Millicent Fenwick understood loss. Born in 1910, she lost her mother five years later when a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland. Fenwick went on to serve as the editor for Vogue magazine and as a New Jersey congresswoman. She gives the most colorful statement about self-pity you’ll ever read:
Self-pity . . . the most destructive emotion there is. How awful to be caught up in the terrible squirrel cage of self.
If you’ve seen a squirrel cage you understand the analogy. I remember seeing one at my aunt’s homestead years ago. It had a small box for sleeping and a large rotatable cylinder for exercising (kind of like a treadmill for squirrels). If the squirrel accelerated, the cylinder would spin faster. The squirrel would burn up energy, but never get ahead. This makes the cage a great analogy for trying to overcome self-pity on your own. You feel like you’re running in place; lots of energy expended, but when you stop there’s no progress.
If you could take a spiritual MRI of someone who is struggling with self-pity you would find pride as the stimulus. Pride whispers “you’re entitled.” When you don’t get what you think is deserved you feel sorry for yourself.
The solution is to change your way of thinking; then connect your thinking to your actions. This might sound simple enough, but it’s not. Feelings keep getting in the way. Our emotions tell us to crawl back in the squirrel cage and run a little faster. It’s just us and the cage, and no way out. With our thoughts consumed with self, we don’t know how to think about others. We just keep running.
Fortunately, we have Jesus as an example. He surrendered his sense of entitlement, and chose a spirit of humility instead. Paul captured it this way,
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).
The ESV Study Bible helps us understand the meaning,
Prior to the incarnation, Christ was in the form of God . . . “Form” here means the true and exact nature of something, possessing all the characteristics and qualities of something. Therefore having the “form of God” is roughly equivalent to having equality with God . . . and it is directly contrasted with having the “form of a servant” (Phil. 2:7) . . . Remarkably, Christ did not imagine that having “equality with God” (which he already possessed) should lead him to hold onto his privileges at all costs. It was not something to be grasped, to be kept and exploited for his own benefit or advantage. Instead, he had a mind-set of service. “Christ did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3). In humility, he counted the interests of others as more significant than his own (Crossway Bibles. (2008). The ESV Study Bible (2283). Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles).
As God, Jesus had the right to rule. We were his creation, not vice versa. But Jesus didn’t grasp that right, he surrendered it. In so doing he put on humility, thereby finding it possible and preferable to serve others with the best of attitudes. Like Jesus, we can choose the spirit of humility over the sense of entitlement.
Genuine humility shines brightly when pressed into service; self-pity will not endure. The genuine article will always outshine the knock-off.
So today, serve others with a spirit of humility. Stop running in the squirrel cage of your self-centeredness.