Potent Words: Pity Versus Compassion

Language is powerful. It is the trait that sets us apart from other animals, although there are other species who you could say have some form of “language” (dolphins and whales, for instance). The distinction between those other species and us, though, is that we humans seem to have countless ways of expressing abstract concepts, and often, gradations within those concepts.

It’s been widely portrayed that the native peoples of Alaska have hundreds of words for snow. Actually, they have varying forms of similar linguistic bases that describe different snow-and-ice characteristics, something like our “slush,” “sleet,” “snow”.

Language is a potent communicator between people, but it’s just as powerful within the mind of an individual. We talk to ourselves constantly, from the moment we awaken each morning to the moment we fall asleep at the end of the day—even after that, if you count dreams, and I do.

We can never leave our inner voice, and the messages it conveys to us do more to shape our lives than any other influence.

The words we use, whether we’re thinking to ourselves or speaking out loud, carry layers of context. A single word brings with it a whole set of underlying perceptions, often dictated by the particular culture and community we are part of.

All this is simply a foundation for the point of these next few posts, namely, that words we often think of as having the same or very similar meanings, that we use interchangeably, are really vastly different when considered from the perspective of their underlying contextual layers. These layers are frequently based on emotional reactions, and whether we realize it or not, the word we use in a particular situation can deeply color how we respond to others in that situation.

This series is certainly not complete, but I’ve tried to focus on a few instances that I feel are particularly important, especially in light of healing.

That’s why I begin the discussion with “compassion” versus “pity”.

When we are confronted with circumstances in our own lives or the lives of others that highlight the challenges we all face as human beings, particularly in responding to pain (emotional, physical, etc.), we are given the choice to engage in many ways, depending on how we relate to those circumstances. Often, these circumstances produce a deep resonance within us. We can relate to having similar experiences, or we simply see the need for some sort of response from us.

In these instances, people often talk about feeling compassion or pity. The words are often used without regard to what each implies, simply to denote a desire to have a helpful or comforting interaction with the person involved in the situation. For example, someone’s house burns down, and we might say, “What a pity,” or comment that a particular gesture was “compassionate”.

Or, in another example, if you happen to meet someone who can’t see, can’t walk well, or has great difficulty speaking clearly enough to make themselves understood, you’re faced with an illustration of someone who is trying to go through life without the benefit of a trait (seeing, walking, speaking) that you usually take for granted.

Compassion and pity are, I believe, on opposite ends of a spectrum of responses to these types of situations. I think that, if you look at the word itself, how it’s spelled, it’s easy to keep the two straight.

“Pity” is an emotional response based on fear and misunderstanding. We “look down into a pit” and see someone in a condition very different from ourselves. From our vantage point far above them, we can enumerate all the things that separate “us” from “them”. We work to keep “them” at arm’s length, throwing things into the proverbial pit that we think will alleviate the misery down there, but not considering how we might help the person get out. We focus so much on the current condition they’re in that we don’t look at the potential of where they might be. We become so consumed by fear (“Oh, what if that were me—thank God that’s not me—I couldn’t imagine living like that!” that it restricts our response to actions that will preserve our position of power. We think that, if we can maintain that “higher ground,” we’ll somehow insulate ourselves from the possibility of future challenges for ourselves.

“Compassion,” by contrast, is “coming alongside another human being”. The “passion” at the end of the word implies that, somehow, the heart has to be deeply engaged. From this perspective, we see someone eye to eye, even when that’s uncomfortable for us. We don’t let ourselves get bogged down or overwhelmed by the other’s circumstances, but we don’t shy away from “getting our hands dirty” in order to help them help themselves. We relate to and interact with them on the basis of our shared humanity, always working to preserve their dignity and maintaining a respect for them. This respect and love for a fellow human being are the roots of compassion.

In a healing situation, the pity response is when we simply give pills or patches for pain management, increasing the dosage as the pain gets worse, without any deeper consideration of the other, non-physical components of pain as well as the non-clinical aspects of drugs (i.e., how they affect the mind and how those effects feed into a person’s self-concept and interactions with the world). Pity says, “It’s not my problem” once the meds have been given, and caps off any change in prescription with, “There, that should take care of it”.

The compassionate response involves actually listening to someone talk about pain, even if they’ve already gotten a pill for it. Why isn’t the pill working as well as it’s supposed to? How does the patch make them feel on an emotional level, and does the person believe they have adequate opportunities for dealing with these emotional and psychological parts of their treatment? Are there other, non-pharmaceutical, alternatives that could be tried? Is the person receptive to those? Am I, as a healer, open to the fact that I may not be the one who can best provide help to a particular person, and if not, how do I respond to that?

Compassion is a process, not a single action. It’s a series of questions that engages two people in response to a situation, not a desire to simply have all the answers so you can tie up all the loose ends and move on to the next project. Pity is easy and doesn’t require self-examination or thought, but compassion challenges us to discover what we think and then often further encourages us to expand our perspective to include ideas we never would have considered before.

