Taking Stock in the Checkout Line

While standing in line at the checkout counter, the lady in front of me pulled out food stamps to pay for her groceries. It was obvious as she unfold the currency that she, I, and the checkout girl were quite uncomfortable with the interaction. The woman never lifted her head as she organized her bags of groceries and set them into her cart. She walked away from the checkout stand in the sort of still movements a person uses when they know they are being watched.

On the drive over the mountain that afternoon, I realized that it was not the woman who should be pitied, it was me. Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, by judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away.  ~ Donald Miller

While reading Miller’s story, I thought of the times I’ve looked at someone’s life and felt sorry for them. I’m certain I’ve done this with people who are perfectly happy and content. My reaction isn’t based on their lack, it’s based on mine.

When I compare my circumstances to another’s and feel pity, I’m assuming they want the same things I want – that they feel how I’m guessing I would feel in their place. It’s so easy to rob someone of their dignity by making assumptions and by practicing pity instead of compassion.

While there may be an element of good-will in pity, there is almost always an underlying strain of pride. Pity is a place, just far enough removed, where we can look down while keeping clean and safe. Pity urges a turning away, or at its best, a temporary cure which mostly serves to make us feel better about ourselves. Pity is presumptive and demeaning.

The word compassion comes from the Latin meaning to suffer together with. Compassion not only calls us to care rather than judge, it also calls us to comfort instead of always trying to cure. Compassion moves in and takes the time to learn the heart of another.

Pity says: There but for the grace of God go I.

Compassion says: There, by God’s grace, I’ll go with you.

Author: Debbie

A former counselor and public speaker, I'm grateful for many, many things - God's grace most of all!

48 thoughts on “Taking Stock in the Checkout Line”

  1. Excellently said. Deeply mindful.

    I did not realise, but I too have taken dignity by feeling sorry for. I still feel sorry. I’m just sorry. What is WRONG with me.

    1. Oh dear one –
      I think don’t think that means there’s anything wrong with you!
      You have a tender heart which is a wonderful thing.
      All I meant to say is that while I think we all long for empathy and compassion, pity is an altogether different kind of response.
      Quite honestly, it one truly seeks pity, then it might be the worst thing we could offer.
      Grace and peace to you!

      1. Thank you Debbie. That bit makes a lot of sense – pity being the worst thing we could offer. Yes, I understand that. Thanks.

  2. Wow, Debbie this is so great! I’ve always had a problem with that phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I” but I’ve never known what my problem with it is. Now I do. It’s about pity and I don’t like pity, either receiving it or giving it out. I just finished reading Blue Like Jazz for the first time this past week. This happened to be one of the stories that stuck out in my mind. Thanks for an insightful post. I’m subscribing to your blog and look forward to reading more!

    1. Hello Jason!
      Welcome to TMG and thank you so much for your thoughtful response.
      It sounds like you and I are on the same page – literally! 😀
      I look forward learning more of your heart in the future!

  3. Debbie, thank you for teaching us that compassion means to ‘suffer together with’. Perhaps eye contact and a nice smile would be a good icebreaker the next time we are tempted to pity instead of suffer with. Excellent post!

    Blessings ~ Wendy

  4. “Pity says: There but for the grace of God go I.

    Compassion says: There, by God’s grace, I’ll go with you.”

    Thank you, gracious one, for explaining the difference to us . .for leading us into compassion from pity. And also for helping us be understanding and forgiving of those who pity us .. to have compassion on them as well. Love you and God bless you and yours!

    1. Dearest Deb –
      You’ve added an interesting extra dimension – yes, we need to extend compassion to those who pity us. I might have stopped with saying we should extend compassion to those who judge us.
      I love it that you added compassion for those who pity us – not so obvious and very insightful! Thank you!

