October 14, 2007

Pity, As I Know It


I am no longer content accepting only pity from the non-disabled. Instead, I feel strongly that pity should be replaced with opportunity so all of us can function as a part of society, and not remain set apart from it. I know I am not alone.

To the right is a work by the artist Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, titled "Pity" (1887). It is an illustrative work because it points up an emotional component common to those who feel themselves pitied by others.

You may notice that the Pitier resembles Death in this painting, and I would suggest that this is not literal death, but a death that removes the living disabled from the company of others, from the fellowship and society to which he or she belongs.

Piety as a concept has been with men as long as his gods, and is not the exclusive mark of any religion or cult or sect. My own knowledge of this concept is a Christian one, certainly, but I am familiar with other, equally significant deconstructions of the term. A good example, is Socrates’ discourse on piety in Euthyphro.

As I came to understand it, if one seeks to offer pity or to be pious, one must be dutiful and try to acquire a sense of compassion, presumably for others. But why link these terms, pity and piety? I have to admit, connecting both words is the consequence of an academic accident on my part.

You see, in a quest to discover why Pitiers seem to feel so bitter, so let down, when their pity is refused, I looked to the origin of the word "pity" to see how its use might have been altered over the centuries. I was surprised to find it linked with "piety".

Apparently, until the 13th century, “pity" and "piety" were interchangeable, inextricably tied to one another. In the time between the 13th and 16th centuries, the word "pity" contained the notion of gratitude in its definition. It also contained the concepts of kindness and filial duty.

C.T. Onions: The Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology confirms that "pity [and] piety [were] not fully differentiated until the late 16th century" (p.679). (Of course, this one perspective on the English language usage of these words in no way represents a host of other understandings.)

People who pity the disabled have an expectation that we disabled should reciprocate their acquired sense of kindness with our own dutifully rendered gratitude.

My social observations of pity and piety stem from a lifetime of experience with these words as actions. To me, it looks as if those who offer the disabled pity enjoy a sense of personal gratification from making the act of pity. I think many also feel a sense of godliness from this act because they have extended some part of themselves toward an unfortunate individual. Simply put, when someone says to me "I pity you", that someone walks away feeling good about himself.

How does this kind of pity uplift me? How can these folks expect me, or any other disabled, to share their joyous well-being? Pity, which only uplifts the one who pities, and does nothing for the subject of his pity, cannot be pious. It is only selfish.

But, if the impulse to offer pity can act as a motivational force to correct social injustices, then pity may be a good thing. Without such motivation to act, pity is useless.