Our sympathies are selective, capricious, brittle, short-lived, amoral, easy to manipulate, and proud of their softness. They lack the gravity of selfishness. And though they look bright on our horizon, most of them burn up like meteors before they reach our dark hearts.
Passion is brusque to all but its beloved. Pity is a mere embellishment of our tact and decorum. It’s born in politeness, but in a lot of instances it’s kept warm and breathing by our hostility to those whom we blame for inflicting the hurt.
We are so tactful, not because we don’t wish to cause pain to others, but because we would be embarrassed to show how little we care for their pain.
We show courtesy by pretending to notice the frailties of others no more than we do our own. And we prove our empathy by pretending to feel their anguish as much as we in fact feel our own.
We make too much of the compassion that others feel for us. So we trust that we can cause them a sharp twinge by bemoaning our own troubles. Empathize with those around you, and what you learn is how indifferently they feel for you. Johnson points out that whosoever ‘considers how little he dwells upon the condition of others will learn how little the attention of others is attracted by himself.’
When howling misery rains down on me, I rush to shelter in the squat cabin of people’s concern, which I’m keen to quit as soon as the hurricane’s past. Though I’m too smug to feel sorry for myself, at times I find it of use to act as if I did, as a feint to glean others’ aid or attention. Our self-pity is a performance which we put on for others as much as our pity for others is a performance which we put on for ourselves. You have dipped low indeed, if you can find a narcotic in the pity of others, or need to in your own.
I don’t feel sorry for others, because I care too frigidly for their troubles. I don’t feel sorry for myself, because I think too warmly of my own importance.
We are racked by our own imaginary woes. But we are scarcely touched by the real woes of others.
When I condole with someone, I add the balm of an unsullied conscience and the piquancy of a dram of discomfort to my contemplation of their distress, which I would elsewise not feel at all.
The cold flint of our pity for others strikes few sparks for them, but whets the pleasure that we take in our own good fortune.
Our technical expertise has not outrun our moral insight. Knowledge of all kinds has outrun our care. But did it not do that a long time ago?
1 Imagined pity
We grow hardhearted to the ordeals of others, either because we’ve not had to go through anything like them ourselves, or else because we have. We make light of them, because we have had no occasion to feel how heavy they are, or else because we have weighed them and found that we could bear them with ease and so we think that others ought to as well. We don’t accept that any trouble that we are not prone to can be quite real. The maladies that I suffer from are unmerited afflictions. But the maladies that others suffer from are defects that they have been too weak to subdue.
‘The great instrument of moral good is the imagination,’ claimed Shelley, who had so much empathetic imagination, and did so much unimagined harm. Imagination doesn’t move us to pity, though it may tell us that it has, or else it does, and pity is a mere daydream. It’s easy to see how much others are suffering, but it’s hard to believe that it matters. We can know about such a hoard of things, but there is just one thing we can care for just, our own selves and what is ours. And if we care for anything larger, it’s by making it part of our self.
My egoism has a far busier imagination than my sluggish sympathy. Our brains never rest from hatching plans to glut the cravings of our hearts, but they soon tire of the thought of others’ pain.
Moralists bleat that a bloodthirsty torturer dismembers his victims because he lacks the imagination to feel how sorely they smart, but is it not they who lack the imagination to grasp how little he cares?
Some poltroons take revenge on their enemies by pretending to commiserate with their mishaps so that they can keep harping on them. They drip a rivulet of tenderness on them to try to drown them in their own superiority. True consideration, like true agony, holds its tongue.
I feel no pity for those who sorrow if I don’t see them sorrowing. Out of sight is out of sympathy. The virus of compassion is contracted through the eye. And in many cases it is cured through the ear or nose.
Pity is a short-lived response to visual images. Justice is a cool virtue of slow reason.
Visual mass-media serve as sympathy superconductors because they are so cold. We pity the picturesque, but we pass by the needy. It is pictures that wring our hearts more than people. It’s not our own sympathetic imagination but external images that stir our feelings.
2 Self-regarding sympathy
I love my own warmhearted gestures more than I do the people that they claim to help, to whom I assign the part of wordless extras in my pageant of affecting fellow-feeling. When I pity, I stage an edifying mime of my own moods, and I watch that so that I won’t have to watch the writhings of the afflicted. My sensitiveness starts me blubbering, but then succours me for the anguish of others which I felt so weakly. My sobs and convulsions drown out their pain. I can’t make out their agonies through the haze of my tears.
