feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune.
the ability to understand and share the feelings of another
the feeling of sorrow and compassion caused by the suffering and misfortunes of others.
These three words, I’ve found, are used pretty interchangeably, and that is a mistake. Two of them are selfish emotions, and one is, if not selfless, at least takes others into account. Pity is an ugly feeling, and should be avoided. Sympathy can be useful, but to me it implies distance with the subject and a self-involved dynamic where you feel bad because some else feels bad. But empathy is, I think, a beautiful emotion. It implies human
connection, it urges it, it fosters it. Empathy connects people because it is part of the sharing of the human experience. Empathy should be sought and employed by you as often as necessary, and you should not fear it.
All this to say that when people around you, particularly those that you’re really close to, are having difficult times, dealing with tragedy or death or illness or pain, they get treated differently, and for the most part, that sucks. People don’t like being the object of pity, and your sympathy doesn’t do shit to help them with whatever is going on. People tiptoe around them and treat them with kid gloves, and really, that can make things harder- not only are they dealing with whatever the difficult personal situation is, everyone around you treats you like the sick pariah, like the sob story over in cubicle twelve, and not the human being that they are.
So if you are close to someone, if they count on you and you count on them and they trust
you implicitly and your relationship goes deeper than casual conversation, when things go sideways for them, the best thing you can do is be the same way to them that you always are. Sure, empathize. But part of that empathy should be to recognize how much you hated being treated like you were made of glass when you last dealt with anything like what your friend is currently going through.
Hold them to the same standards. Don’t pity them, and don’t allow them to pity themselves, and call them on their bullshit. After September 11th, Saturday Night Live had Rudy Giuliani come on during the cold open and ceremonially give New York City permission to laugh again. But laughing is how people deal with tragedy. Mel Brooks said,
‘Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy
is when you fall into an open sewer and die.’
It’s just human nature, and it’s how you can hear all the awful bullshit that goes on in the world every day and still smile and not constantly see the world as the cold, bleak, murderous, violent hulk spinning through the Solar System that it is. But people are afraid to laugh around people who are having tough times. Afraid, often enough, to laugh with them, or laugh at them.
So if you’ve got that ball-busting dynamic with a friend of yours who suddenly finds himself cancer-stricken and you’re not making fun of his newly-shorn lumpy head, an object that would normally be primed for derision, well then something is different about you, and about your dynamic. And you will feel it, and feel awkward, but worse, he will feel it, and too, this normal bit of his life will no longer be normal, and he will have one less thing familiar to find comfort in, and indeed his time in pain will be that much harder.
People still want to feel normal. They still are normal. They still want to deal with normal. It means they don’t have to, for the moments of dealing with normal, have to deal with the moments so absurdly abnormal as pouring liquid death through their bodies to eradicate the cells that have revolted against them.
*SPOILERS FOR A 15 YEAR OLD TELEVISION SHOW AHEAD*
In the great television series, The West Wing, the third season premires following the revelation that the President has MS, and that he hid it from voters during the election. His staff, for the most part, has found out only days and hours before it is revealed to the public, and are having trouble dealing with this new information. The below clip is of the press secretary, C.J. Cregg (Allison Janney) giving a briefing talking about deploying troops to Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the President’s revelation:
She says, ‘To be honest with you, Carl, I think the President is relieved to be focusing on something that matters.’ Obviously, in the context of the show, this is a huge misstep by the President’s press secretary, but I think it relays an ultimate truth about people dealing with hard times. Drawing their attention elsewhere is a relief from an otherwise constant mental cycle of thinking about whatever really difficult situation someone is in.
So I suggest treating people in crisis the same- don’t be overly hard on them, but don’t pull your punches. Let them know in whatever way your relationship dictates that they are going to get from you (and in turn give to you) the same they always have, that they can count on you to be the same, on your relationship not to change, and that you, too, are counting on them to be there for you, despite what they’re dealing with. Knowing someone is counting on them can be a huge boost to someone dealing with rough times.
Be that person in their life that is a constant, that will be there for them in the same way no matter where the road of life takes them. Because often enough that’s exactly what people need. Don’t let the situation dictate the nature of your relationship.