Compassion’s Near Enemy (Includes Video)


Reading: Excerpt from The Cruelest Month          
By Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month is the third book in a series of murder mysteries by Louise Penny.  Chief Inspector Gamache is the protagonist, an archetypal wise old man, possessed of intuition and wisdom, and the humility to listen to, and to learn from, those around him.  In this excerpt, Chief Inspector Gamache learns something that will help him unlock the case at hand, through a conversation with Myrna, a former psychologist turned bookstore owner.  We begin with Myrna’s words:

“The near enemy [is] a psychological concept.  Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites.  The one parades as the other, is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other’s sick, twisted…”

[Gamache] leaned forward and spoke, his voice low, “Can you give me an example?”

“There are three couplings,” said Myrna, herself leaning forward now, and whispering though she didn’t know why.  “Attachment masquerades as Love,  Pity as Compassion and Indifference as Equanimity…”

“I don’t understand,” Gamache said… “Can you explain?”

Myrna nodded.  “Pity and compassion are the easiest to understand.  Compassion involves empathy.  You see the stricken person as an equal.  Pity doesn’t.  If you pity someone you feel superior.”

“But it’s hard to tell one from the other,” Gamache nodded.

“Exactly. Even for the person feeling it.  Almost everyone would claim to be full of compassion.  It’s one of the noble emotions.  But really, it’s pity they feel.”

“So pity is the near enemy of compassion,” said Gamache slowly, mulling it over.

“That’s right.  It looks like compassion, acts like compassion, but is actually the opposite of it.  And as long as pity’s in place there’s not room for compassion.  It destroys, squeezes out, the nobler emotion.”

“Because we fool ourselves into believing we’re feeling one, when we’re actually feeling the other.”

“Fool ourselves, and fool others,” said Myrna.[i]

The Sermon   

My mother and father-in-law had a casual friendship with Tore and Ulla-Stina.  The men were colleagues, their children friends, and they’d known each other for years.  On occasion they invited one another over for a meal, and they’d spent a few New Year’s Eves together.  I guess they were in their early 50’s when Tore went upstairs one afternoon to rest because he felt uncharacteristically tired after carrying groceries in from the car.  When Ulla-Stina went to check on him a while later, he was dead.

With the death or her spouse, Ulla-Stina was transformed from a friend to an object of pity in my in-laws’ eyes.  Suddenly actions that had been quite natural to their friendship, such as inviting Ulla-Stina to dinner, became acts of charity: “We should invite poor Ulla-Stina to dinner,” they’d say, or “I saw Ulla-Stina downtown today, poor thing!”  I even heard them say to one another “We’ve done our good deed for the day,” when she’d been over for dinner.

The truth is, compassion is challenging.  I imagine that, had my in-laws allowed themselves to feel compassion for Ulla-Stina instead of pity, they might have been forced to reckon with their own fears of losing one another.  Their own hearts might have broken a little, and they didn’t know that the same compassion that would render them vulnerable to broken hearts also had the power to heal them.  So they opted, probably completely unconsciously, for compassion’s near enemy: pity.

As Myrna said to Gamache, in the excerpt we heard earlier from Louise Penny’s book The Cruelest Month, “[pity] looks like compassion, acts like compassion, but is actually the opposite of it.  And as long as pity’s in place there’s not room for compassion.”

Compassion is the ability to feel another’s pain.   Pity is an inability, or unwillingness, to feel another’s pain.  The two feelings can’t exist simultaneously.

As you can well imagine, my in-laws’ relationship with Ulla-Stina soon dwindled to nothing.  The chasm created by their pity was simply too wide.  Had they been able to feel and share her sadness and grief, they might have grown closer instead of growing apart.  The pity that squeezed out their ability to feel what she was feeling became the wedge that separated them not only from her grief, and also from the strength and hopefulness that ultimately grew within her.

Ulla-Stina eventually moved on with her life, left town and remarried, claiming a future for herself that was quite different from the one their pity allowed them to anticipate for her.

I’ve come to understand that my in-laws’ response was, at least in part, culturally conditioned, just as my reaction to their response is shaped by my own cultural conditioning.

When Tore died, I was an American in my early 20’s, a decade or so after the human potential movement had begun to influence popular thought about the capacity of human beings to improve themselves and their lives.  It espoused the conviction that people could rise above the conditions into which they were born and the situations in which they found themselves.  The human potential movement focused almost exclusively on this potential in the individual. I am a child of those expectations, which were part of air I breathed throughout my childhood.

By contrast, Swedish society — back then, at least – focused on creating the best possible living and working conditions for all people, and there was little interest – or belief – in individual human growth and transformation.

Indeed, while I was being encouraged to reach for the stars, and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that people around me believed I actually could reach them, my grew up with the Swedish aphorism: You’re just as you’ve always been, which, in Swedish, also implies the inevitability that you will always be as you’ve always been.

In the home and culture I came from, there was a recurring struggle for survival and the basic necessities, right alongside a deep conviction that we could rise above our circumstances, and grow and be transformed through our struggles, while my future spouse and other Swedish friends had their basic needs met, and were discouraged from believing they might, or even could, change.

Put in theological terms, in the America of my childhood, salvation was individual, and consisted in personal growth and the fulfillment of one’s potential.  In the Sweden of my spouse’s childhood, salvation was collective, and lay in the creation and maintenance of systems that provided for at least the basic needs of everyone.

