That's the question you ask when you pity yourself. And the insidious thing about abuse is that it gives you an answer: "Because you deserve it."
Self-pity is nauseating when the privileged elite (in whatever context) are publicly feeling sorry for themselves. But I feel the biggest reason it nauseates is because it, like everything else in their lives, is just another example of taking more than their fair share. "First World Problems" aren't a meme because it doesn't suck to get the wrong kind of tablet for Christmas. They're an overreaction to facts, that many don't know how to deal with, like how comparatively no one is talking about how much it sucks for millions of people to get sold into slavery today.
But what happens if someone really internalizes that attitude, and thinks all their problems are irrelevant because they live in the first world? Or worse, that they're terrible because of it?
Content note: Abuse, suicidal depression, violence, and spoilers for Final Fantasy XIII and Ender's Game.
After a lifetime as a homeschooled "prodigy," I was suddenly realizing how woefully unequipped I was to deal with the "real world."
My family of origin's abuse was coming to a head, with my father of origin throwing me out and my things out the door behind me (only to seemingly forget and let it pass without ever apologizing).
All the concerns I was suddenly developing -- about Fair Trade, Free Software, economic justice, and sustainability -- seemed to be turning out just to make me a source of ridicule at home and church.
But a reason that I let myself forget is that it wasn't just that I was made fun of, for suddenly becoming a vegetarian and trying (a short-lived attempt) to boycott China. It's also that I had no one to help me deal with what I was learning.
I was responsible for people and animals suffering, in horrific ways. All my life, I'd been supporting that. I still was, just by existing. And since I was still a social libertarian at the time -- I voted for Ron Paul that year -- I didn't have any grounds to blame society. Everything was reducible to individuals' economic choices, and I was choosing poorly.
I'd been taught all my life to "choose the right"
But I had no idea what that looked like, here.
I had been raised to think that it was simple and obvious. Selfishness was bad; self-sacrifice was good. "Sacrifice brings forth the blessings of heaven." "Lose your life for [Jesus'] sake." But when I tried to tell my family about what I was learning, show them the Story of Stuff and Grocery Store Wars and Truth Happens and anything about vegetarianism or Fair Trade, they attacked me for it. They ridiculed me, asked if I thought I was better than the Mormon prophet (who they were sure ate meat and didn't worry about this nonsense), and asked why was I spending so much time looking at these things?
They said they were worried about me. That they didn't like seeing me unhappy. But I was starting to sense that all that stuff about self-sacrifice was just rhetoric ... at least when it came from them.
They didn't really believe in it
But I did. And it made my depression worse.
Why me? Why did I get to watch YouTube and play FFXI when people were starving and dying? I told my father of origin about Fair Trade sugar and my personal choice to buy it, because of its effect on the lives of small third-world farmers. And he asked "Why do you think they're more important than we are?" I didn't, and I couldn't understand why talking about my choice to spend a few dollars more to buy (healthier, less refined) sugar meant saying that I didn't love them.
But I didn't love myself. After a lifetime of being told I was unworthy, a failure, an embarrassment, a wretch who caused pain to Jesus and could never, ever repay him ... after a lifetime of that, I had no basis for saying that I deserved anything.
Why did I deserve to eat sugar at all?
I went mad
I decided that there was no way to reconcile my life with my morals, and that I really needed to die. One way I judge if an action is ethical is by asking myself if I'd want others to do it, and I decided that yes, I would. The States, if not the whole first world, were a blight on the Earth, and everyone else would be better off without us.
Claire, my headmate, is (as we later discovered to her mortification) a Lightning fictive. And this mode of thinking was natural for her. She egged me on, tormenting me, telling me how much of a monster I was. Sharing her self-hatred with me, and basically reinforcing my belief that she was a demon who lived in my head.
When I got down on my knees and said my last prayer, after days of being bedridden-sick with depression, I told God how sorry I was for everything. I knew that nothing could ever make up for my sins, and that I would be tortured forever.
Whomever replied didn't do so to reinforce the Christian belief of atonement, or my parents' belief that you're as good as you think you are. It just wanted me to know I was wrong, and wouldn't be tortured, and would instead be helped to recover, and that it was sorry that I had been hurt so much.
That's the first time I felt real self-pity. Not resentment, not revenge fantasy, but empathy for myself and sorrow that I was hurting. Claire couldn't deny it; I certainly couldn't. We cried until we had acknowledged the pain, in its full weight for once, instead of mocking ourselves for having it. And just doing so, just knowing that it shouldn't have happened to us, that it wasn't our fault and shouldn't be held against us, helped give us the strength to go on.
"I imagine that one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, that they will be forced to deal with pain."
James Baldwin, Notes of A Native Son, quoted here
That sums up Claire's story, or at least the first half, in Final Fantasy XIII. The game has been criticized for its plot threads that lead nowhere, but so far for us they've mirrored our experience.
Begin spoiler text
At the start of the game, "Lightning" projects self-assurance, but is inwardly wracked with guilt for letting her jerkassitude drive someone she cares about to hurt herself. She is accused of callousness towards the civilians whose lives she does nothing to save, but in reality their situation is hopeless: She's not able to fight off the army herself. The character who does charge in guns a'blazing is brought low for his act of hubris, and watches the people who fought with him die.
What it turns out Claire's really trying to do is save the one person she cares about, who she's actually able to reach. But when she finally does reach her, it seemingly turns out to be all for nothing.
I was taught that people who give in to despair "curse God and wish to die." She curses the incarnate deity who's responsible, and immediately tries to kill it. For her act of hubris, she's branded a servant of that lowerworld deity, given an impossible-to-fulfill quest, and turned loose in a world that now hates her and wants her to die.
