Pity vs Compassion

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.

Harming through Inaction

I am a big cat lover. Currently I live with 3 cats, I say live with rather than own because as every cat lover knows, you can’t own cats. You live with them.  2 of our cats are overfed and quite happy, the third is pushing 20 and has an overactive thyroid. Marmalade has always been my favourite (you can have favourite pets, they’re not children) ever since he came through the cat flap when I was 12 and decided to stay. We did put an advert out to see if anyone had lost him but no one ever claimed him. Possibly because he was a very angry bugger, inclined to swipe at everyone and bite if you tried to stroke him. I have a theory he had had enough of being badly treated and had left one day. I knew underneath he was a pussycat, just needing a bit of love and understanding and patience.

So I showed him patience and love, and gradually over the years he has become more and more affectionate and less reactive. This meant that for a large part of my teenage years I was covered in cat scratches and bites. I didn’t mind, I loved him. Eventually he stopped biting and scratching and became the most lovely, aggressively friendly cat with the loudest purr of any cat I’ve known. He was happy, safe and ever so slightly chubby (my mum is a feeder)

But age catches up with us all. He got thinner, his heart beat got faster, he started yowling at strange times and leaving unpleasant surprises around the place. One day I noticed his mouth was swollen so dad took him to the vet. He came home with the news that Marmalade has an overactive thyroid but mysteriously with no medication. I left it, because this sort of thing is my parents’ job.

He got worse: he got ever thinner, he started to bump into things, he stopped wanting to be stroked, he seemed confused all the time and never seemed to sleep. Just sat there, his breathing rocking his tiny frame. I suggested he go to the vet again. At first this was seen as a good idea by my dad but he didn’t take him. When I brought it up again dad said that he didn’t think it was a good idea to take him anymore, it was cruel. I got angry and said I’d take him, I’d pay for it, I’d walk there, anything just to take him.

At that time I thought he was dying. Everyone thought he was dying, he was old, he was dying of old age. My dad’s belief is that it is cruel to take a dying cat to the vet because it is overly stressful. This is a misguided belief. This is harming through inaction. Hospitals are unpleasant but when we are sick we go to the hospital because that’s what they are there for. No one should be left to die because it’s easier.

Turns out no one dies of old age and Marmalade isn’t dying anyway. He has an untreated overactive thyroid and my parents stopped him from getting treatment. They didn’t want him to get a blood test because it was “too much hassle”. Marmalade, as me and my boyfriend were told by the vet last week, has gone blind because it was left untreated for so long. This was avoidable. He’s on medication now and is seeming a lot livelier but there is no happy ending. This poor creature’s suffering could have been alleviated sooner if we’d gone 15 minutes up the road and paid £130 for pills for him.

I want to say this is not about blame, I am trying to point out a faulty belief here. My parents (especially my dad) are professional pessimists. He didn’t take him to the vet because they just believed it would be bad. There would be a) bad news, b) hassle or c) both. So he did nothing. But this belief was false, there was something they could do but they didn’t even find that out.

And now our poor cat is skin and bones and blind.

Books that have helped

Before I was depressed I was an intellectual cynic. Self help, I believed was for gullible people, full of fluff and crap and was no good for anyone. I regarded the Mind, Body, Spirit (MBS for short, sometimes I would call it the BS section) section at the bookshop where I worked with its bizarre mixture of angels, crystals, meditation and ‘heal yourself’ books with great suspicion. I wouldn’t have said it (to their faces) but in my mind it was for weirdos.

So it was with a heavy heart that I have to admit that I was wrong. Well, partly. I don’t agree with a lot of those books still. I do retain a bit of my inner cynic.

The first thing I did when I realised I was depressed was I decided that it was not worth hanging on to the belief that people who looked for help in such places as a self-help book were somehow different to me, that these books didn’t apply to me because I was a rational, staunchly atheist, scientifically minded philosophy student. I needed help and I was going to find it and to hell with those who would laugh at me.

So now 3 years later I’m a fully fledged yogi, meditator and it turns out no one actually cared too much about any of this. I suppose I’m not at school anymore (I was friends with a very stifling group of girls at school who would laugh if my hair was parted strangely, no joke) This is a relief. I like being an adult!

So the two books that have helped me beyond all others are: The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion and The Mindful Way Through Depression. Yes, mindfulness is the way ahead! It is miraculous.

I read The Mindful Way Through Depression first last year and this was my introduction to a sustained meditation practice. At first I thought it’d be too easy and obvious for me because I’d been practicing yoga. I was wrong again! Before then I had only been able to practice my yoga when my mood was not so all consumingly awful. It was beyond my comprehension to sit with a low mood. Learning how to be with myself when all I want to do is watch tv and forget I exist has been one of the hardest but most rewarding things. I know myself better now, I know my feelings are nothing to fear, they have no substance. They’re just thoughts and they come and go just like my tears sometimes do when I’m sitting there.

