissue to crush it, then throwing the wad in the toilet. How Jude-like, these stink bugs. They must know they are stink bugs: a Kafkaesque nightmare.

. . . .

I have noticed a tendency in people, when they’re feeling rather bad, to deliberately make themselves feel worse—to dredge up all their grievances, past and present—as if, to justify bad feelings, they look for very good reasons. As Seamus Heaney writes, in his version of Sophocles’s Philoctetes, “People so deep into/Their own self-pity self-pity buoys them up.” It makes sense, in a way, this strategy—after I feel especially awful, I usually feel a little better. It’s akin to making yourself throw up as a cure for nausea. Self-pity is a strong self-cure. In a way, it is too reliable—you can get too good at self-pity. If it works when things aren’t that bad, it really works when they are bad. Or, you might say, when you most deserve the pity is when it won’t help.

Those who despise self-pity always offer perspective. In his essay “Why Bother?” Jonathan Franzen writes, “How ridiculous the self-pity of the writer in the late twentieth century can seem in light of, say, Herman Melville’s life.”

Link to the rest at The Poetry Foundation


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