A twist on Pity
I was preaching a sermon on Pity. At some point during the appointed 13 minutes my insides imploded. It was March of 2011. I still have the sermon, though I cannot pinpoint the moment my life's course changed. (I just listened to a recording of the sermon, and still can't discern the "moment", though I see some likely spots.)
This blog is a short reflection on one aspect of Pity that presents itself whenever I hear about Compassion, one of the four "Divine Abodes" of Buddhism. (The complete list is below).
For a number of years now I have ended my emails with the phrase "It's all about Grace". This can be taken as a statement of theology or simply practical living. I mean it as both. The opposite of this would be, "It's all about Law - or doing the Right Things". The church has, at its best, taught the former while endlessly defaulting to the latter.
Doing Right Things is clearly not bad. Doing Right Things can and does lead to half-hearted compassion and/or rigid judgement. This double edged sword is always present when one approaches or tries to live into Pure Grace.
A prayer I say daily is this: "May I find my rest in compassion." It seems to sum up my heart's desire, and what, I believe, is the best medicine for the heart. I long for a soul at peace. Compassion, or grace immersion, leads to peace.
Here's where the dhamma teaching comes onto the scene. Compassion is one of the "Divine Abodes", along with loving kindness, etc.. Each of these attitudes are attended by "near" and "far" enemies. In the same way that Doing Right Things (or doing things right) is attended by half-hearted compassion and/or rigid judgement, so Compassion is attended by pity and cruelty.
(NB the definition of near and far enemies below)
Pity, then, is compassion in a dangerous disguise. I don't mean to imply here that pity is useless and entirely negative. The Hebrew word,
can mean pity, mercy and compassion, and is used in all three senses in Isaiah 49, which was the text of my 2011 sermon.
I think, really, that my sermon was about compassion, but Pity ended up being the leitmotif I ran with. I was thinking in that sermon of pity-worthy characters of the Romance Era novels of Hugo, Dickens, Shelley, Austen, Eliot, et al. (Tom Pinch, Jean Valjean, Quasimodo).
The problem with Pity by itself is that it carries a certain haughtiness...a looking down on someone else. Compassion, in its purest expression, gets alongside of suffering. Mercy is that which flows from compassion. Pity, in this sense may be that which first attracts our attention to suffering.
I'm not so much worried about cruelty, the far enemy of compassion. That is just not in my character; at least not in any overt or active sense. Passive aggression I know how to do, and it is not pretty, nor particularly commendable.
In this sermon I allude to the two questions of engagement I proposed were whether we had recently experienced the giving of pity or the wish to be the recipients of someone else's pity. My silent implosion was obviously a reflection of the latter, as I labored to be faithful to the former.
Which brings me back to Compassion...the rest of a misty sunrise.
Heavenly or sublime abodes (best home). Near enemy is a quality that can masquerade as the original, but is not the original. Far enemy is the opposite quality.
- Lovingkindness, good-will (metta): Near enemy – attachment; far enemy – hatred
- Compassion (karuna): Near enemy – pity; far enemy – cruelty
- Sympathetic joy, Appreciation (mudita), joy at the good fortune of others: Near enemy – comparison,hypocrisy, insincerity, joy for others but tinged with identification (my team, my child); far enemy – envy
- Equanimity (upekkha): Near enemy – indifference; far enemy – anxiety, greed