In the gospel this coming Monday we hear about a rich young man who approaches Jesus, asking Him: “what good must I do to gain eternal life?” Our Lord instructs the young man to keep the commandments. When the young man tells Christ that he already observes them, He responds: “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Disappointed, the young man goes away sad, for he had many possessions.
There are many times in which sadness is the proper response to a situation. When someone we love dies, it is normal to be sad. When we see terrible things happening, it is fitting to be sad about it. When something we were really hoping for doesn’t come to pass, we can expect to feel sad. But we should be on guard against excessive sadness at the disappointments we experience in life, because it can easily turn into self-pity. We recognize self-pity in phrases like: “Why me?”, “Why won’t anybody help me?”, or “I never seem to catch a break!” Self-pity is dangerous because it blinds us to reality. What I mean by that is we become so consumed with ourselves that we can’t see the larger picture. The rich young man walks away from Christ, even though Our Lord told him what he needed to do to attain what he most desires. His attachment to something (in this case to possessions) is the cause of his disappointment, which is the cause of his sadness. Perhaps someday he was able to overcome his attachment to wealth and become a disciple of Christ. But it’s also possible that those possessions retained their grip on his heart, leading him to ever greater sadness as well as resentment toward the One who revealed to him that he had to let them go in order to have perfect happiness.
Self-pity comes from thinking that, ultimately, we are alone, that God is not with us, that He does not love us. It saps us of charity toward our neighbor because we become fixated on our own troubles. Preoccupied with ourselves, we neglect those around us, including those whose crosses are greater than our own.
If we struggle with this tendency toward self-pity, there are certain things we can do to overcome it. One important practice is to regularly count our blessings. Typically, when we do our examination of conscience before we go to bed at night, we take a moment to call to mind our sins and our failures to live virtuously that day. But along with that, we should also take a few more moments to identify the graces we experienced – a difficult task accomplished more easily than expected, a smile received when we felt down, a kind word spoken when we needed it, a temptation resisted, a surprise encounter with a friend. Recognizing these things as gifts, we say “thank you” to God. As we develop the habit of acknowledging graces, we will become more sensitive to the presence of the Lord in our lives. We will be able to reflect on our past and recognize that He was with us even in those times when we felt lost, when we felt alone, when we felt sad. It broadens our vision, and allows us to see reality more clearly – including the needs of our neighbor. This leads to another important response to the temptation to self-pity, which is to do the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Performing works of charity liberates us from self-absorption, shifting our gaze away from our own disappointments, breaking the hold they have on our hearts.
This is crucial, since our disappointments can consume us like the possessions that the young man could not give up, that led him to walk away sad. We have to resist the temptation to self-pity that robs us of the joy that life with God promises – a joy that is possible even when things that have taken hold of our hearts are stripped away from us. A joy that comes with recognizing that He, and nothing else, is the fulfillment of all desire.