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Center for Action and Contemplation
Loving Neighbor, Loving Self
Loving Neighbor, Loving Self

Compassion Not Pity 

Thursday, May 30, 2024

Howard Thurman (1899–1981) reflected that contemplation helped him distinguish between pity and compassion.  

God is making room in my heart for compassion.  

There is already a vast abundance of room for pity … [including] self-pity, that sticky substance that ruins everything it touches…. There is pity in me—pity for others. But there is something in it that cannot be trusted; it is mixed with pride, arrogance, cunning. I see this only when I expose myself to the eyes of God in the quiet time. It is now that I see what my pity really is and the sources from which it springs.  

God is making room in my heart for compassion: the awareness that where my life begins is where your life begins; the awareness that … your needs cannot be separated from … my needs; the awareness that the joys of my heart are never mine alone—nor are my sorrows. I struggle against the work of God in my heart; I want to be let alone. I want my boundaries to remain fixed, that I may be at rest. But even now, as I turn to [God] in the quietness, [God’s] work in me is ever the same.  

God is at work enlarging the boundaries of my heart. [1] 

During a prison visit, public theologian Nadia Bolz-Weber rejects the temptation to view others with pity instead of compassion.  

I look those two young men in the eyes and think, I will not pity you. But I will, in this moment, see even just a fraction of your pain, and acknowledge how it is like mine and very much notlike mine. 

In my mind, pity isn’t even analogous to compassion. Pity is just the paternalistic cousin of contempt. It allows us to see others as “those less fortunate than ourselves” (a term I loathe). Pity keeps the other person at a distance and me in a rarified state of satisfaction.… Compassion, on the other hand, draws us close. 

So no, I do not pity the men I met…. Like me and like you, they are complex human beings. They have experienced love I do not know about and have really great stories I will never hear…. So to “feel sorry” for them based solely on what little I now know of their stories is reductive…. 

This world will break your heart. There’s enough sorrow to go around and for everyone to have seconds. 

But this world has a thousand forms of medicine too. 

I’ve yet to find healing in: 

Self-pity, isolation, pretending I am not hurting, comparison, hardening myself, standing in judgment (although it sure feels good). 

But I have found it in: 

Eye contact with another person who is in a tender place, the rare moments I stop filling in the blank about another person, compassion toward myself and others, remaining open hearted in moments I want to shut down, … using my pain to see it in others rather than only in myself. [2] 

[1] Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1953, 1981), 49. 

[2] Nadia Bolz-Weber, “Humans Are Inconveniently Complex,” The Corners (blog), March 11, 2024. Used with permission.  

Image credit and inspiration: Cynthia Magana, untitled (detail), 2016, photo, Unsplash. Click here to enlarge image. In order to care for each other, we must also take care of ourselves. 

Story from Our Community:  

One of my neighbors is very outspoken with her political views. Her yard signs sometimes aggravate other neighbors by promoting ideas that some would call conspiracy theories and other divisive ideas. As I have been reading the Daily Meditations, I have felt the spirit of Love and reconciliation grow in my heart. One day, I thanked her for her devotion, explaining that she was an important voice in our community. She looked shocked, and then quickly softened her defensive manner toward me. I felt a shift and something was transformed that day. Now, as I communicate with her, she trusts that I respect her dignity. I have begun to fold her into my life as a gift. Thank you for preparing me for this powerful moment of grace.
—Nancy C. 

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