  5. Wow, Debbie–you got me misty-eyed this afternoon. Lovely post, indeed. On a personal note–in my state, technology has taken a bit of the shame/embarrassment out of food stamps–we now have a card, like any other debit/credit card; so only the cashier knows the government is helping us out. Hope you and the “Double H” gang are holding up well–God bless y’all BIG–love, sis Caddo, SG

    1. Hello Sis Caddo!
      Blue Like Jazz was published in 2003 when Miller was living in Portland, Oregon. I expect Oregon has caught up with the technology by now, too! 😉

  6. Hello Debbie! I enjoyed reading your post. However, I must remind you that you should never judge a book by its cover. The woman who showed up at the store with a bunch of food stamp vouchers, is not necessarily on the government dole. There are a lot of people who peddle their food stamp vouchers–drugs addicts, alcoholics etc.

    1. Hello Noel –
      Although the example was one shared by Donald Miller in Blue Like Jazz and not my personal experience, it serves as a good reminder to me to keep an eye on my heart instead of another person’s cart! 😀
      As David mentioned in his comments to this post, we never know another person’s journey…

    1. So true, Greg!
      Others don’t see as we see – and it’s probably even more important to remember that we don’t see as God sees – even though we sometimes are tempted to think we do!
      It’s always a gift to see you here. 😀

  7. Wow, what a powerhouse you are! I love the way you bring this dirty nasty thing to light and give it a way to make it right,compassion what an inclusive act. It reminds me so much of when people offer me salvation, never realizing that they are presuming that my life is something I should be saved from, when in fact I am happy in my life and even if I weren’t it’s still my life and I wouldn’t trade it for someone else’s idea of who they think I should be or what they think I should want.

    1. Hello dear Sherrie –
      Thank you for being here and sharing your own experience!
      Oh how quick we are to think we know everyone’s back story and can, in turn, size up their needs.
      I can’t think of a single time I’ve ever been hurt by compassion.
      I can think of many ways I could practice it though!

  8. From your post…”When I compare my circumstances to another’s and feel pity, I’m assuming they want the same things I want – that they feel how I’m guessing I would feel in their place. It’s so easy to rob someone of their dignity by making assumptions and by practicing pity instead of compassion”.

    Hey Debbie…. wow…. this sentence is an expression of some vivid self-awareness from a deep place in the heart.

    In my experience, few people access such self-awareness unless deeply hungry for it. What motivates such introspection? In my experience, usually pain and loss. But I would be curious to know what fuels you to dig so deep and be so courageously honest.

    It has been occuring to me lately that self-honesty on levels like this, levels that I was essentially forced, yet blessed, to go to when my life blew up, that were missing from my church experience.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post.


    1. Hey there Chaz!
      My turn to quote you:
      It has been occurring to me lately that self-honesty on levels like this, levels that I was essentially forced, yet blessed, to go to when my life blew up, that were missing from my church experience.

      I guess the short answer to your question is: “Me, too.”
      Although, from what I know of your story, we were broken by different things, we both had to come to the utter end of ourselves before we were able to begin to get grace.

      The church I had called my family and home for almost 30 years was (at least in my mind) grace-less and the last place I could share my struggles and pain.

      But, yes, the end result has been such an intense gratitude for God’s grace – something I took for granted in my previously ‘practically perfect’ state. Sadly, on some level, I had apparently come to believe that I’d somehow been meriting His unmerited favor.

      1. Amazing how that happens to us…

        …we receive the unmerited as a true, unconditional gift, in spite of who we are, what we’ve done, and with no bearing on any level of ‘deservedness’ (a word or Chaz original?), whatsoever. Yet we somehow contort our possession of the gift, over time, into something we earned.

        This is, in my experience, a repeating pattern of humanity and culture. Probably what Philip Yancey refers to the effect of living in a world and culture of ‘ungrace’.

        We migrate the work of grace toward the benchmark of the familiar.

        Hmmmmmmm…. I wonder if this is what much of the church many of us have experienced has inadvertently stepped into?

      2. Excellent point(s) as always, Chaz!
        I’m glad you added Yancey’s observation that our world and our culture (not only the church) are steeped in a climate of “ungrace”.
        It’s something I think I deplore… and yet, I can all too easily step right back into it.

