Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Pity: The Fool?

During the time I was very sick and not expected to live another year, one of the most challenging parts of human interaction was the pity I saw on so many people's faces. From the strangers who spotted my oxygen tank and nasal cannula to the people who knew me and my story, there was no shortage of awkward conversations in which pity dripped through people's voices and eyes. This drove me mad. I couldn't quite put my finger on what was so annoying to me about this. Now I think I know why.

Currently, part of my work involves spending a good amount of time in hospitals and clinics. Recently, I was passing by a very sick looking patient and noted that my feelings for this patient were, in a word, odd. Society teaches me that, when I see someone who is suffering like this patient was suffering, I should feel sorry for them. The feeling I had was not this. I wondered if my experiences had made me hard or if I was a selfish person. I wondered if this reaction, or to be more accurate, lack of reaction, meant there was something wrong with me.

This led me back to thinking about pity and how it once was like nails on my soul's chalkboard. It hit me. Pity comes from a place of distance. From a place of looking down onto an experience that is not your own, beneath you and harder than your own. Pity is driving down dirt roads in third world countries seeing children beg for change with outstretched dirty hands. It is the emotion for another's suffering you can't relate to. It is how we feel when we think we will never have to know that kind of suffering.

What drove me crazy all those years ago was not that people cared. That, of course, was the beauty and the sweetness of the circumstance. What was disconcerting was that, when they spoke to me, they now saw something foreign. Something different than the person I was when I was well. In truth, of course, the person peering out from behind my eyes was unchanged by my physical decline. So why were they talking to me slowly and with high pitched voices? Why were they looking at me sideways and nodding slowly as if I was too fragile for a sarcastic joke? And then it hit me: what made me bonkers was that they looked at me and did not see themselves.

Pity is a fool. To pity is not to have compassion. When there is compassion there is the knowing that all human experiences are possible for any of us at any time. If I pity the homeless man, I am forgetting that I am one false move from that reality myself. If we pity the sick, we forget that will, too, will get sick and die. When I see patients I see myself. When I see grieving families I see myself. I do not feel pity because I know that this is an experience I will live again and again. It is simply not my time in the circle right now.

Pity is a fool. Next time we pity another, may we ask ourselves why we feel so distanced from that experience. May we find a way to the possibility that each experience is both unique and completely universal. May we find our compassion and pity the fool who pities another.


toastie said...

What a great distinction between pity and compassion. I needed that. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Hi Tiffany,
I've visited your blog before, but this recent post forced me out of "lurkdom". You've tapped into something profound here, and given me quite a bit to think about... Pity versus compassion, you/me versus WE all walk through dark tunnels.

I think your proposition can be extended to self-pity: when we pity ourselves, it's usually because we can't believe the bad thing is actually happening ("how can this happen to ME? This wasn't supposed to happen to ME"...).
Thanks for tackling the tough subjects. I'm a fan.

Amanda said...

I'm glad to see your blog's here! I'd been reading you way back in 2007, then went through a bit of a blog break, and came back but more in another area than the medical aspect. I'd been thinking about you and wondering how you were though... and it's good to see what you've been up to :D

Anonymous said...

Thank you so much for this.

[mkg] said...

just found you blog and book! I love it and want to learn more about what youre up to now. Are you still offering trainings/ touring?

M Thomason said...

Love this posting! As a fellow "sick girl," I couldn't agree more!

M Thomason said...

Love this posting! As a fellow "sick girl," I couldn't agree more!

Cathy said...
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Maui Girl said...

I also hate the pity and would love a little more compassion. I have lost friends in the last 5 years I think because of my health issues. Sometimes it scares people when you chronically get sick. Love your post!