Recently this is a topic that I’ve been thinking a lot about, mainly in relation to how my parents view me and other sufferers. It came into sharp relief after seeing their reactions to our recently departed cat.
Pity and compassion are very different concepts. If you pity someone the implication is one of ‘looking down on’ but not necessarily lowering yourself down to their level to really feel their suffering. Pity implies otherness; praying for people but not actually understanding or helping them. Being removed from their suffering, saying you feel it but maybe not feeling anything at all. It has a touch of a disdainful lip curl about it. Watch from a distance but do not do anything.
Compassion, on the other hand, is the wish to alleviate suffering. It is the acceptance that while we cannot know truly what suffering is like for others we can know that they are suffering and we can attempt to help them in their suffering. Not out of a sense of duty or for any personal satisfaction, just for the pure goodwill of wanting to give people a leg up out of their pain.
Compassion is hard for most people because it requires a selflessness, and the courage to act. This is hard. You have to forget yourself, let go of any fears that you’ll say/do ‘the wrong thing’ and not be strangled by that self-doubt. It is sad that the desire to help is often overridden by the fear of looking stupid. I learnt long ago that the worst thing to say to someone who’s suffering is “I don’t know what to say”.
My parents pity me and they pitied Marmalade. Both of us have spent a fair amount of time skulking around the house, him looking thin and blind and me tear-faced, mute and slow to the point of being stationary. My parents have never helped me, they look at me and they say “aw” or look sad. Sometimes I feel like they feel more sorry for themselves at not being able to ‘make me better’ than they do at my being depressed for the entirety of my 20s. My requests for help in dealing with my depression have turned into hysterical arguments with my parents telling me that I don’t let them help me, or they always make things worse, or they say the wrong thing, or they don’t know what to do. This then turns into a ridiculous competition about who suffers the most on their own: “I cry all the time on my own about you” vs “I’m getting very down about it”.
I may sound hard hearted but tears mean nothing to me. Tears don’t help me, pity doesn’t help me. Why are they so scared to help me? Are they scared that if they tried they might catch it?? They are good people but I think they may be addicted to misery, to pitying. Dad will watch the news and bow his head when some awful story comes on about a war or a famine. He’ll say “Christ it’s terrible, it’s fucking awful” and maybe a tear will come to his eye. But his tear won’t help those people.
Pity is easy, compassion is hard.