Saturday, July 02, 2016

Pity Is Not Compassion

Michigan Avenue, Chicago

Some people want to be pitied. Like Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich.

"What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and the only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result… The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odor) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long. He saw that no one felt for him, because no one even wished to grasp his position… [W]hat most tormented Ivan Ilych was that no one pitied him as he wished to be pitied. At certain moments after prolonged suffering he wished most of all (though he would have been ashamed to confess it) for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied. He longed to be petted and comforted.”

"Pity me" means "Self-obsess with me in my misery." At the core of "pity" is self-centeredness.

Compassion, on the other hand, is feeling-with the other in their struggle, in their weakness. At the core of compassion is other-centeredness. 

Pity is hierarchical. Pity looks down ("I pity you"). Compassion looks alongside ("I feel with you"). Compassion operates on a level playing field.

Pity nurtures opens wounds. Compassion heals the wounded.