lemonsFor some reason an expression is rolling around in my head, “When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.” I don’t remember my parents saying it – it actually sounds more like something my grandmother would say – but somehow it permeated my consciousness. I actually liked lemons as a  child, so it took me awhile to get it, but switch out lemons for eggplant and it instantly made sense.

This expression totally annoyed me for years. If you’re going to take away my toy, or separate me from my friend, I am NOT going to make lemonade, unless by lemonade you mean a desperate display of emotion (and my parents definitely had a low threshold for tantrums). The tantrum existed to let you know how bad the imposed limits felt. And adults, the attuned response is, “It feels like the whole world is coming to an end, huh?” (“It feels like the sky is falling,” and “It feels like you won’t survive” can be substituted.) However, most parents respond with some sort of variation of the if-you-keep-this-up-you-will-be-in-even-bigger-trouble speech.

So lo and behold, the child finds herself  in some weird subconscious bind. She needs to display her misery to her parents so that she feels understood (because they’re obviously not getting it). And her state of misery leaves her, well, miserable. This may be getting a little confusing now, but the expression, “She cuts off her nose to spite her face,” paints an accurate picture. Lemonade?! No way! No lemonade is being made until the child feels heard and acknowledged.

If we take this to a more macro level, these children grow to be adults who are left with this coping strategy – it actually has a name, “self-injurious spite.” People sacrifice their own happiness to feel like they’re taking revenge upon those who mistreated them. But ultimately being miserable to prove a point isn’t the best use of one’s time on this planet (although I will point out that, at the very least, it is a sign of tenacity and willfulness).

Philoctetes

19th century statue of Philoctetes.

From what I understand, this way of being has been around since Ancient Greece – I would presume even earlier. I was grateful that awhile back I was introduced to the story of Philoctetes. Philoctetes is both the name of a play by Sophocles, as well as the name of the play’s protagonist. The myth has many versions, but overall it’s a lesser known story that grows out of the story of the Illiad and Odyssey. In a nutshell (and I have to apologize to the Greek scholars out there for butchering this story), Philoctetes was an archer who was recruited by the Greeks to invade Troy. On a short stop on one of the islands, Philoctetes gets bitten by a snake and in great pain, howls and screams as the wound gets worse. The other men can’t take his agony any more, so Odysseus arranges to stop on an uninhabited island (Lemnos) to drop him off. Odysseus and his crew wait for Philoctetes to fall asleep on the island, and then they abandon him and sail off. When Philoctetes wakes up, he is completely alone and in desperate pain with the untreated snake bite.

Very lonely, angry, betrayed, and disheveled, Philoctetes is able to survive on the island with his archery skills. By shooting and eating birds, he manages to survive on the island for 10 years. During that 10th year,an oracle tells Odysseus that only with Philoctetes’ help will the Greeks take Troy, and not only that, Philoctetes must fight of his own volition. Odysseus who had abandoned Philoctetes and left him for dead now needs him for battle. Odysseus (skeptical that Philoctetes is even still alive) goes back to Lemnos to look for him and finds him there, irate and enraged. Philoctetes seethes and confronts Odysseus to let him know that he would rather jump off the cliff and kill himself than go with him. Philoctetes would rather be miserable, isolated, sick, and even dead on the island than be rescued by his betrayer. This is the self-injurious spite (and a extremely simplified version of the complex Greek epic).

The story goes on, and Philoctetes eventually does go to Troy of his own volition after first going home (another complex sub-plot with Heracles), and he leads the Greeks to victory against the Trojans with his amazing archery skills.

Through forgiveness, Philoctetes is eventually able to move on with his life, and get off the physical and mental “island” that he was on. But that is what is required to overcome self-injurious spite. Philoctetes didn’t want to forgive Odysseus for abandoning him as that felt somewhat condoning of Odysseus’ behavior. But he also didn’t want to lead a miserable, vengeful and angry life just to “punish” Odysseus.

Our first, second, third, or even a hundredth encounter with lemons may not elicit our lemonade-making response. But it’s important to remember that lemonade is much more gratifying than lemons alone. The antidote of self-injurious spite is forgiveness. We must free others to free ourselves, and this can be really challenging to do on our own. Go seek out some help if it’s time to get off the island and make some lemonade!