The case for pity

“Do not scorn pity that is the gift of a gentle heart” – J.R.R. Tolkien

We live in a culture that wants nothing of pity (other than self-pity). We never want to give someone else the upper hand by admitting that we are hurt or broken or needy. We prefer to think of ourselves as achievers, as leaders, as winners. Pity is for losers.

Our egos are so fragile we can’t stand to be looked down upon.

But the reality is we all need pity. We are in fact the hurt, the broken, and the needy. We are fools and failures. We are the burn outs and drop outs. And we need others to extend their hearts to us in pity.

I had always thought of myself as someone who helps others and not as someone who needs the help of others. But a few months after finishing graduate school, I found myself underemployed and barely able to pay rent and feed my family. And that’s when unsought-for help arrived.

One church brought us a heaping basket of food just before Thanksgiving. Another church gave us vouchers at a local grocery store. We found an unmarked envelope taped to our door with a $100 bill inside. Our landlord gave us a $50 gift card to a grocery store. And two different people hired me to do some much-needed editing work.

All of this came within just a few weeks, snowballing pity and grace for us. I found it very humbling and yet never humiliating — the thing I was afraid it would be.

That line between being humbled and being humiliated can be a fine one. It depends both on how pity is offered and how it is received.

In my case, the givers all made sure they didn’t undermine my dignity. And I made sure I received what was given in the way the givers intended, not puffing up my pride to protect my bruised ego — and, yes, struggling to find work did dent my ego.

So, having received pity that had been offered so well, I’ve been trying to relearn pity as a basic disposition in my life toward the lack of wholeness I see in the world around me. And this extends far beyond the financially and physically needy to the relationally and emotionally and spiritually needy.

There have been many times over the past few years where I have found myself hurt and angered by the words and/or actions of others. But it was in the midst of this anger that I remembered the interchange between Frodo and Gandalf in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Frodo: It’s a pity Bilbo didn’t kill him when he had the chance.
Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo’s hand. Many that live deserve death. Some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

Frodo and Gandalf are talking about the pity of Bilbo which kept him from killing the pathetic creature Gollum. It’s a pity that Frodo takes up and makes his own, which works an amazing transformation in Gollum, reawakening the part of him that had been the more kindly Smeagol.

Does Frodo’s pity pay off? In some regards, no. Gollum betrays him. But ultimately, yes. That pity enables a salvation that would otherwise have been impossible.

So, as I recall this story and import it into my own anger, I have found myself moving toward pity.

As I experience the intentionally hurtful behavior of others from time to time, I have tried to steer my heart toward pity, asking, “What is it that is broken in this person, which causes him to say such things? What hurt has she experienced that makes her so bitter?”

As I watch culture shapers of all stripes promote what is actually harmful, I find myself reacting initially in anger and then softening toward pity.

There is so much hurt in this world that gets expressed in bad behavior, bad theology, bad relationships, bad policies, bad language. And I’m discovering that anger is the flashing red light that makes me aware of this hurt. That its job is to arouse pity within me which will ultimately lead me to compassionate action appropriate for the circumstance.

Hurt should lead to anger. But anger should lead to pity. And pity should lead to prayer. Prayer should lead to healing action. Healing should lead to wholeness.

In this broken world, we will sin and be sinned against. And heaven knows that I react out of anger and end up hurting those who’ve hurt me. I hate that, because it only increases the hurt. But I am relearning pity and the hope for wholeness that it brings.