In my view, the worst motivation that anyone can have for doing something for another person is pity.
Love, loyalty and honor — these motivations stand clean and strong. But when someone does something out of pity, because they feel sorry for the other person, no one wins. The one who is pitied becomes the fulfillment of the other’s determination that they have sunk so low that only pity can save them from drowning. The one who pities stands tall only by comparison. These relative positions denigrate both.
Pity and sympathy are linguistic cousins. Pity is defined as “sympathy or sorrow felt for the sufferings of another person”. Sympathy, on the other hand, is a “harmony or agreement in feeling”. Both definitions make the words seem pleasing.
The connotation of the word “pity”, however, involves judging the person to whom one directs the emotion. You find them somewhat defective, incapable, or miserable. To pity someone suggests that they fall short and you sprint past the finish line with colors flying.
We use “sympathy” to allow consideration of our own feelings as we acknowledge the feelings of another. “Been there, done that,” we tell them. That leaves the two of us standing equal, neither more important, but neither the clear focus of the conversation. The one currently suffering has no more importance than we do. We accept no responsibility for helping them. We merely acknowledge the understanding while also asking them to note that we, too, have suffered.
Empathy allows us to intellectually understand the other person’s feelings and use that understanding to imagine what the other person must be feeling. Empathy takes our own feelings out of the equation. We don’t compare ourselves to the other person in any way; we simply reach an understanding of how they feel, and then we respond to how they feel, not how we feel in comparison with what the other experiences. We do not hold ourselves as better; we do not hold ourselves as the same. We do not distract from the situation at hand. We consider only the other.
I strive to empathize with others. Society conditions us to pity or sympathize. We judge — pity — which connotes that the other falls short of our expectations. Or we deflect — sympathize — which focuses not exclusively on them but also on ourselves.
Experiencing pity myself drives home the desolation of being pitied and opens my eyes to the judgment implicit in the act of pitying someone. We don’t pity someone whom we don’t expect to do “better” than they are doing. A child; a person with some severe mental impairment; someone who through no fault of their own has received no education or training; none of these persons receive “pity”. Rather, we give them understanding, and offer aid because we assume that if they could do for themselves, they would. Since they cannot, our charitable selves act on their behalf.
Feeling that another sympathizes offers not much more. I am in need now, but your sympathetic reaction implies that I should muster the gumption to get through this without any effort on your part. That implicit messages tinges your statement to me — “That happened to me, too”. And? You got through it, is that what you’re saying?
The person you no longer respect receives your pity. We can be smug towards the person whom we pity; we would not stumble as they have stumbled; we would not whine as they whine; we would not lay our head upon an alter and invite the sword, as they do. We take care of ourselves, and we pity them, because they do not. Pity between two people subjugates the one to the other. The person who is pitied becomes a complainer by definition if he or she allows the other to act out of pity. “My life has gone to hell, I am so pathetic.” That’s what complaining is: It is a long, drawn out whine about the perception that whatever besieges you has hammered you down so far that you should not be expected to arise. I would keep trying, but you see all these insurmountable barriers! It is not my fault! Pity me!
Pity sends me down. Sympathy stalls me. Empathy embraces me and allows me to acknowledge my pain, rest, and then rise and move forward. I draw strength from those who empathize; I collapse inward under an onslought of pity. I cannot move in the face of sympathy. With empathy, I can continue, and I can ask for help as I need it without feeling judged and found wanting. Pity weakens; sympathy freezes; empathy enables.
So don’t’ cry for me, Argentina. I won’t complain.