Pity vs. Compassion

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

My good friend K and I were talking on the phone the other day. We are so grateful to be traveling this infertility road together, but we are praying to get off this train very soon. Anyway, we have handled sharing about our infertility in very different ways.

She and her hubby have shared that they're trying for a kiddo with alot of people- but for the purposes of this compare/contrast post, it's most important that she's shared this with many of her friends (who are all monumentally fertile, of course). K is quick to point out that her friends simply know that they're trying- not all the tears and anguish and frustration that come alongside. Of course K and I hold nothing back when talking- we have both cried and thrown fits and everything else- when it comes to trying to do something that is portrayed as so simple. But she feels like if she shared with her friends all of the deep down nitty gritty funk that comes with trying for so long without success, it would make them feel uncomfortable.

They express pity towards her, which was what we were talking about the other day. She doesn't want to be pitied. She doesn't want people to say, "Oh, you poor little K..." while they are nursing their second baby in 2.5 years. She wants them to realize that there are alot of other great things about her life. Just like me, K is very goal-oriented, and there are few (if any) things that she has set out to do that she hasn't accomplished...except having a baby. It makes her uncomfortable to be pitied.

In response to this, I shared my (very different) perspective.

I have told only 3 of my friends from college. I haven't told anyone else. (This doesn't count our immediate families or the friends I have made through IF boards, etc.!) Of the three that I have told, only one has taken an active interest in our struggle. The other two (who have kids, by the way) have never asked me about it since I first told them, despite my great lack of pregnancy-announcing emails and my eloquent fairly-somber email about the lack of things going on with us.

So when I was talking to K, I told her that I actually want some compassion from my friends who know. I want them to email me and say, hey, I know you told me 3 years ago you were hoping for a baby, and I know you haven't told us you're expecting- is everything alright? I want them to think twice about sending me an email that complains about their having to find a babysitter so they can go to a movie. I want them to email me and ask how they can pray for us right now.

Do you think there is a difference between pity and compassion, when it comes to other people viewing your infertility?

For me, I think the difference might be that pity is more superficial, while compassion is a more active, deep way of caring for others in difficult circumstances. Compassion (to me) involves some sort of doing, not just saying "I'm so sorry about your lack of baby" and then returning to your obliviously-fertile life.

I don't even feel pity from my friends who know but don't say anything to me about it. I feel more denial from them. Like, maybe if they don't bring it up, I'll forget I told them and thought they might be a source of support. Or maybe it's my fault for not bringing it up to them again. But as I told K, my problem with bringing it up to them is that, if I am really honest, I'll tell them how much it hurts how they talk about their commodity-kids. I'll tell them how much it hurts that they don't ask how we're doing in that respect. I'll tell them how much it hurts to be left behind. (Disclaimer: I know that God has a specific plan for me, and that I'm not behind there, and that is very encouraging most days, but let's face it, sometimes I just feel left behind.)

And I think telling them all that would make them even more befuddled as to what to do next. Even more than them knowing that we were praying for a child 3 years ago and we still don't have one, and not wanting to ask me about it.

I think the only time I have ever really felt pity about not having a child was when I told the two girls mentioned above that we were trying, and they said (paraphrased), Oh, don't worry about it. I'm sure it will happen soon- we weren't even trying!, which now that I think of it is more just dimissal of my pain rather than pity. Everyone else who knows our story is extremely compassionate to us, and when I mentioned this, K said, "well maybe they [her friends] are being compassionate and I just can't see it...", but maybe they just aren't.

It is a very thin line to walk, as far as telling others about your infertility struggle or keeping it close. If you tell people, you open yourself up to responding to pity or denial, but gain the chance of receiving compassion. If you don't tell people, it's kind of unfair to fault them for lack of pity or compassion.

Have you noticed yourself responding differently to pity and compassion about your infertility?

K, if you're reading, thanks for walking this road with me (or taking this train, as we like to say). Here's praying this month is our baby stop. I appreciate your friendship so much, and thanks for being an inspiration to me!


