What my tongue dares not that my heart shall say

There was a time when I thought that feeling pity for someone was a virtue; it meant feeling discomfort at their situation, I suppose, but perhaps it was also tinged with relief that their situation had not happened to me. And yet was that all I felt? Surely there was some concern and a wish that things were different for them. Is that sympathy, empathy, or pity, though? Can I ever be so removed from their distress that I don’t actually care? Having noticed their condition in the first place, is it ever possible to fail to see the situation from their eyes?

Maybe it is simply my choice of words that is at issue however; perhaps I should choose words that more accurately describe how and what I feel because those who care about such things might misunderstand; in their eyes, maybe I am the one to be pitied.

Words have always been important to me, but I wonder if, in the innocence of my youth, I was more intent on quantity than quality, more invested in display than accuracy. It’s one thing to dazzle someone with ‘lugubrious’, or ‘threnody’, and another to keep the conversational thread alive with ‘dismal’ or ‘song of lament’. But I suppose that to mature is to learn what is appropriate in the context. There are, no doubt, different routes, but in the end, the goal is the same.

Therefore, destination in mind, I return to the concept of pity. I found an essay, written by Gordon Marino, an emeritus professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota, which was titled ‘Pity is an emotion easy to scorn but central to our humanity’. I’m not sure why it seemed so instructive for me, although it may have been a reminder that we should always try to choose the most appropriate word for what we mean. It may also have been that I am now retired and fatigued with the pandemic platitudes of social isolation when I have little to say because I have had little to do. Still, the very idea that ‘pity’ may not have meant what I had thought was enough to make me sit up and take notice. Had I been overlooking its condescending undertones? It’s paternalism? https://psyche.co/ideas/pity-is-an-emotion-easy-to-scorn-but-central-to-our-humanity

Marino felt that most people had mixed feelings about pity: ‘To the extent that we associate it with compassion, pity seems to be a good thing… On the other hand, most of us wince at the thought of being the object of pity and sneer at those who can’t seem to pull themselves out of the muck of feeling sorry for themselves.’ He then quotes Nietzsche from his book The Antichrist: ‘Pity preserves things that are ripe for decline, it defends things that have been disowned and condemned by life, and it gives a depressive and questionable character to life itself by keeping alive an abundance of failures of every type.’ Whoaa… And then again, from yet another Nietzschean book: ‘When expressions of pity make the unfortunate man aware of this feeling of superiority, he gets a kind of pleasure from it; his self-image revives; he is still important enough to inflict pain on the world.

I began to question the origins of my youthful vocabulary, because as Marino points out, ‘On the whole, pity’s lowly reputation is a projection of our swollen egos, since feeling pity is frequently connected with assuming an air of superiority.’ Uhmm…

Or even more damning I think, was his quote from the American author Richard Wright’s novel Native Son ‘pity can tempt us as a consoling reassurance which leads us to believe … that, in pitying, we have even done something to right a wrong.’ As Marino writes, ‘Feeling for someone else can put us to sleep and make us imagine that a tear in the eye removes from us any need to do something about the situation that evoked that tear.’ 

And yet, it seems to me that it is better to feel pity than to feel nothing; better to notice the poverty of the beggar on the street and offer some charity than to walk by with eyes averted. And if the pity verges on sympathy, compassion, or even empathy, perhaps that is a recognition that feelings are not capable of being easily categorized. As Marino concedes, ‘the furniture of our inner world, in general, is far from being as clearly and objectively differentiated as, say, tables and chairs.’ Maybe I should not be as concerned about the correct word to use, as the feeling I experience.

The other day, on a rare walk through the downtown streets, I saw an old man in dirty clothes sitting on the sidewalk with a small tin can at his feet. His face was unshaven and his hair uncombed and dirty, but he sat with an air of dignity, somehow. He was wearing an old, torn suit over what appeared to be a once-white shirt. His eyes were rheumy, but as I approached they sat on my cheeks like tired birds. I couldn’t help but think of the words of the poet William Ernest Henley’s Invictus -a poem that has always haunted me: ‘In the fell clutch of circumstance I have not winced nor cried aloud. Under the bludgeonings of chance my head is bloody but unbowed’.

The elderly man had obviously fallen upon hard times, but still he sat with head upright against the wall of some nameless building in a poverty stricken part of town and likely would all day until he was chased away. He smiled at me, and for a moment his face lit up. Was it hope, greeting, or the god that lives inside us all inviting me to look more closely? Perhaps I read too much in the epiphany of his face, but I put some money in the little can, and returned his smile.

Our eyes touched only briefly, but in that moment, Invictus whispered to me again: ‘And yet the menace of the years finds and shall find me unafraid’. I could only hope I would have the old man’s courage to sit with my head unbowed against a cold brick wall, waiting for some friendly eyes to touch. Is pity too much to wait for…?


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