Pity is the feeling of tender concern for people in distress.
Especially in unfortunate situations, where people are perceived to be experiencing distress undeservedly, pity was originally understood as relating to sadness or despair. Pity can be a sincere experience that allows people who are feeling distress to realise others understand their predicament. If people know that someone understands their experience, it can be a relief. A clarifying voice that reflects on the unfortunate circumstances is a reassuring comfort that helps people gain perspective on their situation. When the unfortunate situation has implications for another, it’s reassuring to know the other is not angry, for it removes the fear of punishment that can add further load to an already stressful event.
A problem encountered with pity is when people’s pity is based on beliefs that the misfortune is due to a mistake caused by inferiority. As the inferiority can be deemed a contaminating behaviour, this can lead to pity being associated with people who look down their nose in contempt at the unfortunately distressed. A patronising air is created from the mixture of kindness and contempt. The distress of others is treated with a caring facade that masks the hidden feelings of contempt. As feelings of being judged and potential social fallout are added to the already stressful experience, this hinders more than it helps.
So, nowadays, pity has two definitions. First, people are genuinely reflecting on another’s distress (e.g. sadness or despair). Second, that people are being patronising by looking down their nose at another for getting into such a predicament and faking kindness.
Latin. Pietatem = piety, affection, duty.
1. Sympathetic or kindly sorrow evoked by the misfortune, suffering or distress of another.
2. To disregard feeling angry at someone who has caused us offence as their mistakes were due to them being inferior, and the distress that they are in is their fault. To look ‘down one’s nose’ at the mistakes or distress of another.