On Pity and Compassion: A Meditation

26 04 2011

I spent better than two weeks working on this meditation, trying to write an earnest and compelling argument comparing and contrasting these emotions, and weighing their value in everyday. The problem:  I could never move off a litany of dusty statements, anchored by a few clever quotes. I couldn’t find my authentic voice in the exercise.

“Friends help. Others pity,” Proverbs.

I took a break last week to continue the search for a job, work in the garden, spend time with my fantastic partner and great friends, think about the problem before me, and find the ability to listen. That said, this week  I’m starting fresh.  But on to the meditation.

To pity is to feel sorrow at the misfortune of another.

I was raised to show kindness and generosity of spirit with the less fortunate. The label most often affixed to this was pity, but as I reflect on pity, I find several flaws in it.

First of all, pity requires comparison between conditions, which is an inexact task at best. Who knows enough about someone to truly say their circumstances are less fortunate, without growing a deeper relationship? Like proverbs says, friends help; others pity.

Pity can lead to misunderstandings and resentment. People who need your help genuinely want your help, not your pity. They want a chance to fight their way back, and your condescension will only get in their way. People who want your pity are looking to manipulate your emotions, and who likes to be manipulated? You are open to exploitation, either materially, or in providing justification for another’s baggage.

The interesting thing about pity, there is no corresponding state of being (“I am ___”) associated with the feeling. You can feel pity, but your existence can only evoke pity (pitiful, piteous). When you choose to act rather than feel, then you come into a fullness of being through compassion.

To be compassionate is to actively desire to alleviate the suffering of others.

Choosing between the two, I would choose to be compassionate, rather than feel pity. I may be strong or weak in comparison to others, but I am able to feel compassion for all others, whether they be mouse or millionaire.

In choosing compassion, I can come into a fullness of being. Through practicing compassionate acts, my lot in life is also increased, in positive energy, strength of purpose, and friendship. And my compassion is maintained by being mindful of the suffering of others; it is internal to my state of being, and not dependent on measurement on external values. Without the window dressing provided by pity, it comes down to a simply choice to act or not to act.

In setting down pity and picking up compassion, I make a deeper commitment to my fellow earthlings to stamp out suffering where I can. Operative in this is the statement, “where I can.” It’s not about doing it all, but doing your part: not ignoring suffering, injustice, and inequality; even a smile, a word, or a gesture can lift some of the load.

A challenge: seek and destroy in the name of compassion and love.

My stepmother carries five dollar fast food gift cards to hand out to people asking for money. Carry fold cards listing homeless resources in your area with a couple of quarters taped inside. The next time you have a celebration, ask everyone to bring a sack of food for the local food bank. Next birthday, ask for donations to a cause you care deeply about.

Happiness is a by-product of an effort to make someone else happy.  -Gretta Brooker Palmer