Emotional F(x), philosophy, Relationships, Spirituality
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Sorting out Compassion, Pity, and Love

I started reading a book called The Unbearable Lightness of Being. It’s philosophical fiction and ripe with existentialist themes.  You find it on Library Genesis.  The story is about a womanizer and, at one point, he considers his unusual compassionate feelings towards a woman he is sleeping with. He says,

To take pity on a woman means that we are better off than she, that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.

That is why the word compassion generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second rate sentiment that has little to do with love.  To love someone out of compassion means not really to love…  (Chapter 9)

This passage really caught me off-guard – my intuition is not the same as the author’s.  Does compassion imply a power or hierarchical relationship in which one person has pity for another?  To me, the word compassion has always meant co-feeling and suggests companionship and shared emotions, including joy.

Read It and Weep

Let’s see what the Oxford Dictionary has to say:

Compassion: Sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.

Sympathy: Feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.

Pity: The feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the sufferings and misfortunes of others.

I was surprised to find that compassion includes the reference to pity.  Pity feels like, as the author states, an emotion of looking-down-on.  In the novel, the author explains the etymology of the word compassion, referencing the Latin root, compati, which means to suffer with.  He notes that in romance languages, such as French, the word compassion means the same as the Latin word.  Further, there is truly some kind of power structure in which one person who is not suffering looks down upon the one who is suffering.  Thus he argues that compassion is a second-rate emotion compared to love.

What makes pity so distasteful?

To find out that compassion relates to pity makes me feel uncomfortable, almost physically.  I try to cultivate self-compassion and compassion for others, but if I must relate compassion to pity then the thought of it repels me.  Why is pity so distasteful?

The hierarchical statement made by the act of pitying doesn’t seem so bad in itself.  Many of us have pity towards someone suffering circumstances of loss, addiction, or the break-up of a relationship.  It might even be regarded as a moral good.

But consider reflexive pity directed towards oneself.  To engage in self-pity is to make oneself a victim of circumstances; one lowers one’s status in comparison to others, having given another person’s words or actions the power to cause us pain. Self-pity is simultaneously attractive and dangerous; although we are relieved of blame for our pitiable circumstances, we also assume inferiority and weakness.  This victim mindset steals our self-perception of strength and free will to overcome future challenges.  It feels terrible to define oneself with weakness.

The Unadmirable Moral Status of Pity

The reflection that self-pity makes us feel weak and inferior changes the way we view pity from others towards us. We don’t want it anymore.

Pity, viewed as an act that demotes another person’s status, seems to nullify the moral goodness of the pity we feel towards others.  Think about what a bully is doing:  he puts others down in order to be able to feel good about himself.  In theories of rape that reference power, the rapist is harming women so that he feels better about himself/his masculinity.   Maybe sometimes pity is a way of feeling good at the expense of another.

It seems like there are two options on the table if we want to feel good about compassion:  reject the association of pity in the definition of compassion, or reconsider pity as a positive act (or at least remove the negative aspect of weakness and power hierarchy).


In Buddhism, the word for compassion is karuna.  There are a few synonyms for karuna that capture the difference between it an compassion:

“self-abnegating altruism”: this is fancy-talk for putting the needs of others above one’s own self; denying the self in order to act selflessly

“empathetic sensitivity”: this is fancy-talk for being sensitive to the emotions of others and being able to feel what they feel.

(What about the compassion felt by Jesus?  Is he viewing us with pity? The aspect of hierarchy is obvious; but is Jesus pitying us?  Comments welcome!)

It seems like the Buddhist concept of compassion is slightly different.  It excludes the concept of pity while including notions of selflessness and empathy.  So, we may reject the traditional meaning of compassion in light of a modern context in which Buddhist psychology and philosophy are co-mingled with Western psychology and philosophy.  In this context, compassion can be used without implying pity.

Pity: Maybe not so bad after all!

However, I still want to be able to use the word compassion in a colloquial way, rather than as a specialized term, and yet avoid the connection to victimhood, weakness, and negative morality of pity.  In order to have my cake and eat it too,  I’ll take a stab at amending my understanding of the moral concept of pity.

What commonality is present in the traditional English and Buddhist concepts of compassion?  It seems like the commonality is need, or even neediness:

  • We pity to lend emotional support or solidarity. Even in pitying someone from afar, there is a well-wishing feeling towards the person that soon they do not feel the sorrow or suffering.  In other words, it’s the desire to fulfill a person’s need or lift their burden.
  • The victim is not necessarily incapable of handling the pain, but usually when someone is deeply affected by an event or action and shows it outwardly, it’s a sign that he needs the social support of others. Maybe we pity to create an image of someone pathetic in order that others come to the rescue or avoid doing further harm.  “Poor man,” we say of someone in pain. “He is already injured; leave him alone.”

The idea of pity as “lending strength” when facing the neediness of another accords with the Buddhist definition.  The Buddhist version of a moral saint, the bodhisattva, is precisely a person who refuses enlightenment until all other beings have also become enlightened, too (i.e., ceased suffering).  The compassionate bodhisattva takes on the suffering of others to fulfill their neediness to be free of suffering.

Re-interpreting the Passage

To take pity on a woman means that we are better off than she…

Indeed, compassion requires recognizing that we are “better off”, like reaching out a hand to someone who’s had a fall.

… that we stoop to her level, lower ourselves.

The desire to take on another’s burden to fulfill their neediness requires self denial. And possibly for that very reason is reaching out to help someone a show of strength.  Moreover, even a person who is weak can help another up – the person on the ground is simply in a state that permits helping up and does not necessarily mean he is weak. It seems that pity need not be victimizing or weakening, but an offer of support from another – who may or may not have good moral motivations.

That is why the word compassion generally inspires suspicion; it designates what is considered an inferior, second rate sentiment that has little to do with love.  To love someone out of compassion means not really to love…

As far as this last point goes, I’d like to turn to you to think it through!

Critical Thinking Questions:

  1. What is it like to pity someone?  Can you recall an example?
  2. Have you ever been pitied? How did you feel about it?
  3. Do you always pity “weaker” people, or can you pity people with more power, money, looks, intelligence, status than you?
  4. What is romantic love to you? Name three essential qualities in romantic relationships.  Name three acts that you think a romantic partner should do in a relationship.
  5. Can those qualities come from compassion too? Can the acts be done from compassion?
  6. Would you rather that your partner felt compassion for you or loved you? As the author argues, is compassion second-rate?

1 Comment

  1. In Buddhist literature one reads many references where Buddha is being compassionate to a monk, but there is never any reference to a monk being compassionate to Buddha.

    That should settle what Buddhism means by compassion or karuna.


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