The deaths of others give us one more opening to flaunt our own sensitivity. Their death is an event in our life, not in their own. We shrink them to mere dramas in which we play the principal role. When others are in pain, we declare how our hearts bleed for them. And when they are wronged, we give utterance to our righteous ire. And when they die, we play up our own loss and grief. When we mention their troubles, don’t we pay more heed to how we sound than to how they suffer? We love to use their woes to prove our point. We sum up in a glib phrase a life that cost such deep pangs to live. The deaths of others are mere gossip for us.
Other people’s afflictions and achievements are mere comic relief for the serious drama of our own. Humour is the best medicine that we have to deal with the woes of others, or at least the one that we use most frequently.
Our egoism appears luridly illumined in the gloom of another’s death. What lament would speak so eloquently, if it spoke solely of the dead?
We are so sensitive, that we end up pitying ourselves for having to endure the sight of so much suffering.
We build sepulchres to blazon how affectingly and glamorously we mourn. ‘Funerary pomp,’ as La Rochefoucauld says, ‘has more to do with the vanity of the living than with the commemoration of the dead.’ A funeral is a celebration of human self-importance.
Even your death does not belong to you. As soon as it comes, they snatch it, and use it to bedizen their own grief and pity.
I give alms as a small toll to ride on the highway of my self-approval.
We are the only animals that have a heart to feel pity. So why have we made such a pitiless world?
It may be that I am so squeamishly stung by the anguish of others because I don’t wish to do a thing to mend it. ‘We all like to see people in trouble,’ says Twain, ‘if it doesn’t cost us anything.’
Some of us fancy that we feel an unselfish solicitude for the troubles of others, because we feel so selfishly sensitive to our own, as invalids show a fond concern for anyone who might be prone to the same ailment that they are. People view their hearts from the inside out. So their squeamishness feels to them like pity for others. They hold that others should not have to put up with the ordeals that they could not bear to. Their tender egoism deems that others must be as nerveless as they. Would they be so solicitous to help the sorrowful, if it didn’t make them think that they could help themselves?
Unhappy people resent the happy for their heartlessness. But their own kindliness may be a mere symptom of their sorrow. They vibrate to the world’s woes, because they’re unable to do anything else, or else to turn their thoughts from their own woes.
We are so sensitive to the pain of others, that we have to shut our eyes and ears to it.
Unfortunates long to have sharers in their gloom, and some, if they find none, will go out of their way to make them.
Who are more brutal, the drowning who would pull you down into the murk for the bare chance of one more breath, or those speeding along on the surface who drive them off with clubs for fear that they might reach their destination one hour late?
We have so many ways of not caring and so many ways of seeming to. Behind the shining mildness of good people you glimpse their glazed indifference. Beneath pity’s sparkling surface rolls a cold unmoving ocean. Our fine feelings refresh us like oases of care in the parched wastelands of our unconcern.
Indifference and selfishness are such native instincts, that we have to be drilled for years before we learn to do the least act of self-denial.
We may know the hearts of others, but we don’t care for them. And we don’t wish to know our own, because we care for ourselves so fiercely. Insensitivity is our prevailing moral habit, as self-interest is our prevailing motivator. We want so much for ourselves, what do we have to spare for others but our stony indifference?
I snore through the pain of others, and wake for my own. The racked soul emits a shriek which is pitched too high for our dinned ears to hear. The disciples slumber on in Gethsemane.
When ruffled by the sorrows of others, we find in our hearts a deep reservoir of apathy on which to draw. The giant agony of the world is matched by its giant indifference. ‘We all have sufficient strength to brook the misfortunes of others,’ as La Rochefoucauld showed. If we ached for their woes half as much as we claim, how could we bear to live. And if we loved others as much as we love ourselves, would we not be crushed by all the burdens of the world, which we can’t do a thing to lighten? It would, as Johnson points out, be ‘misery to no purpose.’ When anything ripples our flat indifference, we calm it with yet more indifference. Our callousness keeps us in sound moral health, as our immune system keeps us in sound physical health.
We dare not go near those who stink of misery, for fear that they might taint our scented gladness. We step gingerly over the puddle of their spilt sorrow, which oozes so unbecomingly. It seeps from their pores like a fetid sweat, and we hold our nose as we pass by.
We sprinkle a few drops of pity to perfume our hardheartedness or to cover up our repugnance.
Some of us holiday in compassion as an emotional tourism through others’ anguish, which takes us on a brief scenic bypass from the broad highway of our uncaring. Your pity brings you no nearer to the heartbroken, but cheers you that you are so far removed from them.
