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?