Cry Me a River

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, April 9, 2006

One of the major activities in my circle of friends is Feeling Sorry For Oneself. It's the hot new hobby, bigger even than scrapbooking. Anyone can do it -- no special training or talent is necessary. Remarkably enough, you don't even have to have any problem that would objectively merit self-pity. You can be successful, talented, loved, cherished. You just have to find a way to get in touch with your inner pain -- and then, needless to say, share it.

The rules clearly state that when a person utters a self-pitying complaint, no matter how obscenely trivial it may seem in a world where billions of people have real problems, it is the obligation of the responding party to affirm the suffering. There is to be no talk of "bucking up," no falling back on that useless instruction to "look on the bright side." Let's say you're feeling blue because you overheard Sally say to Nancy that she liked Betty's hairstyle, while no one commented on your new highlights. Totally understandable reaction; anyone would be shattered by that.

Or perhaps you're upset that Christmas is less than nine months away and you haven't even started your gift list. That's terrible -- these lives we live are insane.

Is the newspaper's front page filled with stories that make you despair for the human race? You should call in sick and go shopping, pamper yourself a little.

Unfortunately, the popularity of our new hobby has created a great deal of self-pity congestion. Many people are feeling sorry for themselves when it is not their turn. Things have gotten so chaotic lately that we've had to institute a sign-up sheet. For example, I get to feel sorry for myself on Tuesdays. The new system is only a modest success. There are several people who are secretly feeling sorry for themselves on someone else's time. But you can't accuse them of cheating -- they'll get that injured look.

People also appropriate the sorrows of others. One of my friends, whom we affectionately call the Leper, is a recidivist when it comes to pity theft. She claims she's just being empathetic, but it's more like emotional grabbiness. She seizes upon others' problems and takes them to heart, sometimes launching into weeping jags. We have to tell her: "That one belongs to Sue."

Another problem is that many of us don't actually feel sorry for ourselves on our designated day, so we have to fake it. Last Tuesday I was actually on quite a high but didn't want to waste my one day of self-pity. I spent two hours meditating on various childhood humiliations, teachers who never "got" me, girlfriends who failed to be distraught when I broke up with them, and so on, just to get in the right mood to tell my friends that my life is a living hell.

Worse, one of my buddies, an emotional basket case whom everyone knows simply as the Black Hole, tried to argue the point and say that my life is actually great, that I have a good family, am gainfully employed, etc. But we all know why he so flagrantly violated the rules and refused to affirm my misery:

He's jealous. He wants to be the Misery King.

And I have to admit, when it comes to feeling sorry for himself, the Hole is a prodigy. We went to lunch one day, and he made a list of his usual complaints.

"I haven't had a new idea in 10 years," he said.

"I never had a new idea," I answered.

"At least you are good with those things. The whatchamacalls."

"Words?"

"Yeah."

"I am not good with words. I can't even spot a cliche. I couldn't spot a cliche if it bit me in the --"

"But you're young, still."

"We're the same age. Actually you're younger, aren't you?"

"I don't know. I don't know how old I am. I feel 80."

"You're in your forties."

"Wow. My God. My forties! That sounds so old. Just hearing that makes me feel like I'm 100."

And so on. The Hole could discover he'd been a Beatle as a young man and still manage to feel sorry for himself. I wish I had his gift for finding the bitter fruits of despair in the great orchard of happiness.

Just another thing I'm not good at.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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