It can seem like some people have all the luck. They’re born to successful, enlightened parents. They’re intelligent, beautiful, and well-adjusted. They’re well-liked both by teachers and kids. They find dates who are delighted to swoon over and spend on them. They get into a designer-label college while only having to take the SAT one time, and without undue work get a lofty GPA while retaining plenty of time for extracurriculars and a great sweetie, who after a few months proposes marriage gladly accepted. They are recruited by top employers and pick the one with the most interesting work and best boss in the perfect location at a big salary. They have perfect children and their careers ascend like a hot stock’s chart. They retire healthy in their ‘80s, their parents both healthy until their late ‘90s when they died in their sleep, after which our lucky ones live to be 100+ when they too died quickly and peacefully.
In contrast, there are people who can’t seem to catch a break. They’re born into poverty with bad, fighting parents. They have a learning disability and can’t focus on schoolwork—In the first grade, they’ve already been restrained with a Ritalin leash. Unattractive and socially clueless, they’re ostracized by peers. They meet up with the wrong crowd and get into drugs and gangs. They can’t make it through community college and so live with their still fighting, now-divorced mother until they finally land a soulless, crappy job that allows them to move into their own crappy apartment. They marry a cruel person with whom they fight as much as their parents did. They live month to month. They have a child with a serious disability. In middle age, they develop health problems from bad back to depression Their parents both develop long, chronic illnesses and they’re forced to spend all their spare time dealing with that. No sooner than their parents die than they get diagnosed with some horrible disease and spend the rest of their life trying to stay out of dire pain. Death is a relief.
Of course, most of us fall somewhere in between, yet we may feel like life has been unfair to us. If you’re like most people, it won’t help to tell you, “Buck up, bucko. People are starving in Africa and my parents were in the Holocaust and they didn’t complain.” Here are some more broadly helpful strategies for coping with the self-pity party we’re tempted to frequently attend.
1. Inventory your life. Sometimes, seeing your life written down can help. On a scale from 1 to 10, rate your life so far on health, career, family, other relationships, and recreational life. Is self-pity warranted?
2. Pick one thing to work on. Maybe, so far, life has screwed you. Is it permanently hopeless? Is there one thing that you could do to take a step forward? Usually, it’s wise to tackle one thing at a time. If your health, career, and relationships all suck, it may be too taxing to tackle them all simultaneously. Give yourself an easy win, like clean up one room of your apartment or learn to knit. Or pick one exciting goal, for example, finally put the effort into landing a good job.
3. Turn your attention outward. Self-absorption tends to exacerbate feelings of “woe is me.” Volunteer to help people who are even more unfortunate than you are: a struggling child, animals in a shelter, elders in hospice, etc. That may make you less likely to wallow, not only because you see people who are worse off but because helping them usually requires all of your attention—no time to ponder your probably better life.
4. Get spiritual. Even though atheism is the fastest growing religious category, many people who feel downtrodden still find uplift in some form of spirituality. Is it time to visit a house of worship? Meet one-on-one with a cleric? Read inspirational teachings?
5. Fine, okay have a pity party. That can exacerbate your malaise because talking about your past misfortunes keeps them top-of-mind. But sometimes a pity party can be cathartic and/or help you realize there’s more for which to be grateful. Or it helps you identify something you’re willing to try.
All those tips are well and good but the older I get, the more I realize luck does matter. So, of course, I wish you better luck than you’ve yet had.
Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.