The Correct Use of Pity

 

 

People say, "If the feeling doesn't come naturally, don't force it."  In my tradition of maximum contrariness, I'm going to say the opposite: do force it.  

Of course, quite often, emotions can take us by surprise.  You know how this is: you're saying to yourself, "This is stupid, this is stupid," and then you discover a lump in your throat.  You find it a little bit difficult to talk.  Your eyes are watering, quite beyond your will.   You try to hold it back, but you can't - the tears are welling up, and at a certain point you just let it go, and you feel the tears coming down your cheeks. 

Those are beautiful moments.  I wouldn't trade them for anything.  And yet, I'm also going to say that emotions can and should be a matter of will.  Emotions are more valuable, the more difficult they are.  The emotions that don't come automatically - the ones that are hard to feel - these are often the most important for us to feel.

To will yourself to feel the pain of others - this is a truly awesome accomplishment, in itself.  Accomplishing this means overcoming so many obstacles: for instance, it goes against so many instincts, most obviously that primary instinct of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.  

It's easy to empathize with a sympathetic character, a hero, portrayed in a movie - especially one that you feel is a "good guy," one that is "on your side," someone that you instinctively feel is a member of your tribe - one that you identify with in some way.  When you feel with a hero, you get a little boost - certain neurotransmitters fire in your brain, which feedback and reinforce themselves and form stronger connections, because it feels good to pretend, for a moment, to be the strong, honorable person that is presented to you.  So long as you remain a child, and never grow up, you can keep on doing that.

Pity is slightly different from this heroic, empathetic admiration, but it has its own addictive, self-reinforcing cycle.  Most people pity those whom they see as "on their side," yet "lower" than them, in some way.  Again, certain pleasure circuits are activated by this kind of emotion.  First of all, we get to feel "above" someone else - which intrinsically can have its own pleasurable aspect.  And then, to add to that, we get to feel like we are a morally "good" person, for feeling "bad" for them.  So the self-righteousness circuits are activated as well.  If you can create an entire identity for yourself, in which you are the heroic character who looks down beneficently upon all the poor, helpless, downtrodden of the Earth, well, then you've got it made.

But that is not the correct use of pity.  Instead, we should pity our leaders.  And we should especially pity the leaders of our opposition - for instance, we should pity the leaders of those who are politically opposed to us.

This exercise of pity is healthier precisely because it is strenuous.  It's like exercising a muscle we don't often use to lift a large and unwieldy weight.  It's not easy to pity such people.  But precisely because it isn't easy, it makes us stronger.  This kind of pity is difficult because it runs up against our sense of ressentiment.

I pitied George W. Bush when he was in office.

I pity Mark Zuckerberg.  It's not that I think he's a good person.  He's clearly not a good person.  

I pity Richard Nixon. 

I pity Hillary Clinton.

I pity Lenin.  I pity Putin.  It's very hard, but I even, to some small degree, pity Trump.

Now, you may look at me and say - look at the ego of this guy!  He looks down on all the leaders of the world!  How full of himself he is!  To which I reply: yes, you are right.   It takes a very big and strong ego to pity the leaders of your enemies.  My hero here is Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic philosopher.  According to legend, Alexander the Great went to meet him, and found him naked, living outdoors in a tub.  Alexander, who was well on his way to taking over the known world, treated Diogenes with the utmost respect, while Diogenes treated Alexander with contempt.  Alexander asked Diogenes if there was anything he could do for him, any favor in all the world, if Diogenes would only ask.  Diogenes replied that, yes, there was something Alexander could do - he could take one step to the side, as he was blocking the sun.  This has been a figure for art and philosophy ever since.  As the story is usually told, Alexander was deeply impressed by Diogenes, because Alexander conquered the world, whereas Diogenes conquered himself.  Alexander strove for everything, and died unhappy, drinking himself to death, whereas Diogenes was satisfied because he wanted for nothing.  Alexander is reputed to have said, "If I had not been Alexander, then I would wish to be Diogenes," and Diogenes is said to have replied, "If I had not been Diogenes, then I would wish to be Diogenes."

In my opinion, Diogenes's contempt for Alexander was well-founded.  Diogenes was, in every way, a far more impressive human being in history than Alexander.  Yet even the kind of contempt that Diogenes showed to Alexander still shows the marks of a certain measure of ressentiment.  Diogenes would be an even freer soul if he felt genuine compassion for Alexander, and curiosity about him.

It is not that I see myself as higher, or better, than any of these leaders.  On the contrary, what it means when I say that I pity them is two, somewhat opposing things: first, that I "put myself in their shoes."  That is, I see what a flawed decision-maker I am, and I realize that, were I in their position, I probably would not make any better choices than they did.  Second, and more importantly, I realize that I am not in their shoes.  I don't compare their flawed reality with an ideal, imaginary version of myself.  Instead, I want to understand them.  Not who I would be, if I were them, but who they are, as them.  As Thomas Nagel says, in "What is it like to be a Bat?" - the question is not, what would it be like, if I were a bat; the question is, what is it like for a bat to be a bat.  Pity has no value on its own.  Its value is to overcome our ressentiment, to make room for the possibility of real understanding.

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