Folks are frustrated, and rightfully so, by comments made by clever humourist and all around very-British-guy Stephen Fry. Since I admire him, I took the time to watch the entire interview with Dave Rubin of The Rubin Report. At about 12 minutes, it is a heavy, though glibly unbound conversation. It delves into imperialism, liberalism, philosophy, pop culture and, the topic that set off so many comments, child abuse.
The quote most often called out was this one, tied to a conversation about the “regressive left” and trigger warning on campus, a topic I’ve written about before:
‘They’re terrible things and they have to be thought about, clearly, but if you say you can’t watch this play, you can’t watch Titus Andronicus, you can’t read it in an English class, or you can’t watch Macbeth because it’s got children being killed in it, it might trigger something when you were young that upset you once, because uncle touched you in a nasty place, well I’m sorry. It’s a great shame and we’re all very sorry that your uncle touched you in that nasty place – you get some of my sympathy – but your self-pity gets none of my sympathy. Self-pity is the ugliest emotion in humanity. Get rid of it, because no one’s going to like you if you feel sorry for yourself. The irony is we’ll feel sorry for you, if you stop feeling sorry for yourself. Grow up.’
I certainly don’t begrudge Mr. Fry his own idea that self-pity is the ugliest emotion, though I would likely have given it to hateful rage or that impulse that causes people to hurt children in the first place. However, as an adult who was once that child, I’d like to examine the emotion he calls self-pity.
To begin with, I do pity my child self. When I was living the experience, I did not have a name for it. I didn’t even know that it was wrong, though I knew it lit my nerves on fire and made me cry for what I thought was no reason. I was young the first time I injured myself, trying to straighten out the confusion in my skull. I was in the eight grade and I slammed my finger in a door, breaking it, requiring me to wear a brace while it healed. The abuse was ongoing at that point. The pain was good for calming the random firing in my brain, focusing it in on one point. I discovered cutting was more effective and easier to hide. I did that too. Still, I felt no pity for myself. I did not see that I had been a victim. In a way, my experience of my own pain was feral.
This went on until I was out on my own, still a teenager. I had a guidance counselor at my fourth high school. She was one of the first people who introduced me to the idea that I had been wronged. It was a shift. I could feel it internally. I had gone from crash position, existing in the shock of the moment, to something slightly removed. I saw myself from the outside – and yes, I deserved pity.
But self-pity is an early stage of something very valuable – self care. Pity was the start of the movement away from continuing to hurt myself, as I had been taught, toward allowing myself space to see my own hurt and tend to it. That I monitor what I take in; make informed decisions based on content, that is self-care. I make this decision with a great deal of thought, allowing myself as much exposure to amazing and varied content as I can.
My self-care also involves turning my brain off to enjoy a good superhero film, something else Mr. Fry derides in this same interview as proof of the infantilizing of our culture. I find this a bit odd, as he earlier praises V For Vendetta, a comic sourced hero tale, but then that is his take on the world and this is mine. When I watch V For Vendetta, I don’t see a story of freedom of ideas fought for by a bold man. I see the story of an abused and tortured woman used by that same man for his battle. I suppose that is the value of a differing perspective, including the perspective of we former children of abuse who stand, in retrospect, look back on our experiences and feel pity.