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The Poverty of Pity

Jordan Yates

Back view of loving mom hug teen daughterAs someone who holds a bachelor’s degree in English Literature, I’m very aware of how tricky words can be.

For instance, pity is often used synonymously with the term compassion, but the two couldn’t be any more different.  Compassion is what keeps the counseling profession alive while pity kills friendships, marriages, families, and communities.

Having pity for someone means you come at him or her in the spirit of superiority while the recipient is led to feel inferior.  Meanwhile, compassion comes with two parties meeting as equals with one more in the position to assist in a level-headed fashion for the moment.

Examples of pitying someone would be cycling through dismissive statements such as you’ll be okay or you’re fine, or saying you’ll pray for them and your thoughts are with them.  And, then, it’s followed up with no action (other than the pity-ers patting themselves on the back after these all-too-common empty exchanges).  Other examples of pity could be charitable actions disguised as compassion (such as donations, bailing someone out of a situation for the umf-teen time, or even service projects) if it’s done with a checklist heart and not a habitat heart.

A habitat heart has a way of welcoming hurting souls without judgement and superiority – that’s compassion.  Compassionate acts take no shortcuts, wait the whole process out with genuine follow through, and has the feel of someone joining you in the struggle.  That means not only listening, but also responding with discernment and humility (which sometimes means deferring to someone or something else as a better fit to help a person in need).  Jesus is the best example of compassion in action, and I picture him to this day spending more hours than the Bible give him credit for, joining wounded people in their misery before performing well-documented miracles or routinely going to battle as an advocate for their cause.

In short, no one wants to be pitied.  It’s insulting at best and shaming at worst.  And, unfortunately, I hear more stories of my clients feeling pitied by people in their support system than anything that even remotely resembles compassion.  So, choose compassion the next time you find a loved one or a community of people hurting in the spirit of doing onto others as you would have them do onto you (Jesus 24:7).

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