  9. Thank you for that thought. It makes me want to get away and think about the differences between pity and concern. How different I could be if I lived more out of concern, rather than merely making negative assessments! In the mean time, I am often helped in this regard by reminding myself that the other person has had a journey very different from mine, with their own hurts, disappointments, hurdles, and lack of help in critical areas. For all I know, it may be a miracle that they are up and walking around at all. It is then much easier to pray for God’s grace to rest on them and pray for their continued restoration.

    1. Amen, David!
      Thank you for the wise encouragement to pray for God’s grace to rest on another rather than to try to determine whether or not they deserve it!

  10. Morning
    Wow – a big smack upside the head this morning!
    I live too often in the “Pity thinking” instead of the “compassion thinking”
    Is it my fear – hope not but I’m thinking it may be so
    God Bless

    1. Hello dear Susie –
      I think that in a tender heart, the lines between pity and sympathy and empathy and compassion blur.
      You, friend, have a tender heart.
      However, for those who are less tender, pity is more of a reproach than a reach.

  11. I am reading something familiar in this post. It is a brilliant eye-opener on this rainy, snowy Saturday morning.

    My heart is always touched by your insights, instincts, intuition and perspective. The points you make here are “tricky business”.

    I feel like crying when I see people with food stamps, or when i meet my regular “Streetwise” dealers (beggars, i guess) every day as I make my way to work. I also feel fear; Could that be me some day? Could that be any of us?

    I think Jesus was probably the rare soul (and I suppose that’s what makes him the divine being that he is) who can truly “flow” from all “human conditions” with ease; or treat us all as equal. At least that is what I believe.

    I try not to judge, or pity. Sympathy is a demeaning act. Empathy is a more humane word, I suppose, but if we’ve never walked in another man’s shoes we can’t truly empathize: Completely.

    Compassion is more of an “action” word (to my mind) than empathy or sympathy. You are forced to do something with compassion: Reach out. Empathy, maybe reach out, but more of a “I get you sister”.

    Hope you’re not upset with me. I am forever your friend. Love, Mel

    1. Mel –
      You’ve make some excellent points!
      Yes, I think pity does often stem out of fear as you said: “I also feel fear; Could that be me some day? Could that be any of us?”

      You make an interesting distinction between the two things we crave when we’re hurting: compassion – which is often expressed by action and empathy – which is more often expressed in words or in a touch or in a silent presence. I like your take on that.

      I also appreciate the way you linked judging with pity. I think there’s a subtle judgment attached to pity that is belittling.

      I do believe we can extend empathy even if we haven’t experienced what someone else is going through if we are gentle and careful listeners – willing to ask questions and learn instead of making assumptions.

      You, my kind friend, excel in empathy!

  12. “My reaction isn’t based on their lack, it’s based on mine.” So true, whether that reaction is pity or any other reaction based on presumption. My lack… not theirs when judgement of any kind occurs.

    Great post, Debbie. Thank you for giving me a chance to think about this. I’ll carry it into my day.

    1. Heidi –
      I remember the day that picture was taken, a lot of years ago now, and I remember feeling sorry for the people in the photo (I don’t know why – they certainly don’t look unhappy).
      I have a feeling if they’d known my sentiment they would have spit on my shoes – and rightly so!

    1. Judi –
      I would guess that pity could easily seem like the natural and right response in ministering on the mission field (at least initially).
      In my mind,it takes away some of an individual’s dignity.

  13. Interesting perspective. I’ve not thought about how a reaction of pity projects a value, or lack thereof, onto another. When I was in the middle of cancer treatments the reaction I found most unhelpful was pity. Concern was appropriate. Care, support, and encouragement were helpful. Pity made me feel like I was at death’s door.

    1. Judy –
      I wonder, do you think people so often respond with pity to a cancer diagnosis because there’s such fear associated with the word itself?
      Thank you for sharing from your own pain what was and what wasn’t helpful.
      I was only talking theory – you’d made it real.
      Pity always has felt demeaning to me – whichever side of it I’ve been on.

    1. Hello friend!
      I charge all my groceries both for bookkeeping and to earn airline miles so maybe folks think I’m using Food Stamps? Interesting…
      I never feel the items in someone else’s cart are any of my business – a part from trying to guess which lane will be faster – and I’m ALWAYS wrong! 😉

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