Thinkaboutit #6
Whatever Happened to Pity?
The Age of Self-Esteem has banished the word “pity” to the scrap heap of politically incorrect terms and descriptives.  Pity is not a motive anyone wants to own, and which all are loath to receive.  
Pity has descended from the status of high Christian virtue—one of the sweetest and most comely fruits of love—almost to the status of a vice, even a sin.  No longer one of the chief characteristics of the saints, it has become a virtual synonym for pride and contumacious condescension.  To say, “I pity you,” is regarded as vicious trash talk.
But why?
Because of what it is that provokes a response of pity: the piteous condition of another human being.
I haven’t done any specific research on this, but my sense is that the decline of pity began following our Civil War.  The material devastation of that war was broad and deep, both on the land and the populace.  Thousands of horrifically wounded and maimed soldiers came out of that war.  Thousands were impoverished.  The number of orphans and widows multiplied.  The ethical standards of the time demanded that such people be pitied.
But it is hard to be reconciled to such a piteous condition.  Some refused to be reconciled to it, and sought other opportunities in the burgeoning West.  However they handled their situation, a certain phrase that rarely appeared before gained wide currency, reflected in the literature passed down in popular culture: “I don’t want your pity.”  It became a trademark of American independence.
Fast forward to the late 20th Century and the rise of the Self-Esteem movement.  By this time not only had the receiving of pity become a sign of shame, the very giving of it had likewise acquired a stigma.  “Who are you,” as it were, “to show pity?  Do you think you’re better than anyone else?”  Pity has become a sign of self-righteous condescension toward others.  It is an unfair demotion that pity has suffered.
Pity is a characteristic and function of love.  It is a self-denying response.  Its opposite is revulsion.  Pity refuses to abhor a physically, mentally, and emotionally abhorrent condition or situation.  We behold a person with whom we absolutely would not wish to exchange places, someone whose condition or situation is repellent and produces a natural feeling of rejection and retreat.
But pity does not turn away from the suffering.  Pity embraces the suffering one, and ameliorates the life of the pitied with whatever energies and resources are in his power.
So what’s wrong with pity?  In our world so saturated with humanistic egalitarianism, pity implies inequality and even unworthiness.  “Compassion,” or “sympathy” work better for us, because these words seem to say that we are all the same and that no one is really any better or worse than another.  Even better is “empathy,” because it is devoid of any moral connotation at all.
Interestingly, many people who promote empathetic values are more concerned about how others treat people than how they themselves respond to those who are suffering.  For them empathy is a feeling.
In contrast Mr. Webster, always concerned with the morality and social effects of language, reminded us that “the word pity usually includes compassion accompanied with some act of charity or benevolence, and not simply a fellow feeling of distress.”
If we can’t recover the word pity, I hope we can come up with a better replacement than “empathy.”
Tell me what you think.
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