By Angie Washington
COCHABAMBA, BOLIVIA — Pity is the lazy cousin of compassion. A small girl sits on a swing. Not a week has passed since she was removed from an abusive situation and put in the orphanage.
Her feet are covered in sores. She must be carried from place to place. One hand grips the chain that gently squeaks, swaying back and forth. Her other hand in the only position it has even known: extended to the height of her inclined forehead, cupped, waiting.
“Galleta. Galleta por favor,” she says with the well-rehearsed, begging tones.
The only three words she says as the other kids run around on the playground. A little toddler trained in the art of garnering pity from passersby. All she wanted as she sat with her feet slathered in curing cream was a cookie.
Being a caregiver to this person, I was met with a perplexing choice. The girl only knew how to beg. What a shock to be taken to a place where begging was unnecessary. We gave her a warm bed, dressed her wounds, fed her belly and made sure clean clothes were always available. Yet her default mode was to beg because that is all she had done for the three short years of her existence.
Her basic needs were met but her station in life was not much better. She had never known the love of a mother, and still five years later cannot boast of that blessing. She was doomed to be subject to a broken system that to this day holds her in a cycle difficult to break out of.
She had to rely on her own wits to survive out in the elements and now is in an institutional setting. Thus enters my choice — Do I give in to pity and caress her thick, black hair with a pained look on my face as I shake my head and mumble out a half-hearted cliché? Or could there be another option?
Should I choose to give this girl the gift of pity, I am guaranteeing her a defeated life. Pity tells the person there is no hope. Pity snuffs out any flicker of dignity and relegates the receiver to a place of shame. Pity ties a bow on the box of segregation and hands it to a person who might have risen above and left an impoverished life. Pity is a present like unto a strip of duct tape slapped on the lips of one who may have cried out against injustice but now is shut up, quieted, shunned into the darkness of doubt.
Degrees of pain are relative. When other people feel their situation is difficult we cannot deny their viewpoint. Demanding that another person simply overcome and stop complaining does not help either. Whereas pity may confirm the awful nature of the problem there is another choice.
We needn’t refuse to acknowledge the grade of discomfort in order to affirm the value of the person suffering. Why not choose to agree that the person has it rough and then turn the focus to hope?
Affirming the intrinsic value of a person, based solely on the fact that they are a human being is a start towards moving beyond pity to compassion. When we reach compassion we let our actions and words communicate that we believe the other person is worthy of a good life.
Compassion actively looks for a solution rather than letting complacency perpetuate a problem. Compassion infuses the receiver with courage to endure the conditions they are facing. This choice may not be immediately obvious, yet it is present each moment when the easy option is pity.
That girl on the swing got her cookies and so much more. She has been with us now for more than half her life. She is strong, smart and beautiful. The most wonderful thing is that she has become so empowered that she now cares for those younger than she is and demonstrates a heart of compassion.
Had we chosen to pity her she would have been stripped of that power. Who knows what she will be able to do now? She may become the doctor she wants to be. She may continue to reach out to those around her. She most likely will not return to a downtrodden life.
We all have people around us that we may choose to call pitiful. Maybe you would look around and tend to think that you are the one who needs pity.
Is feeling sorry for others or yourself really the best choice? Will you, instead, choose compassion today?
Learn more about Angie
Angie Washington lives with her husband and five kids in Cochabamba, Bolivia in the heart of South America. This has been her home since 2001. They run an orphanage called the House of Dreams and have a church called Christ Nation.
She believes faith without coffee is dead, enjoys laughing out loud, and collects cacti and kaleidoscopes.
Angie not only lives life to the fullest but it would probably be an understatement to say her life is full — full of children, full of love and full of the unpredictability that goes with living in another country.