Years ago, I was walking through the streets of Kathmandu and turned a corner onto a fairly empty side street where I found a ragged beggar who just then happened to be waving to a friend of his across the street from him. The beggar greeted his friend cheerfully and clearly took pleasure at seeing him, but his mood changed instantly once he noticed me, a Western traveller and hence, obviously rich. He seemed to experience a brief moment of identity crisis, as if he had been unmasked by his moment of unguarded happiness. But then, like an actor resuming his role after stumbling out of character, he immediately dropped the happy attitude he had been showing and turned to me with a look of abject misery and held out his hands imploringly for some baksheesh. No doubt his pains were real enough. Being a beggar in Nepal, one of the poorest countries in the world, must surely offer little more than a life of deprivation with few satisfactions. Yet the sudden transition from spontaneous, unrehearsed joy to the stereotyped expression of suffering was undeniably comic and when I smiled at him he seemed to accept that there was no point in carrying on with his act. In fact, in Nepal, as in so many poor countries, beggary is a way of life, virtually an occupation. And just as there are customs for every other station in life, there are customs that govern that occupation, too. By letting me catch him in a moment of undisguised happiness, the beggar seemed to violate a rule of presentation. A beggar must never appear less than miserable lest the pretext for provoking pity in others becomes open to doubt, for it is the spectacle of his suffering that is the means by which he earns his living. Given their living conditions, beggars can hardly be blamed for having to present themselves in such a demeaning fashion. We should also observe that the economic conditions which force them to become beggars add evidence to a serious argument that has long been made against a global economic system which casts untold millions into such hopeless poverty. But a sophisticated argument about the inequities of capitalism may overlook the more immediate, psychological transaction between beggars and potential donors. What is it about their respective roles that reveals something about the human condition?
Pity, as I have noted, is the crucial bond that unites beggar and donor, as the suffering of the one elicits charity from the other. But to be the recipient of such pity requires not just poverty, but also a visible demonstration of the pain and helplessness that poverty causes. The donor, of course, is in a much more favourable position in this transaction, yet he may still feel uneasy about the nature of the exchange. Although he might see himself as a benefactor whose act of charity helps provide the beggar with his daily bread, he might also recognise how his paltry offering does little more than sustain the beggar in his wretched condition. In a better world, both donor and beggar might hope that something more could be done to reduce the beggar's misery and perhaps even rescue him from it. But there are always limits to what anybody can do in any given situation and sometimes a small act of charity may be the best that can be done. If, however, the intention behind pity never sees beyond the small objective of offering temporary relief to someone in chronic suffering, pity remains trivial and somehow demeaning. It is no more than a ritual gesture, a mere nod to the fact of suffering without any interest in becoming fully cognizant of the experience of suffering. It is little more than Compassion Lite.
Traditionally, Buddhism has always observed the necessity of linking compassion to wisdom, if only to observe the limits of what compassion can do to alleviate suffering in any particular case. When, for example, someone is suffering a fatal disease we should do what we can to ameliorate the pain without losing sight of the fact that death is inevitable--that death is in fact an existential inevitability. Similarly, in regarding some unexpected disaster, we should offer help in the aftermath, while recognising that it may not be in our power to do anything to rectify the loss. But wisdom about suffering means much more than recognising the limits of compassion. It also means recognising the experience, as well as the fact of suffering, so that compassion leads both to the sensitive expression of that recognition, as well as to effective action. For compassion may be as much an act of communication as it is an act of charity. It is also what distinguishes compassion from mere pity. Although compassion might first arise as a feeling of pity, it requires a certain attentive interest for it to become a deeper, more considered response. This does not mean that the expression of compassion must be verbal. But it must be sensitive and considered as an expression of care.
It should be obvious then that while compassion must have an essential role in psychotherapy, pity should have no place in it at all. Yet, anybody who has worked as a counsellor or psychotherapist will have had the experience of encountering clients who have come into therapy after experiencing some terrible misfortune which seemed to provoke a feeling of helplessness in both himself and the client. Facing some serious illness or impending death or some other seemingly total loss can make a client feel utterly bereft of hope; moreover, such hopelessness may appear to be an entirely appropriate response even to the therapist. The temptation of the therapist then might be to offer pity as a salve to the suffering the client presents. But this would only encourage the client to indulge in self pity, which is certainly among the worst ways of dealing with tragedy or loss. It would be as if both client and therapist agreed to share in the fellow feeling of despair, which might alleviate the feeling of emotional isolation in the client, but would do nothing to develop self insight or find better possibilities for his actual situation. To be sure, false optimism or blind faith in positive thinking can, in the long run, be just as self defeating. But finding true hope and authentic possibility in the darkest, most hopeless of circumstances is one of the great benefits that psychotherapy can offer. But it takes time and effort, as well as a willingness to experience the pain of loss.
Living in a world without pity would be to live in a heartless, uncaring world. But finding compassion in a world in which suffering is certain is a way of enduring, as well as making sense of it.