So how do I get from compassion and pity to salvation?

Well, when Ulla-Stina’s husband died, my in-laws completely lacked the reference point that would have allowed them to feel Ulla-Stina’s pain: the belief that we can grow and be transformed if we will allow ourselves to be present to our feelings.   And in the absence of that, what is the use of feeling our pain, let alone that of others?

Nearly three decades ago, I earned a Master’s Degree in Scandinavian Literature.  I’d imagined I would earn a PhD and become a professor, but I learned something along the way: The Swedish author whose work interested me enough for me to want to become a professor was an anomaly, since her stories centered around her protagonists’ personal growth.  Much of Scandinavian literature embodies a sense of powerlessness, of resignation to destiny.  Perhaps it is best expressed by Sweden’s most famous playwright, August Strindberg, in the recurring line spoken by the narrator of “A Dream Play:” “Humankind is to be pitied.”  Even the sentence structure is passive: It’s not “I feel sorry for people,” but “Humankind is to be pitied.”

My in-law’s expression with regard to Ulla-Stina, which I’ve translated as “Poor Ulla-Stina,” and “Poor thing!” is actually a passive sentence structure, too: Literally, it reads “It’s a pity for her.”  I think the passivity of the structure reflects the passivity of pity: It sees the object of pity as outside of agency and responsibility.  In the eyes of the person pitying, the pitied person is a helpless victim, condemned to passivity.

Of course, Ulla-Stina couldn’t change the fact that her husband had died, but his death did not render her incapable of acting or influencing her own future, and it did not render her incapable of ever being happy again.

My in-law’s pity precluded their know that, and it made an ongoing friendship with her impossible.  As Myrna says to Gamache, “Compassion involves empathy.  You see the stricken person as an equal.  Pity doesn’t.  If you pity someone you feel superior.’”

Superior, and thus, separate.

In The Cruelest Month, Myrna’s explanation of near enemies provides Gamache with important clues: It turns out the murderer is the woman who’s forever showing up to do things for others who seem to her to be in need.  She gives and gives, and on the surface, it looks like she’s acting out of compassion, but she feels herself superior to every “poor, unfortunate thing” who receives from her.  She feels utterly, terribly alone, even in the company of others, in a way that is possible only for those whose sense of superiority sets them apart from humanity, or whose self-pity sets them apart from themselves – I’ll get back to that in a moment.

The Scandinavian literature I might have spent my life teaching resembled more closely my in-laws’ world view than it did my own.  I have always had a belief in human agency.  I don’t mean to say that I believe human beings can order or control everything in the world, but I believe, perhaps in a typically American way, that people can grow and make their own lives, and the world, better.

To my way of thinking, an important part of that is developing compassion for ourselves.  Having compassion for ourselves enables us to be with ourselves through all that life brings. It allows us to behave as agents, capable of growth and change, capable of influencing our own lives.

By contrast, self-pity is passive; it denies our agency, our ability to be responsible and accountable, rendering us a hapless victims: Poor things!

I suspect that self-pity is often a defense mechanism – when we pity ourselves, we aren’t at risk of being disturbed by our own true feelings.

My mother-in-law suffered a severe stroke several years ago, about eight months before my terminally ill father-in-law died.  She lost more than 3 ½ of the four languages she spoke fluently.  She lost her ability to do her favorite things: read and solve crossword puzzles.  And she lost her husband of nearly 50 years.  Her losses were enormous, and sometimes, in brief moments, she allowed herself to feel them.  When she did, she became a receptor for compassion, and in those moments, there was room for other people.  But mostly, she felt sorry for herself – or tried to talk herself out of feeling sorry for herself. Both created an awful aloneness, for where pity is, there is no room for the tenderness of compassion.

If, instead of feeling sorry for ourselves, we can allow ourselves to experience our sadness, to face our losses, and to grieve them, including the losses of things hoped for, we treat ourselves with compassion.  The terrible loneliness is softened as we learn to be with ourselves, whether or not we are by oursevles.

Compassion for oneself can be powerfully healing. It is also the starting place that enables us to feel compassion for others, for it is only when we are willing to experience our own feelings that we can truly feel with others. I think this is the essence of Jesus’ commandment: You shall you’re your neighbor as yourself. For indeed, in order to love others, we must love ourselves.

When we pity another individual, or a group of people, instead of feeling with them, we see ourselves as separate, superior.  Pity ensures that we aren’t at risk of being disturbed by their feelings, or our own, including our fears that we might one day find ourselves in their situation.

If, instead of feeling sorry for others, we can allow ourselves to feel with them, we have a chance of truly knowing them, of truly being with them. In our interpersonal relatonships, and in our relationships with our neighbors — near and far –, compassion enables us to trust the agency of others, and to make common cause with people we’ve imagined are unlike ourselves, partnering with them in bringing about a more compassionate world. Rather than imagining ourselves “helping” others who “need us, poor things!,” we actually allow ourselves to be open to others – allowing their lives and experiences to touch and move us, even as ours touch and move them.

[i]Louise Penny, The Cruelest Month: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel. (Headline Publishing Group, 2007). Kindle Electronic Book.  Locations 4776-4803.