Pity is not a tolerant virtue. It exacts strict terms before it goes to work. Before I lend the afflicted my fellow-feeling, I stipulate that they pledge the collateral of not presuming to equal me and the interest of regularly acknowledging their inferiority.
‘Our sympathy is cold to the relation of distant misery,’ as Gibbon points out. It is killed by time, remoteness and each recurrence. ‘Death or distance soon consumes them,’ as Hopkins wrote. A far-off catastrophe merely piques our flippant curiosity, and a drawn-out one palls. ‘How much does a bloodbath in China,’ asked Pessoa, ‘discomfort the most noble of us?’
If tried too far pity promptly sickens into a queasy repulsion. Those who suffer unduly lose our commiseration, which soon curdles into blame. Why did they not take steps to get clear of the cause of their affliction?
We decorously try to hide how little sympathy we feel for our fellows by avouching that we have used it up by feeling so much.
5 Ideological pity
Our pity is in great part polemical. Compassion fires us to hate as well as to love. Spite stirs us to pity those who have been persecuted by our enemies, and pity incenses us with their persecutors. We don’t doubt that we feel the pain of the afflicted, because we are so indignant with their tormentors. We pick up a lot of our sympathies by moralizing our antipathies. We mistake the blaze of our righteous fury for the warmth of real kind-heartedness. Pity and vengefulness are more often allies than adversaries. We burn to avenge injuries more than to remedy them, and to bring down the powerful more than to raise up the downtrodden. We develop compassion like a glossy photograph out of the scowling negative of our malignancy. We feel for people not because they suffer what we would hate to, but because they are wrestling with those whom we hate.
We are quick to feel pity, so as to throw into relief our own admirable rectitude.
Our creed, which we don’t quite believe in, frames a large segment of our sympathies and affinities, which we don’t quite feel.
The circumference of our sympathy is exceedingly small. Cross the street, and you don’t know the people there, and don’t care what they might be suffering.
Those who hold that all men and women are born equal can at least feel superior to the swine who don’t. How nasty other people’s preconceived views are. How I frown on those who lack my own fine sensitivities. Half our empathy would melt, if we weren’t so sure that it would vex those whose prejudices smell so much more rank than our own.
A mob is both maudlin and punitive. It loves to pity almost as much as it loves to punish, though what it most loves to pity is its own hard lot.
6 Vain pity
Altruism is just a less expeditious way of satisfying the aggregate of selfish human wants. Self-seeking may look unlovely, but unselfishness works inefficiently. I don’t know where my own good lies. So how could I discern what might be good for others or how to come at it? ‘Be sure that you give the poor the alms that they most need,’ Thoreau warned.
Considering how much harm we do ourselves by our own passionate self-love, it might be just as well for our neighbours that we don’t love them in the same way.
You ought to do a little occasional charity, to still your rankling remorse, burnish your good name, and buy a superstitious indemnity against misadventure. But altruism can snap the bands that are sewn by reciprocal self-interest. And egoism can knot the sturdiest bond of all, the bond of shared frailty which makes us feel how we needs must lean on one another. ‘It is through our mutual dependence,’ Voltaire reminds us, ‘that we are helpful to the species.’
Why do we put ourselves out in every sort of way save for the one that might do real good? We fetch others aid in the small things that they could do by their own efforts, while abandoning them to drown in the ghastly deeps. But don’t we do the same in our own case? ‘Our friends,’ Hazlitt notes, ‘are generally ready to do everything for us, except the very thing we wish them to do.’
Pity flickers with a thin flame which lends us a brief warmth, but fizzles before it has time to thaw the frozen sufferer. It acts on us like ice. It seems to heat us when we first touch it, but we let go of it before we feel how cold it is. ‘We talk of goodness,’ Renard says, ‘brimful of beneficence that melts within us before, alas, we do any good to others.’
Most people are too pitifully pleased with themselves to need your pity when they meet with a reverse. They know so little of their hearts and think so much of their merits, that your sympathy for them is as gratuitous as your revenge would be ineffectual. Compassion and retribution are both vain, since most people are too obtuse to feel the subtle pangs that they ought. Our vengeance, like our tenderness, is too crude or too fine to impinge on the one for whom it’s meant. Our soft heart feels that it has been betrayed, when those whom it pities forsake their anguish. What right have they to suffer less than we deem they should?
We don’t need others to pity us when we fail, since we never fail to spare ourselves the truth.