Pity and friendship are two passions incompatible with each other.
Last week a beautiful Halloween picture of Lamp dressed up as Ariel was regrammed on an instagram account that showcases people with disabilities who use adaptive equipment doing all sorts of awesome stuff. Most of the comments were sweet, supportive and wonderful. But there was one that rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn't not get it out of my head. It said: "That's not fair! I hate that kids have to suffer like that!"
There she was, my beautiful, smiling little mermaid and somehow all this person saw was suffering. I'm pretty sure this person was not intentionally being rude. Maybe they even thought this was showing kindness and support? Nevertheless it was offensive. I wasn't planning to respond but after a couple of days I felt strongly, once again, to take the opportunity to educate. Here's what I wrote in response:
Suffering? This girl is THRIVING. You'll never meet a happier, [more] positive little ray of sunshine. The only time she ever "suffers" is when she has to deal with people who think that she has a sad, little life or who think of her as a 'poor thing.' She is not held back by her disabilities nearly as much as she is held back by people who have preconceived notions about her disabilities. Sure there are things she can't do, just like there are things all of us can't do, but she is much more able than she is disabled. I hope you know that I'm not saying this out of anger but from a standpoint of education. Please don't ever pity a person with disabilities. It may seem like the kind thing to do, but pity [is] judgement. And judgement is the most damning and difficult obstacle any of us have to face. God bless.
I thought this would be a good time to revisit this post I wrote about pity a while back and why it's such a problem for people with disabilities. This is just my take, not as a disabled person, but as a disability advocate + mama of a disabled person. I made a few edits to the original post as it always felt a little unfinished to me, but the overall sentiment is the same. You can read the original post here published in July of 2014.
A scene from the library last week: A little girl spends a few minutes assessing Lamp then walks up to PSP and says, "I feel so sorry for your sister for missing an arm." I'm not sure PSP knew what to say, but I think she just smiled and shrugged her shoulders like OK... if you want to.
Later that evening Lamp said, "Hey mom! I've got a good idea for what to say when people say they feel bad for me!"
"OK, what's your idea?" A little surprised because I didn't think she heard this exchange at the library.
"I can just say, 'It's OK! You don't have to feel bad for me.'"
"That's a great thing to say."
"Yeah I can just show them my arms and be like 'it's OK, my arms are just different. I'm not sad.'"
"That's right. You don't want people to feel sorry for you."
Besides the fact that my 4 year old is often surprising me with just how much her young mind absorbs, I was struck with the fact that 1) she recognizes what pity is and 2) she does not want that crap. She might not be able to define it, I'm sure she doesn't even know the word, but girlfriend does not want people feeling sorry for her.
I know in this example these words were coming from a little girl who doesn't know any better, but I hope you understand that it's not about the girl. It's about my daughter, a girl born with disabilities, who doesn't want people to pity her. And we have definitely had adults share similar sentiments as well, actually using the term "poor thing" in reference to Lamp. For the love, please do not ever refer to someone with disabilities as a "poor thing." Yes Lamp still laments that she can't do certain things, and yes she even asks why she was born this way. Those are legitimate questions and feelings that she feels. But she does not want anyone else feeling sad or bad for her.
I'm not sure I ever really understood pity before having Lamp. Truthfully I still have a hard time defining the difference between pity, empathy, sympathy and compassion--it can be confusing. As this post states, "these things can interconnect, and even at times, seem interchangeable. They all have to do with emotions that are born out of other people's suffering, sorrows and tragedies."
But here's what I now understand about pity now and why it's so damaging as it pertains to someone like Lamp. Pity stems from judgement. Pity looks down on you and judges your life and your circumstances to be so far gone that it must be completely incompatible with happiness. Pity assumes the worst. It seems to me that empathy and perhaps sympathy tend to happen as we listen to others, as we hear where they are coming from and respond accordingly, i.e. mourning with those who mourn. But pity it isn't listening, it isn't responding or interacting, pity only judges. And that judgement is usually damning. Of course pity tells you more about the person giving it than the person receiving it because when you 'feel sorry' for someone that revels your fears, your prejudices and your misconceptions. Unfortunately pity can still hurt the person on the receiving end. To tell Lamp you feel sorry for her, is to tell her she's not enough, that there is something intrinsically wrong with her, that she is not capable, that being herself is a negative thing and on and on and on. It's not hard to imagine how damaging that message could be if internalized just once, let alone over the course of a lifetime.
I posted a Ted Talk a few weeks ago by a woman named Stella Young. She spoke about the objectification of disabled people and many readers had mixed reactions to her talk. Some of you thought she was looking to take offense at people who simply meant well, while others of you (a few that are actually disabled) agreed with her perspective. Part of her message was that when we expect too little of people with disabilities, we hold them back as a society, and that the biggest obstacles disabled people have aren't the limitations their bodies place on them, its the limitations society places on them. Pity plays a huge role in that. Pity isn't looking to elevate, pity holds back.
The assumption that a disabled person leads a life of sadness or overall just "less than" an able bodied person is a common one. And even though few adults would ever say that they feel bad for Lamp, many, many people have expressed a sort of equal but opposite point of view, "Oh wow! She's really happy isn't she?" or "Look how happy she is!" Again, I know people mean well but I've heard this enough to know that some people are genuinely surprised that a girl like Lamp should be so happy.
In short, pity sucks. Literally. It sucks away potential, self esteem, encouragement, and enthusiasm.
My daughter was born with limb differences, but she was also born with a light in her eyes. A light that I hope and pray everyday never gets snuffed out by the weight of pity.
I'd love to hear your thoughts... Do you feel like you truly understand what pity is and would you care to broaden my definition? Anyone ever been on the receiving end of that kind of pity? Is there a difference between feeling sorry for yourself and others feeling sorry for you? Any other thoughts?
photo credit Momoko Fritz