‘The thing I dread most, far more than the gossip – and God knows, I really don’t like gossip – is the pity. The thought of people feeling sorry for me is too much. My worst nightmare is others holding a pity party on the coat tails of my misfortune.’
It had been a long time since my friend and I had seen each other and we were catching up over a three-hour pot of tea. There had been changes, she’d been dealt a bum hand, and her words gave me pause to check how I was reacting. She’s absolutely right, nobody wants pity, but finding the right note to strike can be a hard. Much as a quick, ‘happens to the best of us,’ then pointing out the jackdaw on the pavement that is finishing off a bag Walkers crisps is a callous reaction, pity is not far behind. Pity disempowers, it diminishes, it can make things worse.
When something happens, either to temporarily or permanently undermine one’s physical or emotional strength, the last thing most people want is pity disguised as praise. The pat on the knee with a well-meaning but infuriating, ‘there, there, aren’t you doing well, in face of it all,’ is enough to drive anyone around the twist. I was once told a story about a child with polio in the 1940s and 50s. As a young boy, he rode a bicycle and propelled himself along with walking sticks. If anyone pitied him, and told him he was doing great despite it all, they would find the whack of his stick on their shin! Children especially, are not prone to self-pity. Mostly they seem to get on with their lot, they don’t sit around feeling sorry for themselves, wishing things were better, they grow into their life and own it.
So when we find ourselves in listening role, it’s worth reflecting and taking care to strike a balance somewhere between a brisk acknowledgement and quickly moving on, and becoming mired down in ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhs’ and ‘so sorrys’, lingering too long in the disaster. For there can be a dreadful fascination that hangs around the edges of pity: shadenfreude– the pleasure derived from another person’s misfortune. It’s probably more likely to arise in us when we read about strangers, especially those who have fallen from a great height, or those we consider to have been over-proud in the first place. And whilst you’ll be made of strong stuff if you can truthfully say you are immune to it, it lives in most of us and it’s worth catching and scotching at the first hint of it.
Putting oneself in the shoes of another is a skill that requires imagination; it’s an exercise in remembering that – were you in their place – how you think you might feel might be far from how they are actually feeling. Maybe this person feels no pity for his or herself, or maybe they need a simple acknowdgement that it must be hard, followed by some silence so you can take your cue as to where to go next. It’s that subtle difference between feeling a real sadness on behalf of the person, a true empathy for what they are going through, and ‘feeling sorry for them’ – which is a more distant action, akin to pity. Feeling sorry for someone keeps us at arms length as we imagine how horrible it would be to be in their position, and feel flooded with relief that it’s not us. All of which is useless. We must shove our temporary relief to one side and replace it with day-to-day gratitude, not a momentary surge of appreciation that we’ve have dodged a bullet that some friend hasn’t.
Pity parties (it’s a rotten expression, I know) are fine as long as the invitees are few and the party doesn’t last too long. I used to have one particular invitee to mine, who, with clipped cheerfulness, would give me a verbal nudge when I was acting the sorry-Susan. ‘Come on now, nobody likes a moaner,’ she would tell me with a wink. (Beware: use this one with care, perhaps only with those you know very well!)
‘I Am What I Am’, by Jerry Herman from La Cage Aux Folles
I am what I am,
I am my own special creation.
So come take a look,
Give me the hook or the ovation.
It’s my world that I want to take a little pride in,
My world, and it’s not a place I have to hide in.
Life’s not worth a damn,
‘Til you can say, “Hey world, I am what I am.”
I am what I am,
I don’t want praise, I don’t want pity.
I bang my own drum,
Some think it’s noise, I think it’s pretty.
And so what, if I love each feather and each spangle,
Why not try to see things from a diff’rent angle?
Your life is a sham,
Till you can shout out,
I am what I am.
I am what I am,
And what I am needs no excuses.
I deal my own deck,
Sometimes the aces, sometimes the deuces.
It’s one life and there’s no return and no deposit,
One life so it’s time to open up your closet.
Life’s not worth a damn till you can shout out,
I am what I am.