Having this knowledge of my mind and my moods for the first time gave me a sense that I was helping myself recover, I wasn’t waiting in the hope that the depression would somehow just go away. I realised that in some ways it was my thoughts which were keeping me in my depression. I understood for the first time that desperate cycle: I have a bad feeling, I have a bad thought, I feel bad, I am bad, I will feel and be bad forever and ever and ever. With sustained practice my thought patterns now have become more like: I have a bad feeling, I feel bad, end. I feel the feelings, in my chest (that hollow ache), in my throat (that clawing) and I know what they are. I am not scared of them.

The second book The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion I have only just finished. This book builds on my mindfulness by adding the idea of self-compassion to it. I think I feel more compassion (self and otherwise) than a lot of people but that doesn’t stop me beating myself up about this or that trivial thing. My counsellor pointed out I was very hard on myself and it’s true, I am. That needs to change.

This book has helped me, it has introduced the metta meditation which I practice everyday on strangers when I’m walking around. This sounds odd but it helps connect me to other people because I usually feel so alienated and different. According to the book that means I’m an ‘outsider’. There’s some quotes that applied fantastically to my experience but I think that merits an entire post.

Self-compassion helps me cope. It helps when I wake up sad and all I want to do is stare out of the window and cry. It helps me realise that this is not my fault, that I am suffering as everyone suffers. We have to acknowledge our own suffering and others but not condemn ourselves or them. We just have to wish us all well. This book has given me some fantastic tools to help this process and I can feel it healing me.

These two books, no exaggeration, have given me my mind back. I can’t say if reading them has helped my depression along but when I wake up sad or I have a sudden downturn I know how to help myself. I truly hope if you, or someone else you know, is suffering that you try to read these books. They are well worth putting aside any cynical misgivings.

Metta during TT

Feeling a bit vulnerable today and when I feel vulnerable I practice my metta meditation skills. That is I say the phrases in my head: “May I be safe, may I be happy, may I be healthy, may I live with ease” and when I’m walking round I focus on people and think to myself “may you be safe, may you be happy, may you be healthy, may you live with ease.” Doing the phrases while focusing on other people has definitely helped me feel like I belong more to this whole human race. I feel more connected to the people around me, they aren’t scary beings out to get me or hurt me. They’re just people, like me.

This week is a challenge for me. As I’m writing this I can hear the roar of bikes, with the occasional helicopter going to pick up some poor sod who’s mangled himself. It’s the TT races here in the island, my least favourite couple of weeks in the year. I don’t drive a car, I definitely don’t ride a motorbike. I have no need to, I can walk everywhere I need to go. To be honest I hate being in cars, so I avoid it when I can. This marks me out as very different in the world we live in. The thing is I just can’t understand why everyone else does rely on cars so much. I worry about not being able to understand this and the more I worry the bigger the gap becomes.

So some history of the TT: men on bikes racing at ridiculously high speeds on main roads that are closed to traffic at the whim of the race organisers. According to Wikipedia, there has been 231 deaths between the years 1997 and 2009. Every year there’s a handful of deaths, not always people racing. Spectators have died and sometimes volunteer marshalls of the races. You grow up in the island thinking this is normal. The common refrain is “they knew what they were getting themselves in for”

Deaths apart, many thousands of bikers come over and the effect in the island seems to be of a heightened aggression and increasingly dangerous driving. Even among the people living here! The prom (which I enjoy walking on) is turned into a fair and the famous beer tent is erected. “The island comes alive!” is another line people cry. Presumably ‘alive’ means drinking until you’re paralytic and then shagging some biker in a back alley. Fantastic!

And then there’s the disruption to people’s lives. I mentioned that the roads are closed, these are not back roads or a track, this is the roads people use to get around. If it rains and the races can’t go on, well they just close the roads for longer! For a lot of people, not living in Douglas this is the only impact the races has on them, the traffic jams. It is disheartening to think that people will grumble more about being stuck in traffic than they will about people dying unnecessarily.

Now, can you understand my problem here? How can I go about and look into the eyes of these men (and they are overwhelmingly men) who come over to the festival turning my home into an aggressive, drunken perma-1am-on-a-Friday-night place and wish them happiness and ease? How can I wish that people who are coming over to my home to deliberately drive fast thus endangering themselves and those around them are safe, are healthy?

I will continue to practice the metta phrases because I know we can’t pick and choose who we are and aren’t compassionate towards. It is hard, forever being on the outside, of the minority, unvocalised opinion. Give me strength, metta, I need it!