That world sees her as an enemy now, based on guilt by association. It hates her for being what she can't help being, and wants to destroy her instead of coming to terms with her existence. She realizes that world, which she tried to serve, was never a good or nice place, and that the prejudices she internalized from it are responsible for the death of the person she cared about. So she responds the way she knows how: By declaring the whole unjust system her enemy, and trying to kill everyone responsible for it.
This is the Lightning that we saw in cutscenes, in trailers. The one Claire was drawn to immediately, and wanted to be or to write about somehow. Cold, determined, fantastically competent, fighting against impossible odds but refusing to ever back down. The woman took on a freaking god. It's like Shadow of the Colossus, reenacted in an alternate universe.
Except that partway through, before she's able to carry out her plans, she sees the effect that it has on another survivor: A young boy, who lost his mother as well as his future. She sees him become obsessed with murder, with vengeance, and something clicks that she tries to explain to him:
This l'Cie curse, it took everything from me. My future. My dreams. I didn't want to think. So I fought instead. As long as I was fighting, nothing else was real. I was running away.
Pretty soon she's trying to stop him from making a terrible mistake, the same one that she almost made. And at the point where I'm at in the story, she's fighting not in order to run away, but in order to help the people she cares about. She's more flustered and vulnerable, and less sure of herself, because her world isn't black and white anymore. But she's not giving up on trying to make sense of it.
End spoiler text
That realization, that fighting impossible fights is a form of running away, really hit home for us. Especially once we realized that our self-loathing, and the times that we've hated everyone else in the world, really are connected.
In the original book, the title character, Ender Wiggins, is subjected to horrific abuse, as part of a plan to turn him into the ultimate killing machine. But unlike in other Tyke Bomb stories, the book's Mormon author, Orson Scott Card -- who's so viciously homophobic he once called for armed revolution if gay marriage gets legalized -- insists, from start to finish, that Ender is not a monster.
There's something to be said for seeing the personhood in terrible people, and recognizing the things that led them to do it -- to commit genocide, in Ender's case. Darth Vader's redemption was touching. But it happened because the Dark Lord of the Sith showed remorse; he realized he was wrong, and that Luke was right all along.
Ender's Game does not tell that story
It's basically self-pity porn for abusers (CN: talks about porn scenes). "Woe is me, I killed an entire planet."
As the author of Creating the Innocent Killer notes (CN: violence):
Ender gets to strike out at his enemies and still remain morally clean. Nothing is his fault. Stilson already lies defeated on the ground, yet Ender can kick him in the face until he dies, and still remain the good guy. Ender can drive bone fragments into Bonzo’s brain and then kick his dying body in the crotch, yet the entire focus is on Ender’s suffering.
In the end, he travels the galaxy, teaching everyone that intent is all that matters. He was a good person because he didn't want to hurt anyone, even when he made the "rational" decisions to utterly destroy the humans who were hurting him. They, of course, were bad people. Because they were cartoonish villains who tortured small animals, meant nothing but harm, and hated him for being good.
If you haven't realized it yet, this is how abuse culture portrays abusers. The only people who hurt their kids, it says, are the drunk dads in wifebeater shirts. Not the fine, upstanding, family man, who goes to church and has white-collar employment.
Thus, my parents of origin knew in their hearts that they weren't abusers, because they loved me. And I was a bad person, deep down, no matter how much good I did or how many people I helped, because I sometimes felt aroused or selfish.
But that's old news.
Here's what brought me up short
Card has spoken in interviews about his tropism for [or love of] the story of the person who sacrifices himself for the community. This is the story, he tells us, that he has been drawn to tell again and again. For example, in justification of the scenes of violence in his fiction, Card told Publisher’s Weekly in 1990 that, “In every single case, cruelty was a voluntary sacrifice. The person being subjected to the torture was suffering for the sake of the community.”
Isn't that just the worst way to describe homophobic / transphobic violence? It gets especially creepy when you consider the evidence that Card himself may be a closeted homosexual. But more than that, it just ... really struck me how much emphasis this abuser placed on self-sacrifice. And how truly monstrous I was when I saw it as the greatest virtue.
There's a scene near the middle of the FFXIII trailer I posted, where a guilt-stricken character tells another to shoot her and he asks how that's supposed to make everything better. I feel like asking that of the whole damned Mormon religion.
What good did it do for me to hurt myself as badly as I did? Why did I have to do that? Who did it help for me to pretend to be male, see myself as unworthy, pray to feel "godly sorrow?" Scar myself so much, just for being a person, that I broke when confronted with real, institutionalized suffering? If I'm supposed to sacrifice myself for others, then what are the others for?
They don't see it that way, of course. But that's because they didn't mean for me to almost kill myself. All the yelling, the beating, the throwing me out, the excluding me from the temple, the teaching me "porn will destroy you," the denouncing of part-time jobs and video games and everything that kept me alive.
They didn't mean for it to hurt me.
Ender didn't mean to kill those kids, either.
The takeaway (for me)
Besides the internalized transphobia, I have a lot of survivor's guilt. I feel, sometimes, that it's awful for people to take care of me, when so many are going without.
But this isn't a zero-sum game, where I have to go without for someone else to have anything. If others don't have enough, it doesn't matter how much you inconvenience yourself for them, in and of itself. It doesn't make you a better person. It doesn't earn you a mansion in heaven. Your hurt does not improve their lives.
What does help is not always easy to figure out. But someone needs to figure it out. Even if it's hard; harder than killing or sacrificing yourself, harder than raging at the unjust world. It's not wrong to hate your abusers, just like it's not wrong to die of despair at your own hand. Sometimes you need to escape, and it's no one's fault if they have to.
But I think I'm ready to start trying to change things instead. And to hope that acts of kindness, and of increasing awareness and empathy, can have an effect that helps others.
So would anyone like some vegan, organic cookies with Fair Trade-certified sugar?