Dread crawls up my spine like a snake wrapping itself around a tree branch. It clings to my bones. I feel its muscles flex as it holds on for dear life. It lifts its head, its tongue laps up the air, and it waits. There’s a strong breeze. It’s bitter but sweet. There’s a ripple of tension. Any minute now. Just wait for it. Here it comes… “Oh, you poor thing.”
There it is! Their voice rises and falls. Their tongue clicks the back of their teeth and a tsk slips through downturned limps. Their head tilts to one side, a sadness flickers through their eyes, and they sigh tiredly. It’s as if my presence is exhausting and the thought of me is a bit too much. They look to the left, then the right, and finally over their shoulder. They’ve said their peace and now it’s time to execute their exit strategy.
Everything about this interaction screams one thing: Pity.
I’ve been on the receiving end of this particular emotion plenty of times. If I’m being completely honest, I’m sure I’ve dished it out a time or two. It’s not something I’m proud of because being pitied is demeaning and isolating. It has a heaviness that carries the weight of a lead-filled hot air balloon. There’s a metallic bitterness that stings the back of my throat. When I look into their eyes I know we’re thinking the same thing. Turn away. Melt into the floor. Disappear and be done with this whole sordid affair.
Or, I’m just projecting.
The look, the tilted head, and the clumsy attempt at consolation doesn’t have the desired effect. I frantically look for an exit while I resist the urge to stand and fight. Yell, scream, ball my fists, and stamp my feet. That word, this feeling, the attitude of pity is exacerbating. It’s dismissive. It’s invalidating. Pity is dehumanizing. It strips away the person until all that’s left, all that anyone sees, are their scars.
That person? Their thoughts, dreams, silly quirks? Instead of reading their whole story, we learn all we want to know in one chapter and throw out the rest. The other eighty-nine chapters? Pity doesn’t have that kind of time. If it can’t be summarized in one paragraph on Wiki then forget about it.
Unless it’s turned into a movie but it better have car chases, big explosions, and an A-list cast.
Pity comes in many forms, and its motives vary. I’m a fan of giving people the benefit of the doubt, so I like to assume it comes from a place of genuine concern. It’s a blunderous attempt at kindness, compassion, and empathy. It’s like going in for a hug but smacking them in the head with a phone. The pain was unintentional, but there will be a bruise.
By the way, that’s totally a hypothetical scenario and it didn’t happen in real life. On a completely unrelated note: Why am I so clumsy?
I think, in these situations, we’re trying to create a connection but we don’t have the right tools. The job has to be done so we rig something out of nothing and try to make it work. But it’ll never work. Instead of building a bridge, we’re putting up a wall and once that thing is standing, it’s almost impossible to tear it down.
Walls don’t cover the distance, but they do keep out the icky feelings and uncomfortable ideas. There are somethings, some pains, that are too big and scary. Opening ourselves up to that? Letting ourselves feel it? Compassion and empathy require understanding but to understand we have to sit with the person and hear their story. We have to drop our guard, feel a small portion of their experience, and walk with them over some hot coals.
Of course, we’ll never fully understand what they’re going through unless we’ve gone through it ourselves. Even then, we can have the same experience but experience it in very different ways. We’ll never fully feel it, not like they do, but we can put ourselves in their position. We can close our eyes, paint a picture, and imagine how they’re feeling.
Yes, it’s a lot easier said than done.
I don’t want to feel your pain or imagine what it’s been like for you. You’ve been through a lot, and I don’t know if I’m strong enough to handle it. I don’t know if I have your courage. If I’m too scared to even try to paint that picture? How can I let myself experience it enough to feel compassion or empathy? That’s so hard and pity is so much easier.
I might be hyper empathic but I have my limits and I’ll hide behind that wall for a moments peace. Somethings are too big. Some things are too painful. There have been moments, quite recently actually, when I’ve wanted to say “the right thing” but the words just won’t come out. The right words failed me because there’s nothing to say. Keeping my mouth shut would’ve been preferable, probably more helpful, but I opened it a words fell out.
Instead of offering comfort, my words came out in a way I didn’t intend. I instantly wished I could shove them back down my throat. I wanted to take it all back. My motives were pure, as are yours, but the execution fell short and pity draped over the good intentions.
Sometimes intention has nothing to do with our automatic response. If we venture into the shade, we see pity as a by-product of relief. The situation is so horrible, and the thought of being in that position is too much to process. We’re so glad it’s not us! We don’t want it to happen to them, we’re not monsters, but we are human. If we can’t imagine going through something so terrible than how could they go through it now? Relief and sadness unite. Pity is their love child.
All children are deserving of love, but pity isn’t an act of love.
In my experience, it can be a weapon used to silence and dismiss. I’ve been in situations where pity quickly turned to disgust and they treated me like I wasn’t even human. The nose turned up, the eyes narrowed, their lips pressed together so hard they lost pigment. Their arms wrapped around their chest and their feet spred wide as if they were blocking an entrance. The didn’t feel sorry for me. They hated me because I, my illness, represented weakness and that, for some, is a moral failing to be pitied, despised, and dismissed.
It’s sad. Not for me! I don’t have time for people who behave that way. They’ve chosen willful ignorance over basic human decency. Their insecurities, their need to stand above others, has turned them cold. There’s no other word for it. They’re just sad and I feel bad for them. I suppose, one could argue, that this is a trait that should be pitied. Choosing exclusion and cruelty? Choosing to live in a delusional world of superiority? They are limiting their lives, their experiences, and living in a very small world filled with darkness.
What a tragic waste? Do I dare say, “What a pity?” It’s, I’ll say it again, sad but I’m not sure if they deserve pity. I’m not sure they deserve that energy at all but I could be wrong. I choose to focus my energy on the other 99% of people who just want to be kind.
The vast majority of us are coming from a place of decency, kindness, and compassion. We aren’t trying to be hurtful. We just don’t know how to be helpful so we fall back onto pity. Except, we’re told we shouldn’t wallow in self-pity because it isn’t healthy, it’s isolating, and it’s self-limiting. If self-pity isn’t okay then why is it okay to pity someone else? Isn’t that just as unhealthy? Isn’t it just as isolating and limiting?
How many of us, when we receive pity, enjoy it? How many of us feel loved, seen, accepted for who we are beyond the scars on our bodies? None of those things ring true for me. The opposite is almost always the case and that’s a very lonely place to live. It isn’t a healthy place to be, that’s for sure.
I don’t want your pity. I don’t need your pity. Compassion: Absolutely. Empathy: For sure. Patience: That would be lovely. But pity? Please don’t.
I’m more than my scars. I’m more than my diagnosis. I’m more than my past, present, and I’ll be more than my future. I’m a leather bound bestselling novel that should be enjoyed in its entirety and not left to the cliff notes. I’m more complicated than that and so is my life.
So is your life! You’re all of those things and more. Let’s not limit each other with pity. Let’s not dismiss each other, marginalize each other, with something so dehumanizing. Please, don’t pity me and I’ll offer you the same dignity.