In Praise of Pity

You know how a lot of people with multiple sclerosis say they don’t want pity or sympathy? Well, I do. I mean, I think pity—I’m so sorry for you, I can’t imagine living with an incurable disease—comes from empathy in a sincere attempt to bond with the sufferer.

The way people talk about it these days you’d think it was one of the seven dirty words you can’t say on television, right up there with s**t, p**s, f**k, c**t, t**s, mother****er and c**ksuc**r, from a now-classic routine by comedian George Carlin (1937-2008).

Why do we hate pity?

How did pity come to be so reviled? Its synonyms are compassion, empathy, sadness, sorrow, regret, understanding, rue, and a handful of others besides, all of them kind. In its simplest meaning, pity is felt and expressed for someone in unfortunate circumstances not brought about by their own actions, such as losing a home in a hurricane or being robbed at knifepoint and severely wounded. But pity possesses several more layers ranging from the most positive outcome—charity and social activism—to the most negative—a manipulative play for attention to perpetuate a fraud.

Pity in film

A comic example of the latter is in the early part of the movie TRADING PLACES (1983) where homeless hustler Eddie Murphy pretends to be a double amputee perched on a board with wheels to get handouts from the more pitying passersby. It’s a funny scene, and as is the case with most successful comedy, it mocks a deeper issue. You might say TRADING PLACES is a revenge fantasy that pits somewhat-jaded and more-jaded people against each other in a battle between the illusions of security and success, and between apathy and pity. The Duke brothers top the apathy scale with their plot to corner the market, while Ophelia the hooker takes in Louis out of pity, setting the revenge scheme in motion.

Relatable themes

In the climactic scene on the commodities floor of the stock exchange, the disgraced stockbroker and the homeless hustler join forces to bring ruin on the rich, cynical old commodities brokers by falsifying the orange futures report. It’s hard to say which of the characters was more cynical, but it’s certain that the apathetic, greedy rich guys got their comeuppance, a morally satisfying resolution to what we all seem to feel are the worst cynics of all. Considering how successful the movie was, its themes must have resonated with most of us. Why do we share a common world-weariness?

Our world has become more cynical

You might say that as our culture has become more sophisticated and less isolated, its populace has become more cynical. On the most personal level—a hostile interaction between two strangers where one has MS and the other does not—is one of the ironies of social progress. An example of this irony might be the dizzying, lightning-fast evolution of information technology. Most notably, consider the internet and its vast stores of both raw and interpretive data. Although we now have the capacity to send information around the globe in seconds, our ability to analyze and interpret that information is not nearly as evolved due to a lack of education in research and critical thinking. It takes time and a trained eye to research a news item or topic, too much time in a world that demands an immediate response without thoughtful deliberation.

Information-overloaded yet meaning-starved

Gone are the days when we relied more on experts to analyze and present the data to us in meaningful, easy-to-digest language. Experts either don’t have the time or the inclination to help us better understand our world. Doctors must serve their masters to the neglect of their patients. Others, those blessed with good health, make up part of a nation of information-overloaded yet meaning-starved people who fall back on ignorant judgments because they are too exhausted to learn or care. Stressed to the max, they lash out at people with MS who park in handicapped spaces without an outward sign of disability. Adverts, PSAs and news feeds have pulled at them to care about more problems than they have the capacity for, pushing otherwise good people to behave badly.

Misunderstandings

In a country of roughly a million with MS, there are again as many media pitches for treatments and cures aired every day, giving so many people the wrong idea about how it really is, including those who are afflicted. It seems to reinforce an already-existing aversion to asking for help and confessing weakness and misfortune. As kind as most people are, we are also weirdly two-faced when it comes to interacting with those sufferers that aren’t outwardly afflicted.

We don't have to look far in popular entertainment to find the negatives of pity as comical memes. Mr. T scowls into the camera and intones I pity the fool...meaning, of course, that he pities the guy whose a** he's about to kick. In this case, pity is of the condescending, superior kind that dooms the weak to receiving even more pain.

Embracing pity

In this contentious, angry, wounded country, it would be such a healing gesture to embrace pity on behalf of both the dispossessed and those more fortunate. That is, to think of pity as a positive emotion and allow it to bring out our better angels. It would mean having to heal our jaundiced eyes. To do that, we would have to put the stardust back in them and forget we ever saw Toto pull back the curtain.

More on this topic

What do you think are some things that erode our ability to feel pity for others in a positive way? Or do you consider pity to be a purely negative emotion?

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