You’ve probably heard the statement “I feel so bad for them” thrown into a conversation at least once in your life, or perhaps, you’ve even said these words yourself. Either way, I think we can agree that pity is passé.
How many times have you watched a movie or TV show in which a character angrily declares, “I don’t need your pity!” Now, think about how many times you have felt like screaming the exact same statement yourself. It appears that the majority of us despise the feeling of being pitied — yet, we continue to dish out our pity on others.
This strange dichotomy that we’ve created is due to the fact that the definitions of compassion, sympathy and empathy often are muddled and homogenized with one another. Pity, however, often falls specifically under the category of sympathy.
To be perfectly clichéd, the dictionary defines pity as “the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others,” which sounds fairly peachy in and of itself. However, the concept of pity has evolved far beyond this definition within Canadian contexts.
The reason we don’t want to be pitied is because the term is directly interwoven with power. Pity often evokes a saviour-burden binary in which a dazzling white knight supposedly swoops in to save you from yourself.
Pity does not operate on the basis of mutual respect but instead functions on a hierarchical scale with the baseline being “I’m better off than you, and therefore, I know what’s best. Now, let me fix it for you.”
In its most basic form, pity puts the self first rather than lifting those around us. Pity does not require active listening but rather entails a passive substitution in which some one acts in accordance with what they think and feel to be an appropriate act of assistance.
For example, imagine having mentioned to a friend that you are struggling financially. With the combined workload of school, multiple jobs and all the chaos of life, you haven’t been able to eat a proper meal in weeks. Your friend decides to take it upon themselves to make you a healthy, home-cooked dinner.
They arrive at your house, hearty chicken casserole in hand, but you regretfully notify them that you don’t eat meat. Your friend swoops in with an aggressive “well, I made it for you, so you should be grateful.” You are left feeling like you are at fault for the mix-up.
Empathy, unlike pity, asks whether or not you want meat in your casserole.
While empathy is commonly defined as the ability to feel what another is feeling, I argue that empathy is actually the ability to understand that you will never have the ability to feel exactly what another is feeling — and accepting this truth.
Let’s face it — we’re never going to be able to zap into another person’s mind and fully comprehend their thoughts and feelings, so realistically, pretending that we know what others think and feel actually serves as a hindrance to our relationships.
Empathy is rooted in the belief that people are telling the truth in their recounts of their own experiences. Empathy is not bulldozing over tough conversations with seemingly relatable stories, but instead, it is the ability and desire to listen and listen well. Empathy substitutes the age-old adage to “treat others how you want to be treated” with “treat others how they want to be treated.”
Within the mutuality of empathy, there is no saviour-burden binary, just respect. While pity acts first and listens later, empathy first listens and then responds accordingly. Pity assumes a singular claim to the human condition whereas empathy evens the playing field. Respect overpowers hierarchy, and therefore, empathy outweighs pity. While semantics can be tricky, treating humans as humans shouldn’t be.
Graphic: Mỹ Anh Phan