Leah said...

Such a beautiful post A, and something I think of often.

I started my IF battle not telling hardly anyone. As the road continued to get longer, I opened up more, and it was a great source of healing for me.

There is definitely a difference between pity and compassion. I know this because I dealt with both. Compassion to me is wanting a person to have all that their heart desires. Pity is just feeling sorry for them. I hated pity. Because although I struggled with IF, I had many other wonderful things going on in my life.

I have so much more to say on this, but have to run to a meeting. :-D

Al said...

I loved this post, A, very well written. you said so much of what I'm feeling about all of this. I don't share with everyone but my close friends and family know we've been trying and failing and very very few of them actually respond or recognize the heartbreak. And although I don't always want to talk about my lack of baby, I would always welcome a hug or a how are you doing, or I've been thinking about you. Just something to know they are actively caring about what we're going through rather than feeling sorry for us, then never talking about it again.

I hope you get the compassion you need from your friends. Hugs.

Ann - Building a Nest said...

Of course, you know from my previous posts that I do not share this stuff with anyone – family or friends. Part of it is for this very reason. I just don’t want to be pitied. I get the support I need from the blogs, but everyone is different and we all have to judge our own comfort levels.

This isn’t based on any dictionary definition, but I always view “pity” as coming from a superior place. You pity (and look down on someone) who isn’t as good as you in whatever form. Compassion involves leveling one’s self with another’s suffering. You empathize with their pain and want it to be over.

I’ll be honest. I think some people just do not know how to handle these difficult situations. I am one of them. I, of course, can with IF because I have been there. When someone is going through something else (cancer treatment, foreclosure, for examples), I’m just at a loss on what to say or do. I pray for them, my heart aches for them, but what to DO and SAY is hard for me. I guess because of that I do try and give people the benefit of the doubt. They are dealing with emotions that they just don’t understand and are often times worried about saying the wrong thing. And, let’s face it, most of the times they do say the wrong thing.

Nice post.

Anonymous said...

This is a beautiful post, A, and one to which I deeply relate. I have shared our story with most of our family members and close friends and I can say that there is definitely a difference between pity and compassion. I don't want people to feel sorry for me. That's not why I tell them. I tell them so maybe they will be more understanding and compassionate with the things they say and do.

Unfortunately, many people--especially people outside of our IF circle--don't understand the difference.

I hope that the people in your life are more compassionate and understanding, rather than pitying.


Rachel said...

You did such a great job with this topic. I waited about a year and a half before telling anyone. I was even scared to tell my mom! I think that, besides being "pitied", my biggest fear is that if I said it out loud, that meant it was REAL.

I am so grateful to my friends and family for their support. I know they can't Empathize with me, but they are doing a great job Sympathizing with me! The people who I've told but have never mentioned again....I just hope they are praying for me and don't know what to say to me (and if they don't know what to say, I would rather them keep their mouths shut instead of a "just relax/just adopt/it will happen"!!)

the misfit said...

Agreed that the line to walk with telling others is a fine one indeed. With people with whom I have a more superficial relationship (acquaintances, coworkers), when I have had to bring it up, I keep it cheery - "Oh, seeing a doctor, getting some medicine, we'll see." And I imply that if it doesn't work, that's just fine too. With people I know really well, I haven't dumped a whole bunch of emotion on them (OK, honesty: ANY emotion. Nobody but my husband - and the dear fellow bloggers - ever sees me in tears or hysterics about it at all). But they know that it's not necessarily "no big deal." They also know because they assume, because family is important to them also.

