Pity is not Compassion
How to be a more emotionally fluent human
Pity is compassion’s poor relative, the consolation prize of emotions.
And it is often used as a subtle way to put down fellow humans.
“Poor you!” is never empowering or comforting to hear.
While it’s common to witness someone’s distress and be so taken aback we have no idea what we can do, pitying them can make it worse.
Expressing sorrow while implying the person suffering is somehow diminished by their circumstances creates an imbalance.
Rather than fellow feeling, that “Poor you!” becomes commentary, an opinion conveying a slight sense of superiority from the perspective of the speaker.
It happens. Something hits us right in the feels and leads to an all-encompassing sense of helplessness. Think of our standard group response to natural catastrophes.
How many people will talk about “those poor people” but fail to take any action?
Granted, few of us have the skills, availability, or funds to fly to the other side of the world and alleviate suffering in person. But many of us can often spare one symbolic dollar to help support rescue efforts. It may feel like precious little but it does add up fast.
There’s always something we can do.
On a one-to-one basis, “How can I help?” is both a neutral and open-ended question that expresses concern and care. Even if the distraught person cannot tell us, we can be present and listen. This alone can go a long way toward providing relief.
And just like that, pity has morphed into compassion because we’ve taken action rather than stood back.
But to tell someone outright that we pity them is never a good idea. If “Poor you!” is humiliating enough, “I pity you!” sounds like a condemnation, an indictment of one’s suitability for life.
Three words are all it takes to communicate the speaker’s perceived superiority, condescension, and arrogance.
Pity is a power play.
Power dynamics are the enemy of compassion.
Humans who, from birth, are socialized to compete rather than collaborate have no intrinsic sense of equality. Regardless of the principles America was founded on, we yet have to act as if we were all equals.
In such a culture, anyone who belongs to a marginalized demographic is likely to have internalized inferiority from the get go. And some people will always seek to prove they are better than others.
It doesn’t help that American life routinely dehumanizes people on the basis of means, skin hue, national origin, health status, sexual orientation…
Since Trump took office, not only does such talk happen out in the open but it has become completely normalized.
Self-appointed social justice warriors will sometimes use pity as a way to pay lip service to a cause and show they care.
And then they’ll go back to their life of privilege, lamenting the misfortunes of others without lifting a finger to help.
For all its usefulness, pity might as well be the precursor to schadenfreude. We don’t actively rejoice others have it worse than us but we’re not shy about letting them know we either are or have it better than them.
When a lack of self-awareness and an inflated ego collide, “I pity you!” is the grenade thrown by those unable to muster compassion.
And yet, calling out someone else for missing something we do not possess is absurd.
Wanting to win at all cost and always be right makes humans behave in unfathomable ways.
Pity is the talk, compassion is the walk.
Compassionate folks don’t tend to waste time formulating value judgments on the person in distress, they just take action.
Sometimes, it is wordless, a hand on a shoulder, two outstretched arms offering a hug then holding us tight while we fall apart.
Compassion is a safe space to catch our breath and gather ourselves, pity is a slap in the face that can worsen our predicament.
There isn’t a chronic depressive in the world who wants to hear someone else explain their own misery to them.
Usually, we’re more than fully conversant with it already, often to expert level so outlining the many ways illness has been holding us back isn’t helpful.
Trust us, we know.
Then again, not every expression of pity is malicious.
Societal taboos make conversations about mental illness difficult for everyone. The willingness to broach the topic with someone whose suffering we’re privy to is already a step forward, even when it’s not always tactful.
We don’t always know what to say, and the good news is that we don’t have to say anything.
Being present, listening, and loving can be silent.
But it can matter so much more than empty words.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.