When we “have pity on” another person, we rob them of their essential humanity. Putting anything “on” someone else implies that we are the ones in control. “Having compassion for” someone is completely different. It preserves the common ground between us and them. To me at least, “for” is more active, more interactive, than “on” when other people are involved. You, as the person responding in compassion, must decide how involved “for” is going to be, and you also must accept that the other person’s response to “for them” might not be what you expect.

One of the most wonderful consequences of a compassionate response is the opportunity it provides for us to see others grow. I have seen this over and over in my own experiences. Once, I was working with someone who was in severe pain, facing death sooner than planned. Fear, hopelessness, anger, mistrust and loneliness were all making things even more unbearable. The individual wasn’t sure if reiki would help, didn’t put much faith in “weird” stuff like that, and didn’t even know if they wanted to have to interact with yet another person.

Sometimes, the best sessions occur when we simply let things take their own natural course. I spent a majority of the time I had with this client talking—no, let me change that, it was mostly listening, seeing where the conversation was headed, and asking a question that would keep it moving. Anyone who was observing, thinking about reiki in the “traditional” sense would have thought I’d just wasted over an hour and called something a session that was no such thing.

When this client did, in fact, die, the comments I received from those close to them at the end and who had seen the session all focused on a few things—disappearance of pain that had been unresponsive to any other treatment, laughter, and peace.

When I’m coming to the end of my own journey here on earth, I hope there is someone who won’t just pity me and hand me a pill and say, “Call me in the morning”. I’ve got to get through the night, and so do those around me!

No, I want a compassionate response, someone who isn’t afraid of my crying, who will talk about anything or nothing, even laugh, as I make my peace and take my leave.

Explore posts in the same categories: healing arts, language, psychology, Reiki, spirituality

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22 Comments on “Potent Words: Pity Versus Compassion”

  1. dowhatyoulove Says:

    Thank you for the kind comment on my page.

    This is a beautiful post, you have captured the true essence of each word, and you allowed that essence to speak through you. Understanding the words we use on a daily basis is a long lost art, we rarely seem to know the true meaning of the words flowing from our mouths anymore. The more we become conscious of what we are saying and feeling, the more we will unify with the world around us.

    Keep following your dreams with the piano, create beautiful music with your vibrant soul!

  2. Very good essay. Lots to say and respond to. I believe that words are very powerful and resonate with a vibration that takes you to a place of feeling. I think its all about feeling different vibrations in life. If you take plants for example, you will have a species surrounded by other species. It is responding and being molded by the presence or energy of its neighbors, including the absence or presence of the sun, what the temperature is, how the wind is effecting it, its soil conditions, the toxins and waste that the neighbors are emitting, etc.. It responds to the pressures that surround it, therefore, it feels. Now when people use words, they take you to a place of feeling. Words, depending on what attachments we place on them, take us on a positive or negative journey of feeling. So I believe that thinking and using language is only another tool to take us on another journey to a place of feeling. Therefore, experiencing feelings or different frequencies resonating, or learning new points of view through feeling a new situation could potentially be the ultimate launguage. Language helps one to describe your point of view. So if you feel another person’s story and can feel where they are coming from, one’s own personal frequency of vibration broadens and expands. One becomes more open minded.

    I totally agree that everything that is ever said by anyone has many layers of meaning and feeling. For many people, it’s impossible to place themselves in another persons shoes because what they are hearing is not what the person is saying since the words that are being heard are charged with attachments from the past. Not only that, words have different meaning and context for everyone depending on how they learned the word in the first place. And then when you string dozens of words together, its amazing that anyone can communicate with each other at all. We all live in our own worlds, in our bubbles, in our own subfrequencies or dimensions. But i do believe we can hear others through compassion and empathy. If you truly are able to listen, you tap into the others frequency and can see through their eyes or feel what they feel. It’s an art which needs to be relearned by all.

    I also feel that when people usually comment about something, when they criticize something, they are talking about themselves. Most people seem to project their inner world onto others. If someone responds negatively to something, they are responding to an unresolved issue within themselves. If they are responding positively, then they are identifying with something they can relate to or to something they wish to incorporate into their own essence.

    I believe you are totally correct on your analysis of compassion versus pity. I’ve come to the same conclusion. One exists in the positive realm and the other in the negative. Compassion involves true listening and pity involves ignoring and blocking the communication that is trying to be conveyed. Healing can only occur in the act of compassion or love or full acceptance.

    Just about anything in life can be viewed in a negative way. We are what we think, what we feel, and what we resonate. And at the same time on another level, we are none of that and more. In that process of attaining new levels of seeing and feeling and expanding awareness, I believe we must process the negativity and spin all of these limiting thoughts to the positive. And once you have achieved a positive outlook, which I believe is also equally an attachment or story or role being played out, that too will be transcended, and we can then therefore escape the realm of yin and yang, of positive and negative, of soul and spirit and leave this universe, perhaps only to find ourselves in a new place of feeling. :)

    I’ve enjoyed reading your entry and look forward to your future thoughts.
    Stacey and I , who commented earlier, enjoy your point of view and who you are.

