Pity is Poison

Emma Rockenbeck in India on Global Gap Year
This is a guest post from Emma Rockenbeck, a current TBB Global Gap Year student. The video embedded below was taken one day during the education unit of her program.

One of the first times we met above the glass tables in the IDEX basement our program
leader Jessie told us something that changed my life. It may be hard to hear, but I feel the need to share the insight she gave to us with the world.

Emma Rockenbeck Explaining Pity Is Poison

It was a bright sunny morning in the desert city of Jaipur, and we were about to go visit the slums in which we would teach for the next few weeks. It was cold in the basement as we took our places around the table, laughing and joking. Jessie clasped her hands briskly in front of her, and her big blue eyes regarded each of us in turn. Stern, impassive.

“Today we may see things that will make you upset. We may see children without shoes or clothing. We may see people bathing in the gutter. We may see people searching through piles of trash for food. We may see a man hitting his wife, or that wife hitting her child. This woman, this child, these people, DO NOT NEED YOUR PITY.”

Have you ever thought about how dehumanizing, patronizing, and hurtful pity can be? Pity implies that you have something another person does not, “have it better” than them. I can tell you for a fact, that although the people I have met in these slums may not have what I as a modern American girl think is needed for a “good life.” But they are HAPPY. Their spirits are not broken. They laugh and joke like we do. And this is because they are PEOPLE.

The last three months have been really hard for me, as I read authors such as Ivan Illich and Paulo Freire, Amartya Sen, Dambisa Moyo, and Edward Carr, who challenge me to see the way my compassion and guilt manifest in negative ways. I have asked myself why I am even here, what am I DOING, how my every action affects the world. The whole TBB West group fell into a dark pit of “To Hell with Good Intentions” inspired shame while in India, and we have come out the other side wiser for it. I cannot hope to tell you everything I have learned and felt this year, but I can try to outline some of my feelings regarding pity and foreign aid (for they are inexorably connected), and hopefully I can elaborate on these sentiments in later blogs.

The problem with pity is not that we feel it – it is why we feel it, and how we act upon it. Feeling compassion for another’s suffering is what makes us truly human, and it is a wonderful thing. But feeling pity is different from feeling compassion. Pity immediately creates a power dynamic. Acting on that pity (often in the form of giving aid/money) solidifies that power dynamic, and can have myriad unforeseen negative consequences.

Let me outline this power dynamic. Imagine that your friend just lost her longtime job, and you cook her dinner to show you care, and ask her if there is anything you can do to help her. She says it would really help if you would watch her children this week while she job hunts. You agree to, and you shake on it as equals. This is how we should look at people we want to help – straight in the eye, person to person. Not from some high up vantage point of power and privilege.

In this situation, you have asked your friend what she really needs, and what would most effectively help her. You did not assume you knew what was best for her, and tell her what she should do to get back on her feet. You have given her the freedom to choose to accept your help or not, and what to do with the time she gains from you watching her child. You have trusted in her ability to find a new job herself, and are not trying to take over her life. This is the way we should aim to help others – you feel your friend’s pain, you empathize with her, but you do not “pity” her.

This is one of the reasons I have a problem with foreign aid – we do not look at countries in need of help as capable and unique individuals, but as children that we have the right and even the duty to tell what to do and how to do it. We flood them with money and patronizing smiles and simple linear scripts written by policy makers worlds away. And we flood them with pity, born of guilt.

This is where I had my turn around, realizing where this guilt comes from and what I can do about it. It is overwhelming to open your eyes and realize all the wrong you are capable of doing in the name of good, in the name of charity. It was when I realized the difference between humanitarianism and humanism that I found the root of my guilt and my purpose and direction.

A humanitarian gives money and “helps people in need” without truly seeing them as human. A humanist sees a person as a person, and agrees to truly help in an effective way, just as you did with your jobless friend. A humanist looks inside herself and finds out where her guilt comes from.

Our guilt comes from the fact that we know we are stuck deep in a system of oppressed and oppressors. We, (meaning a majority but not all of my friends back home) are in the later category. We are the oppressors. And this makes us guilty, this makes us feel pity, and feel the need to act on that pity in acts of false kindness. True kindness is to try and change the system we are stuck in. No matter how much money we give, things will not change for the better unless we as a whole, as a community, and a society, as a culture, as a world, begin to truly see every person in a humanist light. We must break the chains of “what should be” and “just the way things are done.”

I am sorry that I cannot give you more of an idea of how that can be done at this time. I have ideas – thousands of them it feels like sometimes, but the way I gained these ideas about how to change is more important than the ideas themselves. The way I came into my humanist self was to question everything. If I have learned anything in this year, it is that questions are more valuable than answers. Question everything, every assumption you make, every norm of society, every decision. And that is how to find what is truly valuable. That is how to create change.

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