That is the question, one I've been saving for the better part of a year, waiting for the right time to pose it in writing. I often hear characters on TV say things like "Don't pity me!" and "I don't need your pity!" Every time, I wonder, What's so bad about pity?
It's actually something I've been asking myself not just this year but for decades. When I was in my twenties, I had a post-mortem lunch with an ex-boyfriend during which he unexpectedly asked if I had stayed with him for as long as I did out of pity. I had to admit that I had. He was a mess, and I had stuck around for a year and a half because I didn't want to kick him when he was chronically down. It took reading Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged for me to realize that I didn't owe him my presence in his life. So one evening following another of his self-destructive episodes, I broke up with him.
I didn't hate him. He was a good guy who needed help. I wasn't interested in fixing him -- or anybody, for that matter (a personal quality that remains unchanged) -- but for months, I figured that the least I could do was stay with him. There was love there, but it was corrupted by pity. I had to admit it: I pitied him.
He responded by throwing $20 on the table and walking out. I finished my meal in silence, replaying the conversation in my head. Afterwards, I asked the waiter to wrap up my ex's uneaten lunch, and I walked to his apartment. Surprisingly, he let me in. I gave him his lunch and his change, and accepted his apology when he offered it.
I told my friend Nancy this story during our latest email exchange, this one focused on the difference between compassion and pity. It began with our takes on the closing scenes of the 2011 film The Deep Blue Sea. Nancy saw Freddie's agreeing to spend one final night with Hester after unceremoniously dumping her as an act of compassion that though not redemptive was certainly brave. I saw it as being not a heroic act but a guilt-ridden one. The compassionate thing to do would have been to break up with her in a more gentle way. He stayed out of pity.
On General Hospital, Dr. Patrick Drake is having a hard time breaking up with Nurse Sabrina Santiago, the woman he was literally about to marry when Dr. Robin Scorpio, his presumed-dead wife, showed up at the nuptials. I think he's having a difficult time breaking things off with Sabrina because he feels compassion for her. But if he stayed with her, although what he feels for her is probably more gratitude for helping him get over Robin's supposed death than it is the type of all-encompassing love he clearly still has for Robin (He was looking for signs that she might still be alive moments before saying "I do" to Sabrina), he'd be doing it partly out of pity. Who needs love like that?
Nancy's take: "I'm not sure there's much of a difference. Compassion means you treat someone with kindness because you empathize with them in some way. Pity means you feel sorry for someone. I suppose that can be somewhat degrading to the person, but does it really matter?"
Of course, it does, but I was having trouble putting it into words until she did it for me by telling me the following story:
"I once gave a UCLA grad student a lift to campus. There was a mob of people waiting for [the bus], and this guy went all the way into the street to look for it. Most of my teen years were spent walking miles to get places in all sorts of weather, or waiting for a lift. Thus, I have a lot of empathy for people who have to walk or take public service. So I gave him a ride to his building and a few donut holes. He paid me the compliment of saying that I was the best bus ride ever. Helping someone because you feel sorry for them: Is it pity or compassion, and does it matter?"
Again, it does, mostly because of the pejorative aspect of pity, the idea that you are not just feeling sorry for the object of your pity but you're looking down on that person, too. There's distance. The person feeling pity is removed from the subject. There's no empathy there, which is the foundation of compassion. Nancy knew how that guy felt. That's empathy, which begets compassion.
My friend Roberto recently shared a story that took place on a colectivo in Buenos Aires. A Colombian guy got on the bus with his young son and began talking about his distressing economic situation. He'd been fired from his job at a video store after it went out of business. "He seemed like a decent guy," Roberto wrote. "He seemed really sad, and he kept apologizing for interrupting everyone. Only three people gave him money (including myself), and the rest ignored him and looked disgusted. He felt bad and went to his knees and asked for help, and people ignored him even more. A lady got up from her seat, and when she was about to get [off the bus], she said on a low voice, 'Why don't you go back to your country?'
"She seemed angry, and the guy felt so bad that he got up and started giving money back to the people. I didn't take it, and he was so sad that he was on the verge of tears. He seemed so helpless and got down from the bus. People didn't care. He left the two pesos I gave him on the floor. I didn't pick it up. I felt so bad."
That's compassion. Roberto didn't see the guy as being inferior in any way. He was just a fellow human being who was having a run of bad luck. However, the woman who insulted the man as she exited the bus pitied him. There wasn't a drop of compassion there. And I pity her.
With pity, there is the sense that the person you pity is wrong in some way. It's shrouded in negativity. I have compassion for the victims of bigotry. I've been there. I pity the bigots. I feel compassion for the victim of a crime. I've been there. I pity the criminal. I feel compassion for someone who is HIV positive. Even though I haven't been there myself, I can sympathize with that person. Bu I can't with someone who is HIV positive and continues to go around drinking, doing drugs and having unprotected sex. I pity that fool.
Compassion goes with empathy like tea does with sympathy. All four suggest civility, being on the same wavelength, if not necessarily in the same life situation. But when Mr. T used to utter his catchphrase "I pity the fool...," civility couldn't have been further from his mind.
When someone says, "I pity you," on a television soap, it's usually directed toward a nemesis, and no wonder. It's no show of respect. If something is "pitiful," it's never a good thing. In that scene in a New York City restaurant, my ex saw that. And he did something that left me regarding him not with pity but with a certain admiration: He got up and walked away.
It was a great last impression worthy of a soap diva, and when I think of him now, I remember his back as he was walking out the door in rejection of my pity more than I recall the pity itself.