I read recently of a mother who had a bad “moment” in public. She fled the scene, which is exactly what I would have done, eyes downcast, feet moving quickly, throat tight choking back tears and sobs threatening to escape humiliation complete for all to see. Desperate. For. Privacy! Privacy to grieve without public pity. Privacy.
I’ve had a few such moments—can you tell?
Those “moments” are the most vulnerable moments of my life. The facade is stripped away without my consent and my response is laid bear – the fodder for gossip, criticism, judgment and maybe worst of all, the pity of others. I find myself ashamed of my inability to control my emotions in public and humiliated by my lack of self-control.
Have you ever noticed the aversion people have to being pitied by others? It made me wonder why and so I googled my way to the definition according to Merriam-Webster.*
“Definition of pity
1. 1a: sympathetic sorrow for one suffering, distressed, or unhappy
1b: capacity to feel pity
2. 2: something to be regretted <it’s a pity you can’t go>
disgrace, crime, shame, sin”
The synonyms, make pity sound like the individual has done something shameful and is deserving of the circumstances in which they find themselves. Yet, if you read the discussion of synonyms that follows, disgrace, crime, shame, and sin are nowhere to be found. Instead, words like compassion, sympathy, and commiseration are found.
“Synonym Discussion of pity
pity, compassion, commiseration, condolence, sympathy mean the act or capacity for sharing the painful feelings of another.
compassion implies pity coupled with an urgent desire to aid or to spare <treats the homeless with great compassion>.
commiseration suggests pity expressed outwardly in exclamations, tears, or words of comfort <murmurs of commiseration filled the loser’s headquarters>.
condolence applies chiefly to formal expression of grief to one who has suffered loss <expressed their condolences to the widow>.
sympathy often suggests a tender concern but can also imply a power to enter into another’s emotional experience of any sort <went to my best friend for sympathy> <in sympathy with her desire to locate her natural parents>.”
You might notice I left pity out of the defined synonyms, but fear not, I’ll get to it. I’m am, however, surprised that pity is listed as a synonym for itself. However, I want you to make note of this observation first. None of those synonyms sound negative . . . so why are the words disgrace, crime, shame, and sin initially listed as synonyms? Why is it that people are so opposed to the pity of others? Well, tucked into that discussion of synonyms is one significant distinction that Merriam-Webster excludes from its definition above. Check it out below:
“pity implies tender or sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow for one in misery or distress <felt pity for the captives>. “
And there you go – “sometimes slightly contemptuous sorrow for one in misery or distress”.
There it is . . . when others feel sorry for us—when they pity us—we perceive their compassion tainted by contempt. It’s the idea that we have done something to earn the circumstances we find ourselves in. Oh, I hear it . . . echoes of Job’s miserable comforters . . . little more than the carrot and the stick strategy. How horrible all that has befallen you! Confess and repent of your sin! (And the hidden message left unspoken is the satisfaction that justice was served, or glee that “the oh, so pious one” is revealed to be no better than anyone else.) There it is. That’s why we cringe. That’s why we flinch away from the pity of others—because it implies justification for our distress.
We got what we deserved—
Oh, HECK NO!
Don’t you dare imply that to me! And don’t imply that I am wallowing in self-pity either. Because, that, of course, means that not only did I deserve the evil that has befallen me but also I’m such a loser that I want you to feel sorry for me for receiving my just desserts too!
Regardless of the pity others may feel for me or anyone else, the reason these bad moments happen at all is because we find ourselves in a situation we’ve failed to prepare for. We’ve been blindsided by words or a situation we hadn’t expected to encounter. Sometimes we find ourselves unable to recite the pre-planned response. Emotion blindsides us into non-responsiveness.
I encountered one such situation the first time I returned to Tuesday morning Bible Study following the accident. It must have been the fall of 2014 because at the time I didn’t have to plan for Gracen’s care in my absence. Truth be told, if such arrangements had been required I simply would not have attended. But Gracen returned to the local high school that Fall for her senior year. So it was eight or nine months after the accident and I had copious amounts of free time to fill for the first time since my world changed so drastically. I was at a loose end and really had no clue how to return to some semblance of a normal life. Just the thought of a “normal life” was so far beyond my daily reality that I had to suppress the desire to break out in hysterical laughter. Hysteria being the key word there.
So I talked myself into a new Bible Study and forced myself from the safe confines of my Toyota Camry and marched my way to the front doors of the church and forced myself through the door and into the semi-crowded vestibule.
What was I thinking?
It was meet and greet time—always a little longer the first day of Bible Study. I knew that. Why hadn’t I considered it? Coffee and water, egg casseroles and breakfast pastries. . .