  3. halfnotes Says:


    Thanks for visiting and commenting. Even though these postings are no more than electronic Post-It notes to remind myself of important or memorable things, it’s always interesting to read what other people think about something that’s rattled around in my mind/heart/spirit for a while.

  4. halfnotes Says:


    What a thoughtful and thought-provoking response! As a musician, I really can relate to your description of words at the vibrational level. And as for “lost arts”, there are many, among which thinking and speaking, and, to a certain extent, even feeling and engaging the world on an emotional level, are a few big ones. At what point does the “information saturation” become too much? What are the limits, if any, to the human mind’s capacity to process such a large amount of input coming at such a fast and relentless pace?

    As for criticism: As a musician and composer, I am exposed to it quite a lot. I think that one has to try and sort through the underlying motives of why the criticism is being given. For example, if my husband criticizes something I play, is it because he wants to just hear his own opinion, or does he want me to improve as an artist? Most of the time, the trouble comes not with the person giving the feedback, but with the one receiving it.

    I’m guilty of this, and while I too often respond with a bruised ego and interpret it (at least temporarily) as, “You are not a valid artist,” I can, if I step back and work out my own emotional baggage that’s making me feel that I’m not a valid artist, usually turn the feedback into something that helps in the long run, even if it hurt at first.

    Again, thanks for the very in-depth response. “Conversation” is another of those lost arts, and just because people aren’t sitting in the same room speaking in verbal form doesn’t mean a conversation isn’t taking place.

  5. halfnotes Says:


    Care to clarify what you’re “not”?

  6. js girl Says:

    I did not see any attribution to the writings of Ram Dass, this essay is clearly from the “How Can I Help” framework, his name should at least be mentioned.

  7. halfnotes Says:

    js girl,

    Thanks for directing me to look into writings of an author I’m not familiar with. “Insights”, especially those about such universal topics as compassion, are not original by this time. We all just put our own “spin” on them. I’ll definitely look for Ram Dass, though, because I’m sure I’ll learn something in the reading.

  8. I read your posts for a long time and should tell that your articles always prove to be of a high value and quality for readers.

  9. judy Says:

    Thanks for the article on compassion vs pity. It helped clarify some thoughts I have had about the 2. You have put much valuable thought into the meaning of them. I agree that there are layers to every statement we make. For me, when I am in a safe, trusting environment, what I say reveals more about me than when I am not. At this time I am more able to be a compassionate friend and listener, and less likely to pity someone.

  10. Mike Carlson Says:

    Thank you for writing this. It entirely deserves to be the first hit in my Google search this morning for ‘compassion vs pity’.

  11. Jacquie Says:

    I found this piece via the same search as the above commenter, and I agree: this is a marvelous essay. It’s just what I was looking for.

  12. Corey Says:

    Wonderful stuff, thanks for this.

  13. Grace Says:

    This is an absolutely beautiful post that I really needed today. Thank you so much.

  14. Carrie Says:

    This has been very helpful to me by helpin me realize how to be more effectively helpful to others, and also to realize how bad it has felt to be pitied rather than to have had compassion for me.

  15. Martijn Says:

    Today I was revising part of my own philosophy on desired human traits and found that I had some flaws in my explanation of why compassion is one of them. Your essay has set me on the right path of clarification. On top of that it was a pleasant read and a very wise piece of writing. Thank you.

  16. thiagoteruya Says:

    Wonderful text man.

  17. sherekadunston Says:

    Reblogged this on Coach Shereka Dunston and commented:
    My husband and I had a long conversation about pity and compassion before bed last night. One of the reasons why I love my husband is the fact that he’s so passionate about helping young children succeed in life. I love the fact that he and I are on the same page when it comes to showing people compassion. We think most folks don’t understand the difference between pity and compassion, and that’s one of the problems we face in society. This blog post does the best job explaining the differences between pity and compassion. It’s a must read.

  18. This was well written and helpful. Having gone through and still do many physical health problem I either have felt both pity and compassion directed at me. The PIty is not what I want – yes my life is hard, yes no one in the world would want it but I am doing everything in my power to live with it and if possible with God’s grace to heal from it. Pity is exactly as you described as being in the pit and they are looking down and also many look beyond and do not see the hurt left behind in their subtle abandonment. Compasssion feels more like love and an attempt to understand knowing that they cannot fully understand. This could be from a total stranger who senses my struggle or a dear friend who is checking in. We do need to keep learning which why I appreciated your blog.

  19. Hi there, just became aware of your blog through Google, and
    found that it’s truly informative. I’m going to watch out for
    brussels. I will be grateful if you continue this in future.
    Many people will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

  20. Mini Doc Says:

    Thank you, I needed to read this today. This was really great and well written.

    • halfnotes Says:

      I am not posting very often these days as my life has taken some very interesting turns that have drawn me away from music-making and hands-on healing. However, I deeply appreciate your kind words on my thoughts.

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