Why Pity is a Four-Letter Word

Lately my ear has become more attuned than usual to voices that scorn the concepts of sympathy, empathy, and compassion. Never have I been able to relate to such insensitivity. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people’s very sad life stories and felt a knee-jerk empathy, a simpatico reflex. It’s in my grain to bond with you all through your suffering. But, so often, I’ll hear a person rebuff any expressions of that warmth, assuring us they weren’t angling for sympathy and then punctuating it with: and don’t feel sorry for me!

Apparently, pity is a big no-no. Maybe the worst thing ever. Worse than death by blow torch. Babies starving to death in refugee camps. They’re pretty terrible, but whatever you do, don’t damn us all to Hades by pitying them.  As we all know, pity is the gateway emotion to sympathy, empathy, and compassion. If we’re not careful, we might commit selfless acts of kindness and charity.

Altruism is for the birds, especially those species of tree-hugging peckerwoods that bore into the hard-won growth of mature pines and drain their sap. And how about those brood-parasite cuckoos that lay their eggs in other species’ nests so they don’t have to spend energy and resources feeding their own offspring? Talk about enabling the bloodsuckers of society. Pity, then, is the first cut made in the initiation rites of the Bleeding Hearts Society.

Pity prejudice has a long history. Though it is synonymous with compassion and sympathy in the Jewish bible, by the nineteenth century the Christian interpretation separated pity from compassion and coupled it with contempt for the object being pitied. Pity is separate because it is more impersonal than the other emotions and reserved for those we have no attachment to—and therefore do not help. Pity begs contempt because the shabby, contorted, disabled person is a nasty sight and evokes a feeling of fear and superiority. The pitied are pitiable because their lot is judged as one that will never improve. Pitying a stranger is a passive emotion, whereas compassion for a loved one in a chronically bad situation moves us to relieve their suffering.

Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that pity is a well-meaning feeling of sorrow for a stranger whose suffering was not earned. But Ayn Rand preferred to emphasize contempt in her manifesto of objectivism, the I-got-mine, why-should-I-help-you-with-a-hand-out diatribe that became the bible of Libertarians.

Where do you stand with pity, compassion and sympathy?  Here are some contemporary quotes:

“We don’t want your pity. We want your help.”  –National Multiple Sclerosis Society

“We Don’t Want Your Pity, We Want Confetti.” –AspergersAreUs Facebook group

“Pity is a dangerous weapon, even if there are positive intentions behind it – it strips us of our dignity and personhood. Pity prevents folks from seeing me as capable of finding love, having friends, working, or living in the community; this view of disabled people directly affects government policy and the services we receive (or could receive) to live our best lives.” --Erin Hawley, disability activist/owner of The Geeky Gimp blog.

All good points, but I have my own take on pity, too. I am a former Catholic, meaning I'm a failure at sustaining faith. But there is one thing I “get” about the crucifix that I still embrace.  It was the suffering Jesus that awakened my pity as a little girl. If catching sight of the human, suffering Jesus couldn’t melt the heart of the coldest heathen, then nothing could.

The last 20 minutes of Mel Gibson’s PASSION OF THE CHRIST is my defense of pity. During the death march, Jesus falters and the guards force a bystander to help him carry his cross. The man doesn’t want to get involved and resists to no avail. But as they strain under the cross together, the man sees the blood and scourge close-up and softly encourages Jesus that it isn’t much farther. When they reach their destination, the guards force the man away from Jesus. But he doesn’t want to leave. He resists but the guards push him away and he stands on the side of the road, crying. Apathy had quickly turned into pity. Then compassion prompted the man to soothe a suffering innocent. From apathy to pity to compassion and grief. It only happens if we suspend judgment and do the scary thing: allow ourselves to walk in the shoes of a stranger.

Pity is good will, part one of a series of steps we can take towards generosity. I try to welcome any opportunity to become more emotionally involved with strangers. It's not easy, but it's worth every tear I shed for someone else's pain.

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