I waded into the midst wishing for the cloak of invisibility. Small talk is not my forte! But I survived and made my way upstairs to the small auditorium used for group gatherings and kick-off ceremonies. I settled into a seat as close to the back as I could find and did my best to participate until we broke up to meet with our small groups.
I made my way to the designated room distressed to find that I was first to arrive aside from the small group leader. More small talk. . . Eventually, the group members straggled into class and took seats around the tables pushed together to form a square. A greeting from the small group leader and an overview of the material we’d be covering commenced and then it happened. . . How could I have forgotten what was to come? But there it was . . .
“Let’s go around the room and tell everyone a little about ourselves . . .” Oh, my goodness! What am I going to say?” “Hi, I’m Janet. I’ve been married to my husband, David, for 26 years. We have four children, Cole, who was stillborn, Bethany, 20, and Katie 16, who died last December in a car accident, and Gracen, who survived the accident but has a rare form of muscular dystrophy, daily migraine headaches, and is now in a wheelchair. I took this Bible Study because I didn’t know what else to do with myself while I wait for her to die too.” Uh, no . . . can’t say that. “Hi, I’m Janet. I’ve been married to my husband, David, for 26 years. We have one daughter, Gracen. I took this class . . . “, no, can’t say that either. There are people in this group who know I had three daughters, although most don’t know I had a son as well. . .
The first person introduced herself,
the second person finished her mini-bio,
the third person . . .
I can’t do this!
I CAN’T DO THIS!
And up I go, striding from the room, eyes lowered, clipped pace, throat tight, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry” on repeat in my mind as I search for an escape. A bathroom. “Shoot! There’s still a line outside the women’s restroom.” Down the stairs to the vestibule. “Crap! What are all these people doing here? Shouldn’t they be in class? Just get to the bathroom, Janet. Just keep it together. Don’t cry, don’t cry, DON’T CRY!”
I kept my head down, dodged through the inconvenient group of ladies, and finally, finally burst through the bathroom door and by the mercy of God found the room completely empty. I made my way to the handicapped stall, locked myself in and let the tears flow as quietly as possible. I don’t know how long I stood there crying . . . trying to get it together . . . but groaned aloud when I realized in my haste to escape I’d left everything behind in that classroom. I think I would have left it all if I’d had my car keys, but no such luck. I’d have to suck it up and return to the classroom.
Of course, it was impossible that I would be able to grab my things and disappear for a week before I needed to face anyone. No, I’m never that lucky. But, it was fortunate that only the small group leader remained in the room. After several uncomfortable minutes during which she apologized for failing to realize the meet and greet might be difficult for me, and I demurred, because it certainly wasn’t her fault that I’d failed to prepare myself for something I knew was standard procedure, I left the room.
Of course, when I exited the room, I was met by another compassionate class member. Needless to say, I survived both encounters in spite of the fact that they were both very uncomfortable for me and for the ladies involved, I’m sure. Grief is not easy to navigate—for those who grieve and for those who care about those who grieve. It is what it is. There is no fixing the problem, just awkward attempts at kindness offered and received.
David, Gracen and I recently watch the movie, “Mechanic: Resurrection”. During the course of the movie, one character said, “Those who’ve been hurt the most often have the greatest ability to heal.” You know I’ve found this to be true. And by the way, it’s a biblical concept.
3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. ~ 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Who can sit with the broken hearted? Someone who has been there before. Who can linger with the sick? Those who’ve stood in similar shoes. Who can help to bear your load? Those who’ve found themselves stumbling under the weight of unbearable pressure themselves.
It’s a bit of a paradox really as “having the ability to heal” implies the hurt individual is sick, and they are to a degree. Hurt at the very least implies injured. And how can the injured and the ill heal anyone else? The very experience of the injury or illness allows that person to validate the feelings of the hurting, and affirm their ability to cope with whatever ails them. And the wounded is encouraged by that validation and affirmation as well as being present to see the visual representation of another’s ability to cope. That’s life-affirming to the hurt, broken, wounded and frightened. And that’s why validation and affirmation are so much better for individuals than solely employing a positive thinking attitude.
Positive thinking doesn’t keep holding one up when the load gets increasingly heavy but validation, affirmation, and a good role model can. That is why the Bible tells us that one of the reasons we suffer is to minister to other hurting and discouraged individuals.
The bad moments are going to happen because no one can prepare for every situation or comment that will be encountered. Please recognize that these individuals are not wallowing in self-pity, they don’t deserve your “slightly contemptuous sorrow for . . . [their] misery or distress”. They are simply unprepared for some comments and situations, and your compassion, validation, and affirmation, if not your ability to commiserate, is desperately needed.
Leave the pity at home, please!
*The “Definition of pity/pities”, pity Synonyms, and the Synonym Discussion of pity all courtesy of the online version of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.