Wednesday, November 04, 2009

On Pity: Thoughts on the Past Week

For the first time in my life, this past week I felt pity. It may sound strange as the word is so commonplace and yet it was profound experience.

As a writer, I am fascinated by the near impossible challenge of capturing human experience in words. It is the ultimate paradox: to attempt to capture the subtleties, complexities and vastness of human experience with materials and tools that are inherently inadequate and ill-suited to the job.

This means that I am always astounded when I grasp the meaning of a particular word. That is always an exhilarating moment of epiphany, when a commonly used word or phrase takes on new and powerful emotional resonance and understanding. It is a flash of insight into a word’s original use. Those moments are like an instant journey through human history into the very dawn of time, to that first moment when that emotion was felt and expressed by some anonymous human ancestor.

It is also a strangely mystical experience: as if for that instant I am connected to the entire unfathomable spectrum of humanity, from its very origins to my own. In that instant there is magic: of sudden understanding of how extraordinary the human mind is, and how extraordinary our journey through time and space has been as a species.

And while mysticism and evolution are not two words that normally go together, these moments provide a strangely personal glimpse into evolution: of how we humans are different from other sentient beings; of how extraordinary that very first moment of feeling a particular emotion must have been for that original ancestor; of the power of human emotions and the extraordinary hubris of attempting to articulate it in language.

For the first time in my life, I felt an emotion that I could identify only as pity.More importantly, for the very first time, I had a new understanding of that commonly used term (even more so in modern Britain, where it seems everything from a spilled cup of tea to a car accident is carelessly lumped together as “pity.”)

Yet what I experienced was something quite exceptional: first, of what the word means, rooted as it is in Latin, in pietas, as in duty. That is not duty as in a burden, or insistence on doing something right or anything at all under duress, but rather as duty when something unfortunate must still be done.

On looking up the word I found further explanation in the dictionary: “a feeling of sorrow that inclines one to help or show mercy.”

See what I mean when words are inadequate? To help is quite different from showing mercy. And yet, in its Latin sense, performance of duty would require a sense of mercy rather than helpfulness.

As I pondered the meaning of pity, I was struck by the following image: compassion or sympathy is when upon seeing a wounded, suffering being, one feels compelled to assist and ease its suffering.

Pity is what one feels when that wounded being is beyond all aid and we can do no more but feel a strange mixture of sadness and repulsion at its suffering.

Of course this begs the question: who excites our pity? Why do I not feel pity for those suffering in Gaza or the Congo or Darfur? Why do those weak, suffering, wounded people evoke my sympathy, compassion, sorrow and yet a grudging admiration and solidarity? Perhaps it is because of the sense of resistance and dignity that they bring to their calamitous lives; a sense of self that is asserted by their very determined efforts to survive the quotidian horrors that surround them.

No, they do not deserve pity, because they require no mercy. All by themselves, they exercise a powerful personal and collective agency despite the odds that face them.

Which then brings me back to the object of my pity: Pity diminishes the dignity of the one who receives it. The object of pity requires mercy from the strong because like that wounded animal that is beyond our aid, its pain is its only sense of self; its weakness is its only expression of identity. Even worse, the object of pity can not be saved or helped; the only mercy one can offer is to step gingerly, carefully, to avoid contagion, around and beyond it.

For the first time in my life, I have felt pity and understood the word. It is neither an emotion nor a word that I would ever like to repeat again.