As for pity and compassion - I was always told that pity is dehumanizing, what you feel for someone you think is worth less than you (and you may feel that precisely because he is suffering), and compassion is what you feel for someone you love and respect - whom you are "suffering WITH" (etymological root of compassion). I haven't thought about it much in the infertility context, but I guess in practical terms that would boil down to whether their attitude is "nothing like this could ever happen to me," or not. I have devoutly religious friends - who are obviously extremely fertile - who talk about their future in terms of "if God blesses us with another child." They are telegraphing to me that they know they have done nothing to deserve their blessings, they're not more worthy than I am, and what they have could be taken away. I didn't know how much I needed to hear that until I heard it. And there are others who appreciate for me that this cross is heavy - and who know I'm not specially accursed or wretched, because they carry crosses of their own: illness, the death of a loved one, divorce, heartbreak, loneliness. I suffer. They suffer. Not in the same way, but they get it. (I have commiserated with single friends about how we respectively do not want to attend another bridal, or baby, shower ever again, and certainly not throw one.) That makes it OK to share with them. The people who view me as a project, who think they have to figure out how to say the "right" thing (which is almost always the wrong thing) - some of those people are compassionate but incompetent, but that is generally not compassion in the strict sense. When I am defined as an object of their charity (rather than their love - I appreciate that these words are synonyms theologically, but their different connotations in our culture make my point), then I am *other*, and the other, if suffering, is to be pitied. I don't need that. I also don't need to be ignored by people who find my suffering uncomfortable (that attitude will not serve them well when they have a parent die or a kid in the hospital and wish for the compassion of others). And, because I'm more cynical than you, I conclude that I don't need the people who behave that way - at all.

the misfit said...

Eesh - look at the novel I wrote. Sorry about that.

Basic Girl said...

You are an amazing writer A! This really was beautiful, and I find myself in such a similar situation. I certainly do not want people to pity me, it even sounds yucky to say. I know I'm lucky for so many reasons, and life at the current moment is really really good...and a baby would just enhance that.

My super fertile best friend recently asked me how she could support me in my ttc journey. At first I felt offended that I had to be singled out, like she didn't know how to deal with me. But then I realized that she just truly didn't understand what I was going through, so how could she possibly know what I needed. Some days I don't even know what I need. My advice was to just be my friend, to remember what I'm going through, ask me how I'm doing every so often, and don't treat me differently...just be there for me.

Thinking of you, hope the tww is flying by and you'll be off this train soon!! ((hugs))

Melissa said...

I couldn't have written it better. Totally agree. I always get the "poor thing" look and then I feel bad for even saying abything to them.

Anonymous said...

This is so thoughtful and well-written, I really enjoyed this post. I like the distinction you make between compassion and pity and I think it's right on. Compassion is love and understanding. Pity is not for me.

Andrea said...

I feel like in a way pity is something you will only get from people who have what you don't have (and want). I feel like the only people who pitied me when I had my miscarriage were people who had babies and had never had a m/c or IF before. Almost like, "oh poor you, too bad you aren't like me" kind of thing. I received compassion mainly from people who had been through something similar, but also from some of my friends who weren't even TTC. However, I feel like they cared enough to put themselves in my shoes. And that's why I don't like pity, because it makes me feel like there's something wrong with me.

I feel the same way you do though. I wanted compassion from people so badly. But unfortunately I didn't get it from many of the people who knew we were TTC and had a m/c. I don't think many of them pitied me, I think they just dismissed it like you were saying.

AplusB said...

I'm so afraid of pity, which is why I don't tell many people. I did tell one friend, who hasn't mentioned it once...like you said, maybe it's denial. It's so sad that our society has created such misunderstanding and fear and shame about infertility. I know that the blogging community has been my saving grace. You girls actually UNDERSTAND! And it is so, so comforting to know there are others out there going through the same thing as me.

Anonymous said...

I haven't hidden anything from my friends and family. My friends...well, they're barely my friends anymore. Mostly b/c they chose to ignore what I'm going through, and insist on using our phone calls to put their kids on the line. Also, I think because they don't know what to do or what to say, so they chose not to say anything at all.
My family has been incredibly supportive, but I don't share the monthly heartache with them b/c I need to just feel the pain and move on and other than my older sister, no one would know what to say to me to make me feel better.
Pity is definitely different than compassion. Pity is a demeaning thing almost, a contemptuous, superior type of attitude, and is not at all an appropriate or welcome sentiment. But that's just my opinion...

