For some reason I have had three words rattling around in my head: compassion, pity and empathy. If you look up their definitions, they share similar meanings. They would be considered synonyms. I can’t quite use them in the same way, however, for some reason for me, they differ in meaning by degree. They have different places they are used best and should be used under different circumstances. To each his own, but to me each one wears a slightly different hat.
“Pity” has a shallow ring to it. I am always reminded of (NRSV) James 2.15-16: “15If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, 16and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” Feeling pity for someone means I feel sorry for them, but even more to the point I am glad it is them and not me. To pity someone there seems to be a “better than you” situation. I think we pity people who have what we perceive as character deficiencies. It is a word I seldom use. It seems to have a “nose in the air” feeling to it.
I am better with the word “compassion”. To feel compassion you have to get more into the skin of the individual involved. When there is a death in someone’s family I try to show compassion by really attempting to sense how they feel. To use compassion means it is not about me. I would hope people would see me as a compassionate person, who truly feels pain for others in their distress.
Then there is the word “empathy”. Actors try to become empathetic to the characters they are portraying. They have to get under their skin, to become that person as far as it is possible. It is perhaps the closest we come to the saying, “walking a mile in their moccasins”.
“Empathy” is the most difficult of the three because I can never truly know what it is like to be another person. My skin is white. How could I possibly know what it means to be black. Years ago there was a book entitled “Men are from Mars. Women are from Venus,” meaning neither sex could truly understand the other. There are some things in life you just have to accept. There is no way I can truly understand the parents who are refugees in Syria and must watch as their children are freezing to death in a humanitarian crisis. True empathy may be taking off your warm coat and giving it to someone who is suffering from the cold, thus putting yourself at risk. We must be very careful to never say the words “I know how you feel.” Every person, every situation is different and we must never presume to know.
I think the best we can hope for is compassion. “I am here for you. No, I don’t know what you are going through, but you hurt so therefore I hurt.”
I am not so sure I want involvement with the word “pity”. There is nothing I have done to be the person I am. I am not better than anyone else. If I am blessed with health, intelligence, and security then in compassion I am to share.
Words do have meaning. Words are powerful and we must be careful how we use them. A word has life when it is spoken or used in communication. What we convey by those words depends on how we interact and communicate with the people to whom they are addressed. So it is better to speak little and listen before we speak.
I read three good quotations in one day last week. I find I like to let the ideas tumble around in my head for awhile and it is amazing what my brain cells come up with. Mythology says that Athena, the goddess of wisdom, was created full blown from the mind of Zeus. I wonder if that means that ideas, when allowed to rest in our minds for a time, will spring into being fully formed?
Anyway, the first two ideas were from Father Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, philosopher, and contemplative.
Unless our hearts are transformed, our fears will continue to manipulate our politics, reinforcing a polarized and divided society.
Our job — tear down walls and build bridges.
Now both of these quotations create an umbrella over our current political situation. I listened to hearings from the House of Representatives the other day. The individual subjected to nine hours of questioning, for all practical purposes could have been somewhere else. There were no substantive questions, only accusations, and the view of the House of Representatives’ committee tearing each other to pieces with personal innuendos was an embarrassing view of what was supposed to be democracy in action. It was partisan politics at its worst, regardless of your political persuasion.
What are we going to do to turn this farce around? Both sides cry out for “freedom and democracy” and all we are doing is creating a self-fulfilling prophecy centered on the quotations above. We are a polarized and divided society and we are building walls and digging chasms between each other that will take a generation or more to repair. As I get older I sometimes see a vision of a bombed out city, maybe I watched Planet of the Apes or too many sci-fit movies. Culture and an organized society are gone and like medieval Europe the land is ruled by a few lords who control vast swaths of the country. All sense of organized rule or government is gone. The crux of the story is always, we did it to ourselves.
Building bridges is such a basic exercise in creating peace and justice for all. We begin by forgetting about ourselves and our ideas and focusing instead on people, those near to us, but also around the world. And we do it by putting a face on the billions who live and work with us on this planet. When speaking about the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin said it so well, "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety."
My third quotation is one from Bill Moyers, contemporary historian and journalist, on a subject of much concern to all Americans. The antidote, the only antidote, to the power of organized money in Washington is the power of organized people.
The political action committees have taken over our elections and we are pawns to the amount of money they will spend to elect one-issue candidates to office. The amount of money being poured into Montana, for example, in this Senatorial race is frightening. It goes back to our early history when Senators bought their seats in Congress. It is why we had to pass the 17th Amendment (1913) for direct election of Senators to be sure they represented the will of the people. The prime example was Montana’s Senator William A. Clark who spent huge sums to get elected to Congress. He tried once and failed. (The following is from a website sponsored by the U.S. Senate historical society)
“Nine years after his initial disappointment in 1890, William Clark won the Senate seat he so avidly desired, presenting his credentials on December 4, 1899. The Senate admitted him immediately, although on the same day his opponents filed a petition charging that Clark had secured his election through bribery. The memorial asserted that Clark had spent far more on his election than the $2,000 permitted by an 1895 Montana law aimed at controlling political corruption. The Senate referred the matter to the Committee on Privileges and Elections, which quickly asked for and received authorization to conduct a full investigation into Clark's election.
