Is Pity the Opposite of Compassion?

When I first saw this TED-talk it seamed clear to me that pity is the opposite of compassion. Compassion is action, it’s loving, it’s energetic and vital, pity is negativity, it’s energy loss, it’s non-action. Especially if it concerns self-pity. What stops us more than feeling pity for ourselves? Compassion is where you say; ‘I feel for you, I’ll help you solve your problem, and I will stay with you until it’s resolved, because I believe in you and I think I can help you’. Whether the compassion is for yourself or for someone else, it’s helping and giving support in a very healthy manner of taking action: an action that started with the feeling of pity. Now that I see the TED-talk again I wonder, is it that simple?

mother Teresa compassion

When we only feel pity for someone it’s like saying; Poor you, I see that you are incapable! It is everywhere in society, in politics, in foreign aid, in identification meaning separation into we and you (see previous blogs on identification). It’s saying that you are incapable, so I do it for you. It’s patronizing. It can actually be the easy way out, because it stops creativity and action, it gives a status quo to the situation.

Compassion is much harder, as it is to stand for the other person’s (or your own), commitment to himself or herself. Pity is feeding the hunger, but compassion is showing them how to cook and understand how to best communicate and teach it. Pity is taking care of, but compassion is caring. Compassion is responsible, pity is not responsible. If we feel pity for others and therefore stop requiring or asking of them to do whatever they themselves say they want but they are not doing… is that really helpful?

Now, at first we don’t choose to feel pity, it just comes so it is as it has to be. It’s very human to feel pity and sad for others, and as such I think it is beautiful. It is a necessary biological feeling, or let’s call it warning system, to ourselves that something is not right. That there is something that could be changed. So in that sense it is a very good lead to an act of compassion, and to change what is not making us healthy, because to stay in the feeling of pity, is not healthy. As a matter of fact, statistics show that patients that identify with their disease, often by joining support groups where they meet and talk about their disease, are much less likely to get healthy, than patients that don’t join those groups.

plan S T U

We have all used self-pity as a fantastic way to ‘get what we want’, especially as kids. It ends confrontation, it can disarm and stop any communication but in the long run just increases stress for us. Many go so far as to identify with their pity for years, introducing themselves as someone to feel pity for; Hi, I had a horrible childhood! Hi, I had a mean partner 20 years ago! Hi, I have cancer! The most compassionate thing would be to make the person identifying with the bad things that happened to them, be aware of what he or she is doing and help them move on – if they want to move on!

Pity can also be the common ground to understand and continue communication. Maybe it is a good first feeling but if we stay in pity, nothing will change, it is only paralyzing us. Just like anger. When anger leads to creating something better, it is a fantastic enhancing first feeling. When pity, anger, sadness or other feelings we call ‘bad’, is the start of compassion it is extremely helpful and healthy. Use it, feel it but don’t stay in it!

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