Please Check Your Pity at the Door
When it comes to a loved one going through pain or being a pain, choose your reaction wisely. Sympathy, unless it’s for the devil, tends to go over pretty well. Empathy will win friends and influence people to see you in a flattering light. But whatever you do, don’t pity the fool — or anyone else.
So, in love and friendship, why is “pity” such a dirty word? That is the question, and I asked it for years. I’d often heard characters on TV say things like “Don’t pity me!” and “I don’t need your pity!” Every time, I wondered, What’s so wrong about pity?
Then one Saturday afternoon, I got my answer. I was having a post-mortem lunch with my latest ex-boyfriend during which he unexpectedly asked if I had stayed with him for as long as I did out of pity.
“Um, well …” Enough said.
Now, a relationship recap: What began as mutual admiration devolved into something else entirely. I was in love with him, but once he began to peel away the layers to reveal someone who was addicted to alcohol, drugs, sex, and victimhood, my admiration wavered.
He was a hot mess, and I stayed with him as long as I did (a year and a half) in part because I didn’t want to kick him when he was chronically down. But then, about a year into our relationship, I read Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which led to a period of reevaluation. I finally decided I didn’t owe him a place in my life, and so one evening following another of his self-destructive episodes, emboldened by literary courage, I broke up with him.
My guilt nearly ate me alive. He was a good guy who needed help, and I felt like I’d abandoned him. I was in my early twenties, though, and I was in no position to fix him — or anybody, for that matter. There was love there, but it had been corrupted by pity. I had to admit it (to myself): I pitied him.
“What? You pitied me?” he asked, translating my non-answer with dead accuracy. “That’s why you were with me all that time?”
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?
Again, my non-response said everything I didn’t. He threw $20 on the table and rushed out. I finished my meal in silence, replaying the conversation in my head. Afterward, I asked the waiter to wrap up his 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. We didn’t speak again for eight and a half years.
I recently shared that pity story with my friend Nancy during an email exchange. We’d begun the conversation talking about the closing scenes of the 2011 film The Deep Blue Sea and ended up trying to pinpoint the difference between compassion and pity. Nancy saw Freddie’s agreeing to spend one final night with Hester after unceremoniously dumping her as a compassionate act that stopped just short of being redemptive. I thought he was just trying to assuage his guilt. Compassionate would have been breaking up with her gently. He stayed out of pity.
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?”
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 real empathy there, which is the foundation of compassion. Nancy knew how that guy felt. That’s empathy, which begets compassion.
My friend Roberto once 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 said. “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 in 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.”
With pity, there is the sense that the person you pity is wrong in some way. It’s shrouded in negativity.
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 may very well have pitied him. There wasn’t a drop of compassion there. And I pitied 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 victims of bigotry. I’ve been there. I pity bigots. I feel compassion for victims of crime. I’ve been there. I pity criminals.
I feel compassion for someone who is HIV positive. Even though I haven’t been there myself, I can sympathize with that person. But 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.
Or the fool who defiantly insists on not wearing a face mask at a political rally and dies of complications from COVID-19 months later. Rest in peace anyway.
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 out.
It was a dramatic exit worthy of a soap diva, and when I think of him now, I remember his back as he walked out the door in rejection of my pity more clearly than I recall the pity itself.