Over the long holiday weekend, we drove cross-country to Colorado where we re-locate for the summer. Although the drive can be grueling (about 26 hours over two days) and it sometimes seems as if Kansas will never come to an end, I enjoy certain aspects of this annual trip. In particular, I relish the wealth of time for thinking. We drive in shifts, but even when I’m behind the wheel, it doesn’t take much concentration to keep the car on a straight line across the plains. While on the road, I mapped out virtually the entire sequence of events in my next fairy tale novella, Snow White at the Dwarf Colony. During those long quiet hours (you can only make so much conversation when you’re constantly together), I reflected on a great many other things as well, including maternal vs paternal function, and differences between my work as a psychotherapist when I first began versus the nature of my practice today.
“Self-pity is easily the most destructive of the non-pharmaceutical narcotics; it is addictive, gives momentary pleasure and separates the victim from reality.”
— John Gardner
“He did not know how long it took, but later he looked back on this time of crying in the corner of the dark cave and thought of it as when he learned the most important rule of survival, which was that feeling sorry for yourself didn’t work. It wasn’t just that it was wrong to do, or that it was considered incorrect. It was more than that–it didn’t work.”
— Gary Paulsen, Hatchet
As I was beginning work on this post about self-pity, I searched Google and found a list of quotes from GoodReads. The selection above captures some of what I’d like to say on the subject, although not one of the many quotes from GoodReads expressed my most important insight, based on personal and clinical experience: that self-pity contains a lot of unconscious anger and stems from an underlying sense of entitlement. Let me give a personal example.
Reading about Adam Lanza, the Newtown shooter, in today’s New York Times brought to mind Anders Behring Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who set off bombs and murdered at least 76 people back in 2011. These two men have several features in common, including social isolation, a fascination with Call of Duty (a war-oriented video game) and a history of having been bullied.
In this earlier post about Breivik, I highlighted the role of basic shame in psychopathic behavior. Adama Lanza appears to have suffered from some kind of autism spectrum disorder, which suggests early and pervasive psychological damage — the kind that might leave a person with a core sense of defect or shame. On the other hand, Lanza’s mother and father didn’t divorce until he was 17 years old and, according to court records, appeared to be caring, involved parents who divorced without much animosity. Perhaps as we learn more, we might uncover a history of family discord and evidence of early trauma. We do know that Adam had broken off relations when his father began dating and eventually married another woman, suggesting that the divorce had troubled Adam deeply. Then there’s the mother who let her son amass his own private arsenal of lethal weaponry. Surely we’re not dealing with your average American family here.
Now that I’ve gone through all the responses to my last post and done a little more reading on the subject, I feel clearer about heroes and what we expect of them. While a number of people made idiosyncratic or very personal choices, the majority named men and women who tended (1) to have overcome some kind of adversity and (2) behaved in a selfless manner. I’ll be exploring these attributes further in the final section of my upcoming eSingle, The Hero as Narcissist: How Greg Mortenson and Lance Armstrong Conned a Willing Public, available some time during the month of April.
At first, I tried to make a distinction between heroes and role models, but the more I read about their defining features, they didn’t strike me as very different. Heroes and role models both tend to embody our ideals for human behavior. That’s a good thing, I suppose — we need to have ideals we can strive toward. But we can get into trouble when we idealize those people who embody our ideals, when we fail to see them as human beings with some outstanding qualities but flawed and fallible like the rest of us in other areas.
As I work on the final section of my eBook about Greg Mortenson and Lance Armstrong (“The Hero as Narcissist”), I’ve been thinking about why the public so ready to believe the stories they invented about themselves — that is, why we need heroes/heroines to admire. In my research, I came across an interesting quote. So far, I haven’t been able to attribute it to an actual person, whether it’s an ancient proverb or if someone in particular first said it.
“Tell me who your heroes are, and I’ll tell you who you are – or at least who you want to be.”
Whoever said it first, I think this sentence contains an important truth.
I’d like to ask for your help in clarifying my thoughts about this issue, so I’m inviting everyone to leave a comment and tell me: (1) if you have a particular hero or heroine; and (2) why that person is heroic in your eyes. Keep it short. In advance, I’d ask that nobody criticize the choice made by anyone else. I won’t approve any comment that shows disrespect for another person.