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.