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February 9, 2009

Poisonous Pity

Filed under: Uncategorized — kevinocoin @ 3:44 pm

Doing an abrupt about-face and discarding his famous catchphrase, Mr. T says “no” to pity.

It’s been my observation that pity doesn’t really accomplish what we hope it might.  When we use the term, what we usually mean is that we feel sorry for someone, and that that negative emotion might even lead us to do something to help that person out.  But is there a dark side to pity?  Certainly extending aid to someone in need of it could hardly be called wrong, but what motivates pity?  Mr. T himself has been quoted as saying, “pity is between sorry and mercy.”  I suggest that mercy is the ideal (God himself asks us to “to do what is right, to love mercy, and to live humbly” [Micah 6:8]), but pity doesn’t quite measure up.  Feeling sorry for someone probably doesn’t motivate us to action, and though pity might, it’s not mercy, which I would define as altrustic and loving service that respects the dignity and value of all people.   

Pity can often create and perpetuate an “us” versus “them” mentality.  “Those people” are the object of our charity — we feel comfortable feeding them soup or giving them clean socks and warm jackets, but do we know their names or how they ended up in a place where they need what we can give them?  Dictionary.com notes that “pity regards its object not only as suffering, but weak, and hence as inferior.”  It is tempting for us to think of ourselves as better than “they” are because we are wealthier, better looking, have more friends, aren’t addicted to drug, or whatever else.  And so, what potentially could be acts of mercy might just turn into deeds of pity.

And at it’s worst, pity is fundamentally dehumanizing.  Those we pity can becomes faceless and nameless recipients of our charity, rather than people with whom we can partner to live better lives: we help someone with material comforts or deep sorrow, and we, in turn, are ourselves richer for it.  When we pity instead of empathize and show mercy, we rob people of their dignity and forget that all people are lovingluy created in the image of God — the very thing that separates us from the animals.

 Are we willing to hear their stories of those we help and dignify these narratives with a thoughtful response? Can we serve with love instead of pity?  If we were to lose everything today and be out on the street tomorrow, would we not want to cry out with every fibre of our being to people passing on by, “I’m human, too.  Don’t look the other way!”?.  Were we to suffer a terrible tragedy, would we not want those around us to listen to us and comfort us with their presence instead of patting us on the shoulder and offering pat answers? 

If only it were that easy!  I am no different that anyone else who might be reading this.  I pity more than I demonstrate mercy; I want to feel good by dispensing charity without having to enter into the messiness of the lives of those I help.  In fact, I might even want to simply pity people from afar and not help them at all, hoping my fleetingly tender emotion might count for something, but it’s hollow. 

I know, we can’t get to know everyone who we help — there aren’t enough hours in the day.  But what about looking someone in the eye when we serve them?  How about turning “How are you doing?” into a serious question instead of a platitude?  Can we be conscious about treating people with basic diginity and respect instead of sizing up their weaknesses and failures from the get-go and judging our own short-comings to be less severe?  To love mercy is to level the playing field.  To be merciful is to see your reflection in another person’s face and know that, were it not for the grace of God, that could be you.

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