Oh, What a Pity…Or an Empathy?

Of all the words in the English language, I’d classify “pity” as a true frenemy. By definition, it’s a kind term, with Merriam-Webster describing it as “sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy” and equating it with compassion. Still, it’s been weaponized by people—often facetiously—saying, “I pity you.”

Such use has led all of us to chide against ever being pitied. As a disabled person, I resented the word before I even grasped its meaning. I think it played into my debate about whether someone was nice to me because of my qualities or my handicap. From a young age, genuineness really mattered to me, and I could usually see through it when somebody showed me kindness in the view of others but never in a private setting. Thus, that represented pity to me, as it conveyed that they felt bad for me but didn’t seem to desire a true relationship beyond that. I’ll admit with regret that my sensitivity to the notion of being pitied spilled onto actual friends who didn’t deserve my scrutiny.

Even so, I had trouble pinpointing the reason I despised the word so much. A recent interview with Michael Kutcher, who, like me, lives with Cerebral Palsy, and his famous brother, Ashton, helped me get some clarity at last. During the sit-down, Ashton shared his candid thoughts about feeling guilty for having a privileged life when his brother faced significant health challenges. When Michael perceived his remorse, he told him, “Every time you feel sorry for me, you make me less,” adding, “this is the only life I’ve ever known, so stop feeling sorry for the only thing I have.”

The powerful statement resonated with me and explained my own conundrum with pity to me. Regardless of the type of limitations you have, a key to thriving despite them is not dwelling on how they confine you. You have to accept your normal instead of wishing you had everyone else’s normal. When others display a sorrowful manner about what you’ve accepted, however, it downgrades everything you’ve done to make the most of your circumstances.

Along with that, none of us can accurately guess what factors really bother them. I’ve experienced people giving me somber looks or making sympathetic comments about matters I don’t long to do, even in different circumstances. For instance, I’ve always enjoyed watching sports, but frankly, I’ve never had a burning itch to participate in them. Plenty of able-bodied people might not be athletic but enjoy being a spectator, don’t they? Still, someone once asked me how I can enjoy them, given I can’t play. While I appreciated the concern, it was an unnecessary reminder of my disability.

Despite the bad reputation “pity” gets, I realize, for the most part, pity stems from good intentions. No matter how distasteful some of these pitiful remarks may seem, I’d rather somebody be considerate of my limitations rather than oblivious to them.

What’s more, though, is transforming your pity for someone into empathy, namely, “an active sharing in the emotional experience of the other person.” (Merriam-Webster) Having such intuition comes more naturally to some than it does others, but whatever your inclination, getting to know somebody is the start of cultivating empathy.

To illustrate, we might feel sad for any animal that’s suffering, but when it’s our own pet, it just about kills us inside. Why? Because we’ve developed a kinship with them, learning their personality and observing how they act when they’re well. Thus, when they limp on the leg they once ran on, we feel their pain.

Likewise, instead of just watching someone’s struggles from afar with pity, take the initiative to get to know them. Don’t conclude you understand them just because you know the basics of their condition. Foster empathy, and more than likely, they’ll be able to empathize with you, too.   

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