“Pity melts the mind to love” (John Dryden).
AS FEELINGS AND ATTITUDES GO, PITY IS A BIT ODD. We’re not sure whether we think it’s a good thing or a bad one. In general, we’d say pity is a virtue, but it’s a virtue with a mixed reputation.
If we heard someone being described as “pitiless,” we wouldn’t think the person had received a compliment, and if someone said, “Don’t just stand there — for pity’s sake, help him,” we wouldn’t see that as anything but an honorable appeal. But when we’re on the receiving end, pity’s not always something we appreciate. As Balzac said, “The response man has the greatest difficulty in tolerating is pity, especially when he warrants it.” But should we resist or resent pity? Is it anything more than pride that keeps us from appreciating the pity that a caring friend (or even an honest enemy) might extend to us?
Pity is not condescending, or at least it doesn’t have to be. If our present situation is one which another human being might naturally respond to with concern and regret, it really doesn’t matter whether that person is “above” us or “below” us. When pity is a reasonable response to some circumstance of ours, we ought to receive it humbly and gratefully. And when someone else’s circumstance calls for our pity, we ought to feel that honorable sentiment without any condescension. If you’re suffering today, I’ll probably be the one suffering tomorrow. It’s a waste of time to ask who is “superior” to whom.
Most of us understand, however, that in order to be genuine, pity must be more than a feeling; it must involve real, active compassion. “We may have uneasy feelings for seeing a creature in distress without pity; for we have not pity unless we wish to relieve them,” said Samuel Johnson. So authentic pity is a sorrow for someone else’s condition that urges us to help them, if we can. In the New Testament, James, the brother of Jesus, wrote, “If a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Depart in peace, be warmed and filled,’ but you do not give them the things needed for the body, what does it profit?” So today, if there is any pity to be shown, let’s make sure it’s the kind that serves as well as sympathizes.
“What value has compassion that does not take its object in its arms?” (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry).