28 August, 2009

Sympathy and Pity

Before going into my thoughts about sympathy, I’d like for you to take a look at the definition of sympathy.  The Merriam-Webster online dictionary provides one definition for sympathy as: “3a : the act or capacity of entering into or sharing the feelings or interests of another b : the feeling or mental state brought about by such sensitivity <have sympathy for the poor>.

Feeling sorry for someone is a completely disempowering conversation.  It not only disempowers you, but it also disempowers the person for whom you feel sorry.  When we are disempowered around someone, we have no place from which to stand in order to be of help to them or others.  Possibly, our only thoughts are of comforting that person by holding them, stroking them, or simply offering words of understanding or care.

[Please understand this in the light from which I’m speaking.  I’m not saying that there isn’t a time when holding someone isn’t the appropriate action to take.  Possibly after getting really bad news, learning that a loved one has passed away, or receiving a life-threatening diagnosis, people need to grieve.  They need to be with the hurt, the pain, the sadness, and the possibility of losing someone, something, or the possibility that they might die.  (A person must first accept his circumstances as they are before he can powerfully take action to transform those circumstances.)  These are times when a person appropriately needs to be comforted.]

However, leaving someone in that state or condition for any length of time serves no purpose for us or them.  If we really are living to serve others, we know that there is a need for us to help an individual who is in despair to see that there is hope available and provide him with a place to stand in order that he may make a difference in his life or the life of another.

Maybe you’ve had the same experience that I have when seeing a homeless person who has physical problems and limitations; or, someone who is sleeping on the streets, begging for money, and possibly doesn’t seem capable of caring for him or herself.  Maybe you, like me, have turned away so that you didn’t have to look at him or her.  Or maybe you stole glances when you thought it wouldn’t be too obvious to them.  In that experience, how did you make a difference for that person?  (I’m not putting anyone down here or trying to make you feel bad.  I’m just pointing to something powerful that I want you to see.)

Consider this [and please, again, understand this in the light in which I write this]:  we’ve seen millions of dollars poured into third-world countries in order to fight or eradicate hunger, pestilence, disease, and lack of shelter.  In that outpouring of money, have we [the world] made a difference for those countries?  Aren’t they in pretty much the same condition as when we first knew of their condition(s)?  Is it possible that throwing money at a problem is not the solution?  Could it be possible that changing our way of thinking about these issues and taking different actions might make a difference for these peoples and these countries?  (Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity is: “Doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.”)

Simply put, sympathy provides us with no place to stand powerfully for others or for their transformation.  When we are operating out of sympathy, are we not simply disempowered persons trying to comfort other disempowered persons?  What will the result of this always be – two persons left disempowered!  How is that going to help the other person?  How is that being of service to him or her?

Instead of taking on the disempowering context of sympathy, our minds should be set on thinking about things that would make a difference in the lives of others.  Consider what would happen if we changed from being a sympathetic people to a people of compassion.  The Merriam-Webster online dictionary defines compassion as: “sympathetic consciousness of others' distress together with a desire to alleviate it” [underline added].  So, we see that compassion is needed instead of sympathy.  And with compassion comes a desire to alleviate the state of affairs with which we are concerned.

Going back to our past way of being; as a nation it’s become habitual to simply throw money at situations of need which require transformation.  Money, to my knowledge, has never transformed anything.  If anything, consider that money is a magnifier - actually magnifying the issue(s) that it’s intended to “fix.”

I can’t help but look at the countries into which we’ve poured millions of dollars through government aid and countless charitable organizations in an effort to alleviate poverty, starvation, disease, etc. and I still see the same issues continue on with no signs of a slow-down of growth in sight.  One simply needs to look at the nation of Africa and its AIDS pandemic.  Money has been thrown at the problem, funneled in from many varied sources, and has provided AIDS related drugs to prolong the life-expectancy of those living with AIDS.  Did the money stop the spread of AIDS, or lessen the death-toll of AIDS related deaths?  Absolutely not!

There’s an old saying; a very wise Chinese proverb that reads, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day.  Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  Looking at this paradigm, I’m suggesting that giving money for the purpose of food, medicine, shelter, clothing, etc., doesn’t solve the problem – it only creates more need in those areas.

What does make a difference is education.  Provide sex-education to the nation of Africa and school them on sexually transmitted diseases and AIDS prevention.  Provide education to impoverished countries teaching their people to fish, farm, make clothing, and make crafts and other things that can be sold.  Teach them of the services they can provide for others in order to make money.  What works – and I state this by observation of things I’ve seen in this country – is to provide people with a vision of a state of wealth, a state of health, a state of self-sufficiency.  Our focus on the need has created an endless reliance of others on our welfare.

In a nutshell, I’m saying that we have been responsible for creating and maintaining welfare states throughout the world by the acts of our charities.  We’ve focused on giving – but we’ve been giving the wrong thing.  Remember that seeing things through an eye of compassion seeks to alleviate the need – not create a dependency upon the hand that feeds.

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