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.

How I became depressed: Part 3

Here we are at part 3 of my depression retrospective. Here’s the prelude, part 1 and part 2. Right now my depression is very much at the forefront of my mind, I’m at day 3 of a low period. It’s unusual for me to feel like this in the middle of summer, I’m more of a winter depressive gal. It’s one of those things, the worse you feel the harder it is to get out of it.

So far I’ve talked about the feelings of isolation at university and of losing a friend and gaining a boyfriend. It’s spectacularly hard to try to sum up all the different pieces that got to together to conspire and cause my depression, the whole does seem to be greater than the sum of its parts. In the end I just have to conclude that I’m a sensitive person and these situations were enough to cause my mind significant, lasting trauma. There’s no shame in that, I just want to get better.

There’s two other major factors: the house and the university course itself. The house was a shithole. It was damp, the kitchen hadn’t been refitted or decorated for at least 20 years and the bathroom was much the same. The toilet broke, the fridge broke, the microwave didn’t break although it looked like one of the first microwaves ever to have been built so we pretended it broke in order to get a new one in fear of the radiation it might emit, my radiator broke, my boyfriend’s radiator broke, there was slugs in the kitchen (in the drawers and on the cutlery) the damp caused mould to grow on my clothes, it was freezing constantly and it STANK. My boyfriend (or friend as he was for most of the first year) C was, like I’ve said before, a very responsible young man and a pleasure to live with. He shouldered pretty much all of the responsibility of looking after the house when things went wrong and I did most of the cleaning, until I got so down I could barely look after myself. We had a couple of terrible landlords, they were Thatcher’s children, seeing their student houses as a nice little earner so they could jet off on regular holidays, completely lacking in any kind of responsibility towards actually maintaining this house. I have to say that I despise them, the landlady especially was a really nasty piece of work, I don’t think I’ll ever trust a Wendy again. At one point in my last year we had a screaming row, afterwards I cried tears of joy because I hadn’t felt so alive for months. Of course a lot of my self-compassion work is trying to deal with these people. It takes time.

So there we are, a nice dose of resentment that we were struggling in this horrible house with no help from our housemates or the landlords. I began to despise people in general, not trust anyone. Other people became strange creatures, I was not one of them, they only were nice to you when they wanted something. They’d hurt you and ignore you and make you feel alone and insignificant and stupid for caring. The only person I trusted was my boyfriend, everyone else was out to get me. It became us against the world. This was terrible for my thought patterns, especially because my boyfriend is a bit of moaner and a ranter. We’d spend hours ranting about our former friend, the other people we lived with, the landlords, the students, the lecturers, the people in the world in general. I knew it was bad but I couldn’t stop, I just sank further and further into this belief that the world was a terrible place, inhabited by terrible people. I didn’t belong in it.

I think I’ll have to leave the second factor until next week. If you’re reading this and suffering, or even if you’re not, just do something nice for yourself today. Or if you know someone who needs a bit of kindness, reach out to them. Everyone deserves kindness so be kind to yourself and to others.

There is!

I was meditating the other day. Recently I’ve been doing a centering meditation which involves concentrating on your breathing and then asking yourself for some words of wisdom to use as a mantra. Something to heal you that comes from within. It’s been doing wonders for me, when I felt defeated I sat and got ‘keep going’, when I was feeling separate I got ‘I am a part of everything’.

There was nothing remarkable about this last meditation, I was feeling insecure and a bit of a failure (about this blog if I’m honest) and nothing much came to mind. That’s ok, I just sat there. A couple of minutes from the end (I know because I cheated and I peeked at my timer) a thought struck me, I realised I was feeling happy and it wasn’t because of meditating, it was because I’d finished my alloted ‘tasks’ for the day and I could relax. This unsettled me because it reminded me of a time when I was working in the book shop after I left school and my dad commented at the end of one workday that I was seeming happier. I told him it was only because I’d finished work for the day and to this he said “that’s enough, for most people”. This struck me as the most uniquely depressing thought, it can’t be true. Can it? Is happiness just the absense of bad things? There has to be more to it!

So I’m back on my zafu thinking about this and I realised: I’m not that confused girl being told pessimistic ‘truths’ anymore. It’s crap what my dad said, absolute crap! Life is not just a procession of meaningless, unpleasant duties and happiness is not just the relief from not having to do these meaningless, unpleasant duties for another 16 hours. Now my life is rich and I know what happiness is. I spend my days doing yoga, meditating, painting, thinking, learning, talking, listening, reading, enjoying the world around me and I know that there is more! There is!