Pity is a Monster Masquerading as a Friend
by Mandy Harvey
Most disabled people have said it at one time or another: “I don’t want your pity!” Sometimes it’s said calmly, sometimes through tears, other times in an explosion of anger. Some non-disabled people have told me that they’re uncertain what I mean by “pity.” What’s the difference between sympathy, empathy, and pity? So I’d like to try to make sense of this, and I want to start with a story.
When I was in college at Colorado State University, I sang in the concert choir as I gradually lost my hearing. There came a day during the second semester that we had an adjunct professor whose job it was to teach us a difficult piece of music that was about twenty minutes long. He chose to have us listen to a recording done by another choir. This wasn’t going to work for me the way it was for the other students, so I asked for permission to go to one of the practice rooms with the sheet music and use the piano to try to find my notes and work through the arrangement in my own way. (Keep in mind, at this time my college career was sinking fast, though I was trying as hard as I could to hang on by my fingernails. It would prove to be a futile effort, but at least I hadn’t given up yet at that point.)
He understood that I had lost much of my hearing and couldn’t hear the recording well enough to learn from it, but it didn’t matter. He made a judgment call for reasons only he could explain. The problem was, it set me up to have pity rained down on me from the other students. They sensed my frustration, which is not a bad thing, but then they started trying to rescue me. They pleaded my case. One or two offered to accompany me to the practice room, which made me feel like a five-year-old. I hate being the center of attention, and suddenly I was. My friends were determined to make the teacher see the error of his way, and he was determined not to change his mind. They actually argued about whether I should be allowed to go practice on my own, which made me feel like I was a problem, that everyone would be better off if I just wasn’t there.
And here we get to the heart of why pity is a monster. It turns you into a problem. You’re the broken person who needs to be fixed, the problem person who disrupts things for others, the helpless person who needs to be rescued.
Sympathy says, “I’m sorry for your situation.”
Empathy says, “I care about your situation.”
That’s fine, too.
Pity says, “You poor thing. What are we going to do with you?”
That’s not fine.
Being deaf does not make me a damsel in distress. I have a disability or, if you prefer, a challenge that I face every day. But who doesn’t? You, as you hold this book in your hands, have a challenge of some sort (or maybe several) that you deal with. It could be physical or not. It doesn’t mean you’re broken, it simply means you’re human. It doesn’t mean you need to be rescued or fixed, it simply means you have some work to do in learning how to meet the challenge in front of you.
Welcome to the real world.
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