Monday, October 01, 2007


Few things are more irritating to one who has lived outside the anglophone world than its shibboleth that it is somehow unseemly to be the object of pity. What is so wrong with the emotion that stirred Michelangelo to sculpt the Pietà?

Of course, and thank you Max Weber, the opposition to pity is all part of the Calvinist-capitalist construction that your own good fortune is the fruit of your virtue and God's wise finger in selecting you as one of the select few. Should you fall from grace, it's your own damned fault -- so goes the theory, which settles on evidence of those it calls utterly "undeserving" poor (essentially all poor people).

The corollary to "if you're so smart, why aren't you rich?" is "if your poor, it's your own stupid fault."

This is one of the absurdities that remind me of George Bernard Shaw on patriotism.

But there's more. Ever since the end of romanticism in art and society, and I'll place the moment the last nail was driven into its coffin as the fall of 1914, every effort has been made to squelch every possible emotion as hollow, mawkish sentimentality -- except to sell war bonds or long-distance telephone fees.

Feelings, however, are a lot of what make us human -- even if they all come from a chemical compound in the brain. Altruism and humanitarianism is based on the feeling of empathy.

This is what allows me to see that, even though your skin is a different color, or you are of a different sex, if I pinch you, it hurts. I know because if you pinch me it hurts me. You are like me; when you suffer, a measure of your suffering spills onto me -- if I am humane and allow myself to feel.

"Never send to know for whom the bell tolls," said John Donne in reference to the death knell, "it tolls for thee."

But what if I am the dead or the dying, physically, emotionally or in any of the myriad of ways in which we die before our body becomes stone cold dead? Am I not worthy of my fellows' empathy?

Might I not expect a respectful removal of the hat when my casket passes by? Or a kind word when I am in pain, even if that word is only inspired by pity, because the other person cannot remove my pain?

Given that we are not, ultimately, in charge of every element of our destiny, even though we are responsible, for a few decades, for some aspects of our behavior, do we not all deserve and need pity? Isn't pity a gift, to be received gracefully and gratefully?

Imagine our desire to banish pity come true. We wake up shivering, dazed, stiff-jointed and uncomfortable, on a sidewalk grate and passers by let us know we are pitied by no one. A few mutter, "Get a job!"

Luckily, right now I do not feel in any way in need of my fellow humans' pity. But the day I stumble, the day my energies begin to flag, the day I am poor and hungry. That day, please, pity me!
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