Posted in Of Psyche

Of Pity


Pity is the worst positive emotion in all humanity. Having someone’s pity is like receiving their lost tooth for your birthday. Precious to them once, but even an emotional equivalent of it is of no value to either of you. That is why someone pitying you, including you yourself, feels so unwelcome and repulsive.

Pity feels awful because it implies the other person is arrogant about their own comparative better state. Even in the case of self-pity, you shirk responsibility for your actions because you know you deserve more than to suffer for them. That is a survival instinct, because if you really believed you were bad, your actions henceforth would only be comfortably worse. Struggling with trying to be good, means that there is a possibility of there being good in you.

Why should it be the worst positive emotion when it helps you survive with hope? I didn’t say it wasn’t any good. But, that is about as good as it gets. You can see this clearly when you are at the receiving end of someone’s pity. You should be able to distinguish their behaviour, if not at that very moment, as something different from understanding or sympathy. Understanding, sympathy and empathy are all different responses to another’s suffering, but they are common in feeling and showing genuine concern and willingness to help. Pity, on the other hand, is basically saying, “I feel awful that you are going through this, but I am glad that I don’t have to go through this myself.

Say someone has been diagnosed with cancer. Those genuinely concerned will be visibly shaken by the information, while the pitying sort will go into a story immediately about how their second cousin or somebody else survived cancer. To them, getting attention by expressing personal knowledge is the only way to get anything out of the situation. Nothing more is to be expected of them, but it’s not like you can point that out.

There is a marked difference between pity and mercy, though both are used interchangeably. There is an excellent speech in The Merchant of Venice on the desirability of practising mercy. Having the power to forgive someone, and doing so, is one of the noblest, self-relieving things you can ever do. Having pity, on the other hand, takes away that nobility and continues on that arrogance. Mercy is humbling, while having pity over someone is empty power.

Greek dramatic theory, in its simplified, popular version, states that tragedy should induce pity and fear. Now, we know fear is certainly not desirable. And, if you comply with me, neither is pity. But, tragedy, which the Greeks did very well, is a way of understanding human characters and situations that we may never experience, but which manage to move us, and teach us about life in a very palpable way. Anyone who is indifferent to expressing understanding in an unpleasant situation is missing out on something very significant – an understanding of life itself.

I am not saying that life is defined by suffering. But, you have to be willing to take it all in, sadness and joy, wherever and however you get it. You can’t choose really, which is why there is a huge difference between happiness and joy. Joy is extreme, but momentary, while happiness comes from a willingness to be open to everything. Thus, if pity is your stance in any given situation, you are cutting yourself off from something that could have been so much more meaningful. That is one of the reasons why there are people who go out of their way to help others, often self-sacrificially. It is because they are interested in the causes and possible solutions in these complex situations of suffering.

The question that remains unanswered is, why do people pity? It isn’t only a survival instinct, is it? I think it comes from complacency. Believe it or not, there are people who are a little too pleased with themselves (the ones that aren’t end up becoming writers!), and even when exposed to suffering, they prefer to ease themselves out of it. And there are so many easy pleasures, distractions, that it is easy to have it easy. Really, it is. You think you have the weight of the world on your shoulders, but there are people who don’t and are absolutely content being that. Their pity is only a criticism of your aspirations to make something more out of your life. Now, is that something worth your time?


Writer, Blogger, Kate Bush Fanatic

11 thoughts on “Of Pity

  1. I really like that sentence at the end: How a person’s pity is a criticism of your aspirations. I have been on the receiving end of pity looks a lot and I would always let that affect how I saw myself. But I’m working on trying to not let their opinions change how I feel about me 🙂 Great post, as always 😀

    1. Thank you very much! It was very hard to separate my feelings and be objective as I’ve often been on the receiving end too. But, I self-pity even more! And I think it is self-pity that probably makes it okay for people to pity you in turn. Once you stop feeling sorry for yourself, no one can have the power to make you feel small. Very difficult to do, but completely worth the effort!

      1. So true! I do self-pity a lot, and over ridiculous things (mainly my height and how I appear to others in public) but I am really trying to just be more confident in my skin, and ignore any rude stares I receive from people who don’t know anything about me.

      2. I think a good way to start is focusing on what is really important to you. You often don’t have any control over the negative things in your life, including your own bad habits. But, if you decide to start working on the good instead, the bad will slowly start to matter less.

  2. A very insightful post. To me, pity is compassion without the sympathy. It’s merely a “Sorry for your loss/sadness/hurt.” And then the person saying it moves on with his own life. On the other hand, a compassionate person would offer coping devices and other advice. The two traits are quite different. Thank you for distinguishing them.

    1. You’re welcome! And I love how you defined it. I think even if you can’t provide any advice or help to someone who is suffering, just trying to listen to them and understanding their pain is also a sufficiently compassionate act that they are sure to appreciate. On the other hand, the pitying sort will only see what they can get out of the situation, without much regard or attention towards the actual sufferer.

  3. I agree that pity is a negative thing and usually people say something like “I feel awful for you”, but they don’t attempt to help you and move on with their lives. But, when something unfortunate happens to you and someone says “poor you” it kinda feels good. It means that others witness the act of your misfortune, and you have all he grounds to be sad about it. This way, you validate your feelings and being able to move on. And when we don’t get this validation from others, we act as a witness to our own misery and say “poor you” to ourselves. The problem here is that it’s hard to know when to stop and it might become a way of thinking about a problem instead. Something like that 🙂

    1. I completely agree with you Elena. Thank you for sharing your insight on this. I think it has more to do not with what is said, but the way it is said. If you are good at reading people’s behaviour (there are many who aren’t), you’d be able to distinguish between genuine empathy/sympathy and pity. The latter may say the very same words, but their attitude will be completely different.
      I know somebody who, the moment they hear something awful that has happened to someone else, takes up the task of verbalising the effects of it out loud, connecting it to something that happened to someone else at another time (like the cancer example above), and telling people what should be done in the situation. Basically, they have to make everything about themselves. It is better to have somebody silent or with a few kind words, than someone like this.

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