Ulysses at the Table of Circe – After John Flaxman (1805) Public Domain
Farewell Song (Man of Constant Sorrow) Traditional American Folk Song Published 1913 by Dick Burnett
I am a man of constant sorrow, I’ve seen trouble all my day. I bid farewell to old Kentucky, The place where I was born and raised. (The place where he was born and raised ) For six long years I’ve been in trouble, No pleasures here on earth I found. For in this world I’m bound to ramble, I have no friends to help me now. (He has no friends to help him now.) It’s fare thee well my old lover. I never expect to see you again. For I’m bound to ride that northern railroad, Perhaps I’ll die upon this train. (Perhaps he’ll die upon this train.) You can bury me in some deep valley, For many years where I may lay. Then you may learn to love another, While I am sleeping in my grave. (While he is sleeping in his grave.) Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger My face, you’ll never see no more. But there is one promise that is given I’ll meet you on God’s golden shore. (He’ll meet you on God’s golden shore.)
Regardless of age, most of us were required to The Odyssey by Homer in high school English. The story traces the misadventures of Odysseus (sometimes rendered Ulysses) as he ventures home to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. Because he has offended Poseidon, the god of the sea, the journey takes ten long years. Throughout Odysseus endures lose, treachery, and troubles of all kinds. In fact, the name Odysseus means something like “trouble” in Greek.
One of the central themes in The Odyssey is Odysseus’ oscillation between self-pity and despair to self-confidence and bravery. Self-pity is a common emotion when Odysseus reflects on his tribulations and when he speaks of missing his family. The self-pity often serves as a motivational tool as he prepares himself for new challenges. No wonder Homer’s Odyssey has been used by Vermont veterans to handle the stresses of returning home (see Explore Further).
Self-pity in Homer also does something larger. As Odysseus reflects on his own misfortunes, his mind turns to the Fall of Troy, and the Trojan victims of suffering and grief. His ability to reflect on his own grief has made him more responsive to the grief of others.
Self-pity gets a bum rap. It’s defined as something like “a feeling of sorrow for one’s personal suffering or predicament.” Often, however, self-pity can be defined more negatively: “a self-indulgent dwelling on one’s own sorrows or misfortunes.” We tend to go with the more negative definition and try to avoid self-pity all together.
There’s a lot of self-pity in Psalm 31:9-16, and Mark Stamm, Professor of Christian Worship at the Perkins School of Theology pushes on our dis-ease with a passage like this:
We live in a society that chronically minimizes grief and looks away from suffering. Lament is not encouraged. It is bad for business, and not a good church-growth strategy. We need to keep things upbeat and positive, say the marketing analysts. Perhaps we should just stop having funerals. We barely know what to do when we hear lamentation, and most of us do not know how to pray it. Can we allow this psalm to call us back to a way of praying that we have largely forgotten? (Daily Feast; 2012, p. 215f).
Self-pity and its close cousin, lamentation, are reflective tools used for coping with life’s most difficult times. When these tools are used properly, they help us by providing an accurate physical and emotional picture of our current troubles. Far from self-indulgent, self-pity helps us to move forward and consider the plight of others. Homer knew this well nearly three thousand years ago.
Take stock of the ways COVID-19 has affected you negatively. Write down the challenges you are facing today or mention them when you pray. This practice could go a long way in being able to move forward with courage and strength. It can also provide connection to those that are also undergoing the negative effects of this pandemic.
May God bless you and keep you through these hard times.