Happy February! I’m back.
In a manner of speaking.
I’m back, but a little broken.
“Humbled,” might be a more accurate word.
“Still exhausted,” would also be true.
If you regularly read this blog, then you know that in early January I announced that I would extend the “Pickle-cation” I began over the holidays in order to do some restorative reflecting and writing. I had high hopes that this month-long break would provide me with tons of new material, a fresh outlook, inspiration by the truckload.
This is not a triumphal re-entry.
I can’t remember a more difficult month — personally or for our whole family — than this January. Like anybody, I have bad days; days when I feel like I’m clawing my way up the walls of a deep, dark pit, trying desperately to find some joy. The entire month of January was like that for me.
There weren’t any big tragedies, just a steady stream of days that became progressively more difficult. There was the freezing Arctic air — colder than usual, even for Vermont — which kept us housebound and cancelled school and skiing and, one particularly busy morning, froze both garage doors shut. Then Erick went to Africa for two weeks. Four days after he left, the girls started getting sick. By the time he returned, every girl had been sick at least once with either a stomach bug, a fever bug, or a confirmed case of the flu. The Gong supervirus also took down three grandparents (who’d come in shifts to help while Erick was away), and me. Three days after his homecoming, Erick was also sick.
Did I mention that, during this time, our bathroom was being renovated? Also, Georgia was getting potty-trained for good, which meant a lot of bodily fluids always needed wiping up at exactly the worst possible moment.
So, on January 31 — the last day of my “break” — I sat at my computer, exhausted and with nothing to show for my month of bloglessness except a hacking cough, and I felt very, very sorry for myself.
Self-pity brings out my worst self. It’s probably one of the most dangerous emotions, because it promotes selfishness and gives birth to resentment and anger. Poor me, I thought, this was supposed to be my month of rest, but I’m more exhausted than when it started. It was supposed to be my month to concentrate on writing, and I had less time than ever to write. I spent all my time taking care of other people, and NOBODY took care of ME!
See? Dangerous. Before too long, that kind of thinking would have me angry at my husband, resentful of my kids, and ungrateful for all the help I do receive.
Self-pity is like living by the banks of a poisoned river, but choosing to use the water for drinking and cooking and washing because, hey, it’s right there. Then, one day, someone passes by and says, “You know, there’s a lake filled with beautiful, clean, clear water right over that mountain!” But instead of making the effort to get to that clean water, you say, “Naw, I’m good. I’ll just keep poisoning myself with this water right here.” The worst emotions are always the easiest. They’re also the ones that slowly poison our souls. But getting out of them, finding our way back to joy, to gratitude, to selfless love — that’s HARD WORK. It’s like scaling a mountain — or clawing out of a dark pit.
How could I claw my way out of this self-pity?
It just so happened that when half of our girls were sick and sacked-out on the couch, their grandfather had shown them the VeggieTales version of Jonah on his iPad. Which reminded me that the story of Jonah gives an honest (and hilarious) portrayal of self-pity.
Even if you didn’t do time in Sunday School, you probably know the first half of Jonah: God tells Jonah to take a message to the evil city of Nineveh, Jonah says, “No way!” and sails in the opposite direction, terrible storm rocks the boat, Jonah realizes it’s his fault and demands to be tossed overboard, fish swallows Jonah (thus saving his life), Jonah feels grateful, fish spits out Jonah.
But that’s only the first half. In the 3rd and 4th chapters of Jonah, Jonah finally does go to Nineveh to deliver God’s message. The message is: “God’s going to destroy this city in 40 days.” But instead of getting mad at Jonah and killing him (which is presumably what Jonah feared at the outset), the Ninevites repent. Once they’ve repented, God changes his mind and doesn’t destroy the city.
And Jonah is LIVID. “Awwww, God, I knew you’d do this!” he yells. “That’s why I didn’t want to come here; you sent me to condemn this horrible city, but I knew you’d take pity on them in the end! I’m so mad I could DIE!” Jonah sits down on the ground and pouts. Like some kids I know. Like myself.
A plant growing over Jonah gives him shade, and he feels a little better. But then a worm eats the plant so that it withers and dies. “I’m so angry I wish I were dead!” Jonah whines again.
I understand exactly how Jonah is feeling here: Not only has he just had a harrowing near-death nautical adventure, NOW God’s used Jonah against his will as a tool to save the wickedest city of his time, and on top of that he can’t even pout in peace because a worm just killed his nice shade plant. Sheesh.
It’s classic self-pity.
And here’s what God says to Jonah: “You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left — and also many animals?”
Boom. That’s it; that’s the end of the book of Jonah. God’s great like that: “–and also many animals.” Full stop. No further advice or explanation.
But God’s saying: Get over yourself, Jonah. You’re so worried about your little shade plant, but I’m worried about an entire city of lost people (and also many animals). And that may just be the best advice for overcoming self-pity: Get over yourself. Raise your head and look around at all the people who need your help.
I thought this would be my month to get into myself; to spend time hanging out in my head, putting my thoughts into words and putting the words into print. But God had other plans. Instead, this was my month to get over myself. There were people who needed my help. (And also one animal). My people are more important than my words. That’s a blessing, not a pity.
It’s good to be back.