What does it mean to pity someone and who should we pity? As a rule, I hate resorting to the dictionary definition of a word, but, I do like the way the Oxford English Dictionary frames its definition: “The feeling of sorrow and compassion at the sufferings and misfortunes of others.” Sometimes suffering is easy to recognize; pictures on TV of children without food or clean water obviously evoke compassion. I help with a food pantry which helps provide for 250 families (in an area which has about 2,000 people) it is easy to feel compassion for some of them. It should be easy to feel pity for those who have left ancestral homes because of war and violence. However, sometimes pity becomes difficult. A much loved exchange between Frodo and Gandalf from J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series sums up how hard it can be to show pity.
“’What a pity that Bilbo did not stab that vile creature, when he had a chance!’
‘Pity? It was Pity that stayed his hand. Pity, and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity.’” Tolkien “The Fellowship of the Ring
Frodo finds it a shame that Bilbo did not rid the world of an evil creature when he had the chance, Gandalf points out that it was not a failure of Bilbo’s, but, a complement to his character. In the end Frodo gives in far more easily to the ring’s power than Bilbo did, I wonder if it is not in part because of their differences in compassion. Frodo feels no pity because he sees Gollum’s evil as a result of his own choices and a desire to be evil. Bilbo saw someone less than human, regardless of the reasons, and extended him basic human compassion. Bilbo’s reaction to the creature was far more dangerous, but, it proved him to be a far greater person.
Likewise, Charles Dickens goes to great length to make us pity the man, but, if most of us met Ebenezer Scrooge we would feel hatred at how nasty he is or envy of how much he has. We do not find it quite so easy to pity wicked people when we meet them. We have a hard time finding the compassion to spare them. I think this results from the fact we see them as somehow perverting their humanity. When we encounter a Scrooge in our everyday life we see the nasty Scrooge as somehow less than human. We see the Scrooges of the world as reveling in their hatred and cruelty and while in large measure that may be true, I think we must act differently. We need to see (whether or not it is true) a person trapped in life’s circumstances in need of some compassion. Frodo saw in Gollum what many of us are tempted to see in others a mean, nasty, selfish creature who is better off dead. Bilbo saw a creature who by choice or chance was deprived of his “humanity” and responded in mercy.
I believe we should all strive for the inner fortitude to respond as Bilbo does when we encounter rude, obnoxious, arrogant, and generally nasty people. We should look to them in compassion and pity, understanding that to be evil toward another is somehow less than human and whether by choice or chance this person is suffering as less than human.
From pity to generosity
This Sunday (December 6th) is St. Nicholas day, a day to remember the generosity of this fourth century bishop. St. Nicholas was so admired for his generosity that he has become synonymous with the word. He was known to give up his own wealth in secret to those in financial need. Where did St. Nicholas’ generosity begin, in pity and compassion for those who did not have enough financial resources to live what he considered a basic life. He felt pity for the poor and so he gave to them, he helped them as he could to raise them out of poverty. Similar pity moved the work of Wenceslas Duke of Bohemia to many good works for the poor, ultimately leading to the posthumous honors of saint and king conferred on him; while, every year at Christmas the saint’s generosity is remembered in song.
Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath’ring winter fuel
“Hither, page, and stand by me
If thou know’st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?”
“Sire, he lives a good league hence
Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence
By Saint Agnes’ fountain.”
“Bring me flesh and bring me wine
Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear him thither.”
Page and monarch forth they went
Forth they went together
Through the rude wind’s wild lament
And the bitter weather
“Sire, the night is darker now
And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how,
I can go no longer.”
“Mark my footsteps, my good page
Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter’s rage
Freeze thy blood less coldly.”
In his master’s steps he trod
Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod
Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure
Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor
Shall yourselves find blessing
The song represents, not a moment’s action, but, a way of life. Wenceslas is prepared to help the man because he has dedicated himself to generosity. Had he not been so dedicated he might not have noticed the man, or, if he did might not have been inclined to help. What makes the generosity in the song so great is NOT that Wenceslas feels pity for a poor man who has to be out in a winter storm, at night, to collect a staple of life like wood. What makes him generous is that he decides to help the man out of his own bounty. What makes his generosity great and something to emulate is that he, nobility, goes out into the storm and delivers his gifts to the man at once despite the burden. Picture two men walking through snow carrying firewood, food and wine, for a half mile or so. This is the generosity we are supposed to work toward, but, simply a cup of water will often do (Matthew 10:42, 25:31-46). I do not often walk by the Salvation Army kettles, but, I cannot help throwing something into them when I do. They remind me that I do have an extra quarter between myself and poverty, so at least I can give that. Generosity begins when I realize I have enough possessions that I can help elevate someone’s condition in life.
But what about those nasty people?
Finding pity for the Scrooges of life begins with recognizing that cruelty is something that makes a person less than human, it is a form of suffering, whether or not the person realizes it. From there, we must turn our sights inward, recognizing that this same behavior is possible in us all. I can be cruel, short, or nasty when life’s circumstances frustrate me in a moment. Those whose character reflects this condition have simply fed the monster too often. What they need from me is generosity. The same way Nicholas and Wenceslas generously gave wealth to those without it, I need to give love to those without it. Those who we call nasty are in desperate need of love and compassion, it may help them little (as with Gollum), but, that is not the point, the point is it will help the giver much (like Bilbo). The last line of “Good King Wenceslas” reminds us that our generosity blesses us as much or more as the person who receives it by helping us maintain our humanity.
I may not be able to help alleviate much poverty by my generosity, but, I can return kindness and love for cruelty and evil. It should be noted that Bilbo’s compassion to Gollum was nothing more than he did not kill him. Compassion to a nasty person may stop at a polite smile and a friendly comment. Pity does not necessitate complete compliance; pity can have solid boundaries. But, with nasty cruel people, pity recognizes they are somehow not fulfilling their potential as humans, and counters with a generous dose of love.