If you've ever seen a nervous flier working a set of worry beads through her fingers or Dirk the neighborhood car freak relentlessly buffing his 1982 Mercedes roadster to a high sheen, then you know the exact kind of fevered pitch I've worked myself up to today. I'm so verklempt I can hardly type. But the object of my compulsive fondling isn't a string of beads or a sporty automobile. I'm sickly entranced by a problem from my past, something I cannot stop going over.
Maybe you know what I'm talking about. Maybe, in your idle moments, you mentally replay embarrassing experiences, or chew on the bitter unfairness of a defunct relationship. You might have your very own poverty epic: "You want an iPod, son? Why, when I was a child, all I had to put in my ears was gravel, and I was grateful for it." Personally, I favor anecdotes about my emotional losses and general inadequacy. Give me half a chance, and I'll rattle off dozens of them. (Save yourself: Don't give me half a chance.)
I know that stories have a powerful—and often positive—influence on us humans. The story of someone's struggle, her persistence or fearlessness, can ignite the flame of knowledge and faith we need to light our way. There are circumstances where retelling past problems is not only appropriate but imperative: for example, moments when you are lost in inner darkness and revealing your story will lead you to people of compassion; times when talking about your struggle can help others with the same problem; instances where talking openly can shine a spotlight on injustice or cruelty that flourishes in the dark created by secrets.
These are times for storytelling, and I wish I could say I've encountered any of them today, but I haven't. As I obsess about my ancient problems, I feel more like I'm sinking in quicksand than lighting a torch. I'm creating neither heat nor light, just the icky, perversely pleasurable squish of self-pity between my toes. My only defense is that I'm not the only one down here in the muck—our whole culture is doting on tales of personal tragedy.
Ever since Freud first showed that we could treat psychological ailments by discussing our past, the "talking cure" has trickled its way into every part of society. Today many people (even many therapists) assume that going over the reasons we're unhappy is, in itself, sufficient to create happiness. If this were true, cogitating on our most painful stories would be a cure-all. Unfortunately, there comes a point when talking about our mental block stops being a solution and becomes the problem. That point is marked by a large red flag, on which is written simply: SELF-PITY.
Self-pity, a dominant characteristic of sociopaths, is also the characteristic that differentiates heroic storytelling from psychological rumination. When you talk about your experiences to shed light, you may feel wrenching pain, grief, anger, or shame. Your audience may pity you, but not because you want them to. Obsessing aloud, on the other hand, is a way of fishing for pity, a means of extorting attention. Healthy people instinctively resist this strategy. When you grieve, they will yearn to comfort you. When you demand pity, they will yearn to smack you.
We Hear You!