sympathy v pity

Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.

— Martin Luther King, Jr.

ID-100288055 concern
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at


I swore I was not going to use this blog to write about my current situation with cancer and chemo; however, I am annoyed and this is my forum for getting those feelings out of my system.

Priding myself on being of strong character, and able to independently deal with life’s cannonballs, I have navigated a major learning curve over the last month or so when it comes to accepting offers of assistance and expressions of sympathy. On the whole, this experience is making me a better person.

Before I let loose with my little rant, I am going to list the things I really appreciate (with apologies if you have read this previously), just to make sure there is no confusion:

♦ My colleagues have formed up a meal roster. Each week a large quantity of yummy food is delivered by wonderful friends who stay and have a chat (and don’t care if my brain is a bit fuzzy, or if I open the door sans headwear). This means we have barely had to cook (or shop) for the last month. We have also been given meals by other friends as well. This is a show of caring, of wanting to help out in a practical way. At first we felt somewhat like frauds, but now we accept and enjoy.

 ♦ Several times a day my phone pings with a message from various friends or family members who are ‘just saying hello and checking up to see how I am’. Last month I ended up with an excess usage bill from replying to all these messages, such was the extent of them. But, so what? When I am feeling like crap, it is nice to know someone out there is thinking of me and takes a minute to send me a quick hello. I also get the occasional phone call; people worry they are not ringing at the right time but to that I say (and have said), ‘If I don’t feel up to talking I will get someone else, or the machine, to answer the phone.’ The people who ring me accept this, and that action in itself is what counts.

♦ Each time I take my daughter to a dragon boating regatta, or to training, I spend the first 15 plus minutes fielding questions from my teammates: How are you feeling?  How is everything going?  How are you today?  I answer the same questions multiple times. I do not care! These wonderful ladies are just asking after me, out of concern for my wellbeing. They are not being intrusive or demanding in any way; the simple question, ‘How are you?’ says so much. My only worry is that I am spending a lot of time talking about me and I want to give time to other people as well — we all have our own issues, grievances and joys to share.

♦ From the day I shared my diagnosis with people, I was taken aside by three extremely special ladies who have been through this themselves. They just talk: you may experience this … ; when I did this … ; try doing this …  It is wonderful! I don’t have to sort questions out in my mind and wait for the right time to ask. These ladies ‘just know’, when they think of something to tell me they just say it, and I know they are there for me (and for my daughter) when I do have questions or things I need to clarify. I don’t know if they realise it, but single-handedly (triple handedly?) they have made the process I am going through so much easier to deal with.

So, these examples show sympathy and empathy. I have no problem with these at all.

It is pity that annoys me.

I did not actually know what pity felt like until the other day. I am happy to say none of the people who know me have exhibited pity in any shape or form. It really is a despicable trait.

The pity I received came from a professional who should know better. A school counsellor. I had been called in, unnecessarily as it turns out (a form-filling exercise I could have done at home, but I’ll save that particular rant for another post), regarding the high-school transition process.

Arriving early, I made the rare decision to sit and wait in one of the lounge chairs in the front foyer. That may have been my downfall. The counsellor approached me, bent down, touched me on the shoulder, introduced herself then tried to help me up by my elbow. She then proceeded to guide me by my elbow up the corridor to her office.

I’m sorry … I have no hair, I had chemo three days prior and my head was a bit fuzzy … but I think I can walk 20 metres to the office. I am proud of  the remarkable self-restraint I displayed in not slapping her hand away.

The thing that really got me, though, was the pity in her eyes. It is impossible to describe — slightly squinty, downturned eyes combined with the sad mouth. This look did not leave her face the whole time I was there.

Now, I know different people react to things in different ways. (And following yesterday’s post on taking offence, I feel like a bit of hypocrite.) But, seriously, I do not want, nor do I need, anyone’s pity. Sympathy and empathy are fine because they both consider the person being sympathised with, but pity doesn’t. Pity is all about the person delivering it.

Martin Luther King, Jr. differentiates pity from sympathy by the level of personal concern. The fact I received pity from someone who did not know me at all might have something to do with it, but does not excuse it.

Having had this experience, I know I will think carefully before reacting to other people in the future.

As for me, I would rather have someone totally ignore my situation than pity me for it.


2 thoughts on “sympathy v pity

  1. I am amazed at the lack of empathy shown to you by a school counsellor!!!! No way should she be in a position to make people feel lousy by delving out, what I believe, to be pity that is totally false!! I agree, too, Kellie, that you don’t need pity. All you need is the wonderful group of people who look after your welfare daily and are with you all the way on your difficult journey. To think that a ‘trained’ counsellor was unable to hook onto your needs defies all reason.
    I support you all the way in your venting your anger!! Your are a very strong woman and an equally powerful writer. Keep writing, as what you write certainly makes a difference for me and no doubt a multitude of other people.
    I like this quote that I think to which you too will relate:
    ‘Be like the turtle – at ease in your own shell.’

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I was amazed too. However, she is but one person in a sea of wonderful people (such as yourself) who have totally humbled me by their care, thought and support. Love the turtle quote!


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