Too often people conflate the act of doing good with the feeling of goodness when doing something. Most times, doing the right thing and doing it properly will not always feel all that great. Often accomplishing a task with integrity, selflessness, and precision is personally strenuous to the point that it tests the soul. If your need to feel good begins to outweigh the actual goal for others to benefit from your contribution, your efforts will have a negative effect. An individual may believe that he or she is experiencing compassion, but they are actually feeling pity.
Tragedy and the state of lack prompt both pity and compassion, but the focus is what differentiates pity from compassion. Pity focuses on the individual witnessing someone else’s tragedy. Compassion, on the other hand, focuses on the individual being afflicted at the time. In our current culture, it is becoming easier to conflate the two when national news affects the public in a visceral way. Communities don’t want to see calamities come to their door step. No one would. Socially, our culture aims to absolve themselves of the shared ‘emotional’ guilt from not being able to prevent it from happening. That is an impossible task. You can’t change the past, nor rewrite history.
When you live in the past, you make it impossible to affect your present in order to make sure your future changes. Mahatma Gandhi is famously known for saying, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.” The attempt to change the world by changing everyone else before yourself is a resignation of your responsibility. Furthermore, you lose the one thing you have the most authority over: yourself. This is true of any act of charity, benevolence, or care. Others cannot do what you do, and demanding of others when you cannot manage it yourself is emotionally selfish. Oddly, our current culture seems to demand retribution from historical offenders. You cannot draw blood from a stone.
Both religious and secular societies have many failings when it comes to discerning the difference between pity and compassion. They usually improperly evaluate those who need their assistance. What is given is not always what is needed. Faithful and dependable people are left out of favor, and when they ask for help they are resisted for the lack of a look of desperation. Platitudes are offered in place of the act of care. This is pure pity. A person is presented with someone who has a need, and instead of being moved to act, they pander. The human in front of you needs help, and you feel uncomfortable rather than eager.
The Judeo-Christian worldview asks, “What man is there among you who, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will he give him a serpent?” Giving is important, but what you give and how you give it is just as important. Compassion is meant to inspire the individual feeling it to act upon it, and the Bible states that Christ was moved with compassion. Pity is so unpleasant that someone would give almost anything just to not feel it anymore. The act of giving becomes penance for guilt, accomplishing practically nothing of value.
This ends up being no different than social programs that don’t actually solve what may be causing the deficit. Educational grants are not helping young students receive vocational skills. Abortion is not helping women plan for motherhood. Demographic quotas are not assisting businesses in growth. Government assisted healthcare is not innovating treatments, rewarding doctors, and improving coverage. Tax write-offs are not incentivizing people to get married and have children.
You don’t have to change the whole world. You only have to change your world. Sigmund Freud was quite twisted about most things, yet he was right when he stated that, “Most people do not really want freedom, because freedom involves responsibility, and most people are frightened of responsibility.”
Pity will not fill the void, nor find a solution. Either work what is rightfully yours with honor, or waste your time making yourself feel better by bringing “relief” that is anything but.
By: Rosemary Dewar