On April 23, 1900, after hearing extensive testimony from ninety-six witnesses, the committee returned a report unanimously concluding that William Clark was not entitled to his seat. The testimony detailed a dazzling list of bribes ranging from $240 to $100,000. In a high-pressure, well-organized scheme coordinated by Clark's son, Clark's agents had paid mortgages, purchased ranches, paid debts, financed banks, and blatantly presented envelopes of cash to legislators. In addition, the winning margin in Clark's election had been secured by the votes of eleven Republican legislators under suspicious circumstances. Clark did not enhance his position when he admitted that he had destroyed all his personal checks that dealt with campaign transactions.”
How we say “no” and then support our candidates with our money will be a huge move in freeing this country from outside control (Russian and others) of what should be free and open elections. It will place in office men and women who owe no allegiance other than to the people and the Constitution of the United States.
It is good to read other ideas and let them roll around in your head. May the Goddess of Wisdom guide us in freeing ourselves from old stereotypes and allow us to see people and issues in new and liberating ways.
Just as a doctor has instruments, a musician music, and a builder tools, so readers and writers have the tools of their trade -- words.
I think I’ve been in love with words ever since I can remember. There are words that have power. One evening, I watched “Mr. Smith goes to Washington,” starring Jimmy Stewart. The movie was produced about the time of the Second World War because Americans needed to feel patriotic. Movie producers and politicians knew that words used in the right way could move a nation into action.
Think of the words associated with the founding of our country: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights among these being life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. . .” “We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity. . .”With malice toward none, with charity for all. . .”
There are mysterious words, words with rhythm and words that “trip along lightly on the tongue. . .” There are words that are a challenge, like medulla oblongata and Azerbijan. Some words define themselves by their very pronunciation: ennui (boredom, listlessness), writhing ( to twist as in pain, struggle or embarrassment), gotterdammerung (German word used in the English language for a turbulent ending of a regime or an institution). Others by their brevity say all that has to be said: faith, hope, love, death, life.
From the charm of the individual words, the writer and/or reader moves on to combinations of words that fascinate, like “Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers.” Or the words that lead into realms or places of the unreal or fantastic: “Last night I dreamed I returned again to Manderley.”
Descriptions are the judicious choice of words to evoke a feeling, an image or a place. Masters of the craft of writing are those who search for just the right word. Poet Kathleen Norris said a poem had taken her as long as two years to write because she needed just the right word.
I know my love for mystery novels comes from their way of evoking a sense of place: Brother Cadfael in the Middle Ages, Miss Marple in Saint Marymede -- watching the comings and goings of her neighbors -- or a new mystery set among the Kiowa people of the mid-1800s. The Navajo-Hopi reservations and the work of Joe Leaphorn in the Tony Hillerman mysteries, or the works of Dashiell Hammett in the back alleys and dark streets of the new cities of midcentury America.
Words have the power to kill. The fifth commandment, “You shall not kill” refers to more than mortally injuring someone. It is killing hopes and dreams, the reputation, the self-esteem, the purpose for living of the intended victim. The epistle of James in the New Testaments says: How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. . .no one can tame the tongue. . .from the same mouth come blessing and cursing. . .”
So why, with the wonderful storehouse full of millions of words and their combinations do we grant such high favor in our society to “gutter talk.” Why are people who speak properly when expressing their feelings derided for showing off? For years Readers’ Digest magazine has attempted to improve our language by the feature “Increasing your word power,” offering a good way to practice learning words that make our language more meaningful and colorful.
Of course, the best writing is simple and succinct, and one does not need a 25 cent word when a 5 cent word will do, but there is a subtle beauty in words that make one cry, that lift one’s spirits, that give one courage, that can challenge people beyond themselves.
Thoughts on “words”:
It is with a word as with an arrow -- once let it loose and it does not return.
Cold words freeze people, and hot words scorch them. Bitter words make them bitter and wrathful words makes them wrathful. Kind words also produce their own image on men’s souls; and a beautiful image it is. They sooth, and quiet, and comfort the hearer. -- Pascal
There is no power like that of oratory. Caesar controlled men by exciting their fears. Cicero by captivating their affections and swaying their passions. The influence of the one perished with its author, that of the other continues to this day. -- Henry Clay
There are five tests of the evidence of education -- correctness and precision in the use of the mother tongue; refined and gentle manners, the result of fixed habits of thought and action; sound standards of appreciation of beauty and of worth; and a character based on those standards; power and habit of reflection.