Compassion or Dignity?

“Distrust compassion; prefer dignity for yourself and others.”

I have been chewing on this sentence from my last post. During my stint at the UU church, a lot of energy was spent talking about compassion.  This was a catch-all word, used to name classes, in the title of sermons, and battered about by the “higher ups”.  I was never comfortable with this talk.  But I always blamed it on my hard-ass Calvinist upbringing.  My family was never very good at compassion.  I heard a lot of “they get what they deserve” as a child, and this was sometimes applied to whole cultures as well.  There was a hidden, racist undertone to my family’s attitude about the less fortunate.  So I attributed my uncomfortableness with all this Compassionate Talk to learned behavior that I needed to overcome.  Now I am not so sure if my unconscious assessment was correct.  The sentence above has struck me.  Hard. It reminded me of the discomfort I had and has caused me to tease out just what felt wrong about all the Compassionate Talk among the UUs.   

 I find compassion contains an implication of power.  Webster’s defines it as ‘sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it (synonym- pity)’.  This sounds fine on the surface, but then you get to the parentheses.  PITY.  There is no dignity in pity.  No one wants to be pitied, for the receiver of pity feels shame.  So let’s take this one step further.  I have compassion for you; I pity you.  You, deserving of compassion, feel shame for your circumstance.  I have caused you to feel shame.  Where is the dignity in that?  A more noble approach would be to do as Hitchens says, “prefer dignity for yourself and others.” Work for the betterment of all, yes, but in gratitude and without the implication that your situation is so much greater. 

I ended up having to cut and paste this last paragraph right into Facebook.  Didn’t really want to do that, but…

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About Brick Window

A mother and an atheist--Just trying to do the best I can in a suburb full of believers.
This entry was posted in Facebook, Morality, Unitarian Universalism. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Compassion or Dignity?

  1. fribnit says:

    it is the difference between charity and a job. (cliché warning) One is a handout, the other a hand up. One destroys dignity, the other builds it and preserves it.
    I have never liked the term compassion because of the implied pity, the feeling of superiority of being able to give handouts.

    I have always been suspicious of compasion. It means to me that you will give me just enough to not starve, but not enough for me to thrive.

  2. prosey says:

    I have been chewing on this blog entry for almost two weeks now, trying to decide what I think…

    …waiting for thoughts to emerge and crystallize about what Hitchens says about compassion, and where I agree AND disagree with him. Waiting paid off, evidently, as in my classroom discussion, a topic was presented (via a business article we had to read) that raised the question again in my mind.

    A little background – the business article was about Jack Welch (former CEO of GE) and the five metaphors he used to describe good leaders: pedagogue, physician, architect, commander, and saint. The saint was the one that brought your blog entry back to mind – because “compassion” is one of the virtues listed as positive among good leaders. I really had to turn the thoughts over in my mind, and what Fribnit says above is part of what surfaced while I turned those thoughts around and around.

    The conclusion that I came to is that I fully agree with Hitchens’ assertion of beware compassion – because the implication if pity, which does strip another person of their dignity. Words matter, and I suspect what is meant by compassion (specifically its usage in the aforementioned article about good leaders) is more of an active empathy. The difference I perceive is that compassion is something we do TO another person; active empathy is something we share WITH another person, which allows the other person to retain their dignity.

    *continues to ponder*

  3. Jay Walker says:

    I agree with everyone here. Prosey mentions that empathy is something that we share with others. I think that active empathy is what we should stride for. Hitchens’ idea of preferring dignity over compassion implies active empathy.

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