Take a look at these pictures:
(I wish I could say these photos are mine. But they’re not.)
What did you feel when you saw them? Did you feel your heart drop or your stomach clench? Did you feel grateful for your own privileged life? Did you feel … pity?
I’m currently reading The Fountainhead, which by the way is an outstanding book, and I came across this quote which perfectly delineates why the emotion of pity now so thoroughly frustrates me:
“He was sick with pity … this complete awareness of a man without worth or hope, this sense of finality, of the not to be redeemed. There was shame in this feeling – his own shame that he should have to pronounce such judgment upon a man, that he should know an emotion which contained no shred of respect” (the last paragraph of Chapter VIII).
We read stories about mothers carrying their starving children on their backs for miles in the blazing sun, and gape at pictures of babies with distended bellies and flies buzzing around their lifeless eyes. And we feel pity.
We learn about young women who are raped and left to die, and pass beggars on the street who plead with us to spare a few pennies, a few dollars, a sandwich, even a smile. And we feel pity.
We are hammered with statistics about child mortality and the prevalence of HIV/AIDS and other preventable diseases, and wonder at those who have somehow survived without telephones, electricity, and American Idol. And we feel pity.
But what a worthless, useless emotion. Ms. Rand captures it perfectly when she writes that the feeling of pity implies a dearth of respect for the worth of the pitied. Once the feeling of pity washes over us, the object of our pity has suddenly become something less than we are, something inferior to what we are. WHO are we to make that kind of judgment, to consider another a hopeless case, to unconsciously usurp another’s power and humanity with a single feeling? Those people who sit in line for food, who live in the slums, who beg on the street – they’re people, just like you, just like me, doing what people do to survive.
And I’m tired. I’m tired of people feeling sorry for other people. I’m tired of people making ignorant judgments about the quality of life of people they’ve never even met. I’m tired of people viewing others’ lives through their own lenses, without considering the fact that just because something is different does not make it better or worse. I’m tired of doing all these things myself, of the feeling of pity that I have so often felt over the course of my own life, travels and community service work. And I am choosing to extirpate that emotion from my repertoire of emotions.
Let me tell you what I’m not saying. I’m not saying, “All poor people are happy.” I’m not saying, “You are a bad person if you’ve felt pity before.” I’m not saying, “We shouldn’t do anything about the glaring world problems.” We should. But we should act out of a realization that every person on Earth is, in fact, a person, and has the same right to life and the pursuit of their self-defined dreams as we do. We should act out of desire to break the constraints that hinder people from realizing their fullest potential. We should not act out of pity.
I want to challenge you to reconsider your reaction, as I’m reconsidering mine, to images like the images above, to news about hurting/starving/lost/lonely/poor people, or to encounters with the so-called “less fortunate” and “underprivileged.” Feel motivated. Feel angry. Feel joyful. Better yet, feel a kinship. But please, save your pity for something else.