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.