A Resuscitation of Pity

I’m very pleased with the above title, but what I have to say may not live up to it at all. There is a chance that I am too tired to write. My life here overflows with good things: with picture books and friends and half-full bottles of wine, as well as hurricanes of blue-grey sky, neon-bright autumn leaves, and flashcards about ancient eastern monastics. I have capacity for little else right now, least of all the ability to be particularly coherent in writing, but I do have something to say. So I will try.

I’ve been thinking about pity, and how we’ve given it a bad rap. To be the object of someone else’s pity, we think, is clearly a fate worse than death. If someone pities us then they have put us down, called us unable, relegated us to something second class in the structure of the relationship or community. And so, for our part, when we (Lord help us) “feel sorry for” someone, we try as hard as we darn well can not to show it, because that would be rude. It would be rude to expose another’s need, rude to let it slip that we care. 

We don’t want to offer help and make it seem that we think we’re better than them, forgetting that just last week we ourselves were too tired to button our shirt straight or emerged from the bathroom with a face puffy from crying and next week we may be tasked with a job which is more than we can handle or realize we don’t have money to make rent. We forget the thing about pity which blows this perceived haves-and-have-nots structure out of the water: we forget the reciprocity of it all, a reciprocity in which there is commonality and connection. Any of us can extend pity and any of us may find, at any moment, that we need it.

But more than that, I am quietly becoming convinced that pity—this nearly innate response to the awkwardnesses and great open wounds in other people, wounds which can fester and even stink—is an essential piece of every love actually worthy of the name. It is the thing which teaches us to hold our tongue or to speak up when we would not otherwise be able, to make the pot of soup or to say yes at a moment when it wouldn’t occur to us. Pity is the thing which makes us want to hold a baby.

In fact, pity strikes very near the core of nearly all good things. If we cannot accept the every day garden-variety pity we find directed towards us, the human hearts aching and human hands reaching feebly out on our behalf, how can we possibly encounter the weeping, bleeding heart of God? If we deny pity its chance to act upon us, we deny the One who breathed life into us in the first place.