Barely out of college, I had the good fortune to meet David Lebedoff. It would take more than a few pages to do justice to all of David’s talents as a writer, lawyer, political luminary, civic leader, and raconteur. It’s enough to say that he has also been a generous friend and a wise mentor to me for more than forty years. David and I get together for lunch every few months to catch up on each other’s lives, to gossip, and to chew over current events. It was at one of those lunches that David gave me one of the wisest bits of advice I’ve ever received.
As I recall, I was filling David in on my life and career. I was in my early forties, and the responsibilities of my job and family were weighing on me. My work hours were exceptionally long. Business trips took me away from home for days, sometimes weeks, at a time. The girls were in grade school and middle school. Francine was running from pillar to post keeping everything together on the home front, while I threw myself into my career.
Although I don’t go in much for self-pity, I was treading close to the line. Self-pity is one of the least attractive of all postures, right down there with Righteous Victimhood. No one wants to be around you when you are sitting on the pity pot, and this is especially true when you have no good reason to feel sorry for yourself. If you want to the empty the room fast, then tune up the violin and start playing your “Woe Is Me” song.
The fact is, if you want the audience to stand up and cheer, then go for the opposite of self-pity. Go for strength and resolve. I took song-writing lessons many years ago from a great teacher in Los Angeles by the name of Jack Segal. Jack was the real deal. He had written the lyrics for hits back in the 1950’s, including the standards “Scarlet Ribbons” and “When Sunny Gets Blue.” Jack could spot the flaw in a song faster than you could read him the lyrics. He hated self-pity, and whenever he saw it, he would recommend, as an antidote, that you go back and listen to “I Will Survive” by Gloria Gaynor. It was a bit incongruous to hear Jack extolling the virtues of a disco song that came along years after rock and roll put his career in permanent decline, but that was Jack, and he was right on.
If you can’t stand to listen to “I Will Survive” one more time, then let me send you to the stacks to look up another masterpiece, Stephen King’s “Dolores Claiborne”. It’s a brilliant book, written in the form of a single, long monologue. If ever someone had cause for self-pity, it would be the narrator and title character of this book. But instead, what you get is a tough, clear-eyed protagonist who asks for no pity from you or anyone else. If you haven’t read it, then do yourself a favor.
So, as I say, I don’t go in much for self-pity. I am a worrier, though I don’t think that’s much of an admission. Other than psychopaths and freakish optimists, we’re all worriers. The test is not whether you are worried, it’s what you are worried about. Tell me what you’re worried about, and I’ll have a pretty good sense of how you are doing in your life. At one end of the spectrum is something really dire: you could be worried about scraping up money to pay for the medicine your child needs to treat a serious disease. Tell me that you’re worried about something on that scale, and I know you have your troubles, brother. At the other end of the spectrum, you could be worrying about whether your shoes and belt match for the Big Meeting, or something similarly trivial. Tell me about that, and I’ll know that the wolf is pretty far away from your door.
In my forties, I worried a lot about providing for Francine and the kids. We were doing all right, but I had a bad habit of trying to calculate just how much money I needed to earn in the next fifteen years (after tax!) in order to meet our month-to-month expenses, pay for college educations, and still have something left over for retirement. Talk about a First World problem. Still, the worry was real, and it’s the sort of concern that gets you out of bed in the morning and on the way to work with a clean shirt and a full tank of gas. As a parent, you’ll do whatever it takes to care for your family. That’s motivation.
So, I wasn’t exactly seeking pity from David Lebedoff that day, but maybe a little understanding. And I got it. David heard me out, and then he said: “You have no idea how lucky you are, to have both the need and the ability to care for your family. Nothing else in your life will ever give you so much purpose.”
Right on. Sometimes you flip over the coin that has all your worries written on one side, and there on the other side it just says “Lucky you.”