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Being on the Receiving End of Pity

Given how outright mean many people are, it might be odd to single out as particularly problematic and especially painful a kind of treatment that might, on the surface, seem very close to kindness.

When they hear of a problem we have, a certain sort of acquaintance will rush to offer us gentle-sounding words. They will ask us with concern how we are doing; they will enquire if they can get us anything at all at what must be a very difficult moment for us; they will say they imagine how awful things are and how in agony we must be. They will end a call by entreating us to get in touch with them whenever we want – day or night, weekends too – if they can be of any assistance of any kind. They might even briefly sigh – and say in a tender voice: ‘Poor you!’ 

How could we so ungrateful as to mind, when other people might at this very moment be calling us a loser or worse? Yet the latter approach might almost be preferable; however bracing, we would at least know where we stood.

What can make honey-coated kindness unbearable is its entanglement with one of the most pernicious emotions we can ever be on the receiving end of, namely pity. To be pitied is to be placed in a special category of loneliness and freakishness, and accorded an exceptionally strong pariah status, at the very moment when what we long for is solace and our confirmation of our right to belong to the human race. The pitying person recognises how desperate our condition is, but what subverts their efforts to be kind is the energy with make they make it clear that our sorrow is ours and ours alone – and that they will not, and could not ever be touched by any similar horror. They want to be sweet to us of course, but what they will not do is recognise that they are as open to madness, foolishness, accident and suffering as we are. They need – from fear – to create a solid wall between our condition and theirs. They need to remind us, and most importantly themselves, that they are firmly rooted on dry land, while we are out there in the ocean swell drowning. They will throw a small life raft perhaps; what they don’t want to imagine is ever needing one themselves.

Pity is troubling because it lies so close to something we all desperately want, which is sympathy. Both the pity-bearing and the sympathetic person will say ‘poor you.’ Both will recognise our troubles and the extent of our fall and our pain. But the pity-bearing person then does something unwittingly very cruel: they manage to imply that the mess we’re in is only ours. They won’t hint at something which is – in the grander scheme – a great deal more accurate as well as more humane: the truth that we are all of us at all times a hair’s breadth away from agony.

The pity-bearing friend can’t directly say this, and may not know it themselves, but dread explains the assiduousness with which they keep our catastrophe at arm’s length. They must remind us of the distinctiveness of our situation because they aren’t strong enough to accept how much trouble they may be in line for in the future. They may be coming to our hospital for a visit, but it’s quietly evident that they couldn’t ever picture themselves in such a bleak place. They may help us to pay for our groceries but heaven forbid that they would ever one day have to ask a friend for money in turn.

The truly heart-warming and consoling friend is someone robust and mature enough to be reconciled to their own exposure to pain; they know that though they are not on the ward right now, they might easily be soon enough; they understand that everything we are suffering from could touch them one day too, that our sins have echoes in their own hearts; that they haven’t been granted immunity to folly and horror; that they may as yet be fine, but that they almost certainly won’t be in the end, because life is long and because they are human – and therefore condemned to exquisite kinds of suffering, as we all are. This is the emotional background that will discreetly lend their words consolation and their hugs sincerity.

In the end, we should not resent the pity-bearing person long. They are not causing us suffering on purpose – and generally they have no clue what they are up to. They are just very afraid of being like us – unreconciled to one day having to drink from the giant cup of suffering we’ve been forced to down. We frighten them; we are ghoulish evocations of everything they are in flight from. We are not imagining a problem; we are right to sense how delicately we are being kept at bay by an imaginary long stick and surgical gloves. They may have called us up to see how we are, but as we take in their well-muffled terror, we should turn the tables on them and reassert our sense of agency and dignity in the face of their sweetly patronising concern. We have become explorers of regions they are still too brittle and apprehensive to know how to travel to. If anyone is in need of a dose of reassuring kindness, it may be them.

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