Anonymous said...

This was a great post. And I totally get what you are saying. I feel like for me the 3 friends I have told have been pretty good about it. The closest 2 have asked me what was going on in a compassionate I care kinda way, and I really appreciated it. It made me feel like they actually cared about me and wanted to know what they could pray about. The other one didn't even give me pity. I don't want pity, but I wanted to be acknowleged for what I was going through. She just said, it'll happen. Um, thanks. And the one friend I told a LONG time ago that we were starting TTC finally asked me (a year long) is everything was ok. But it was an uncomforable "I don't really want to know details" kinda thing. It was really awkward as she is preggo and has a one year and just doesn't understand. But I appreciated her asking...I guess. So yah, I want compassion, but I don't want pity. I don't want to be ignored, but I don't want to be bothered by endless questions either. I guess the two girls that REALLY know are compassion enough for me. But it would be nice to not have the other few that know not ignore me like it'll go away or something.

BelowAverageAthlete said...

Great thought provoking post. We have been fairly open about our journey. There some days I regret it and some days I am glad. I have been let down by some people and others have unexpectedly showed up more than I thought they would. In the end, I am glad we shared because I can be true to what I am going through.

Honestly, I think people just do not know what to do or say. I try to take the attitude that it is more about them than me. I try to communicate most things about it over e-mail, so I don't have to see the pity on their faces, and in return they can send me more thoughtful encouraging words that they have thought through. Unfortunately, I cannot tell them what to do because it is such a roller coaster and different from day to day.

Joy Beyond the Cross said...

Great post! I am fairly new to this infertily "train", we have been trying since our wedding in May 08 and miscarried twice. Anyway, my lowly two cents on this topic is that I usually give people the benefit of the doubt. I agree wholeheartedly with Ann, sometimes (and this does not apply to all people - but I have found most), people just don't know what to say and are afraid of making it worse, so they don't say anything at all. (Yeah, kind of backwards, but heh, it is a coping mechanism). I was diagnosed with cancer 1 month after my college graduation (NH lymphoma). I was pretty open with it (hello - I lost all my hair...it was bit hard to hide it), and yet, one of dearest friends, a roommate of mine in college basically didn't acknowledge my illness or talk to me much about it all until I was done with treatment (umm...which took 9 months!). At the time, I couldn't understand why she was being that way, we didn't live close to each other (I had moved back home after school), but a phone call or an e-mail every now and then would have been nice. After my treatment, we resumed our friendship almost like nothing happened. I am convinced that she just didn't know what to say and was just ignoring the big elephant in the room and was hoping that I would get better. That was her coping mechanism. I don't know if any of this helps...probably not. But thanks for posting, it is a relevant topic. God Bless!

Hillary said...

Such an interesting post, although I can't really think of ever feeling pitied. How crazy (and wonderful) is that?!? We are very open about our IF with our friends, church family, and DH's family and I have only had *one* bad comment. And it wasn't pity, it was just a "get over it" kind of thing. I feel very blessed to say that everyone has walked with us with much compassion and love.

Jessica said...

You have an award on my page!

Jeremiah 29:11 said...

Excellent post!! (Sorry I'm so slow in commenting... I'm getting caught up today.)

This is a topic that I have thought about a lot - especially recently. I agree that for most people, they are doing the best they can to love and support us. That being said, it doesn't change the way they can make us feel. I often feel "pitied" when perhaps they don't intend to be "pitying" us. Does that make sense?

I have had a couple of experiences recently where my friends have to tell me they are pregnant and THEY are the ones crying. This means that I end up consoling them! That is when I start to feel pitied... I really don't want others crying about my infertility if I'm not.

*Sigh* This IF road is so complicated.