Saturday, October 18, 2014

Pettiness and Self-Hatred

Some days finding something to be grateful for seems like just another job on my to do list, and I feel resentful, then guilty for feeling that way because how dare I, and so forth with the self-criticism that borders on -- and often crosses the line into -- self-hatred. 

My problems are so petty and First World, and yet I can't seem to force myself to stop letting them get me down. I know this isn't just me. This is what people do. A quote from Adam Smith that I've seen several times before but just ran across again in the audiobook I'm currently listening to reminded me that this is true:

Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe,who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.
This is what people do. We care more about our little fingers than millions of people we don't know. That's why Stalin said, aptly, that one death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic. It's human nature to feel that way, so why do I feel so guilty about it? 

The book where I heard the quote anew this week was Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate, a wonderful book that contains much that I could have written myself (and some that I actually did write in a book I wrote but never published). The Adam Smith quote reminds me, on an intellectual level, that it's not just me, that everyone does this, which is one of the fundamental ideas in Kristin Neff's Self-Compassion, a wonderful book but one whose principles I seem to be able to accept on an intellectual but not an emotional level. 

I know everyone does this, so why do I hate myself for doing it? I know it is hard to feel truly and profoundly grateful for not having Ebola or living in Afghanistan or being blind or deaf or paralyzed or dead and let just being whole and alive and healthy and American be enough already so STFU about your stupid, petty problems. I know it isn't just me. So why do I hate myself for it?

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