The Real Meaning of Pity

Why you shouldn’t pity me because my son has autism

“The question is not what you look at, but what you see.”  Henry David Thoreau

Abstract painting
The B side: Coneflower, by Valerie Montague Fine Art

In my teens, I used to see a boy at the beach twirling a straw in front of his eyes while mumbling to himself, always in his bathing suit and flip flops. He had autism, I was told, and all I felt for him and his family was pity. Years later, when my son Diego was 3 years old and I had no idea that he would have autism, I bumped into an old acquaintance with her two toddlers, one of whom was in a stroller and clearly had Down syndrome. I felt very awkwardly sorry for Laura and her little boy.

I was also with my two children, who were around the same age as hers but seemed perfectly typical. I am certain our encounter would have played out differently had both of her children appeared “normal” too, or had one of mine also had a visible disability. We would have talked about activities, preschools, therapies, bedtime routines, etc. But how could we, when all this stupid young mother (me) could think was how “awful” it must be to have a child with Down syndrome?

After raising a child with autism, I recognize my feeling of pity during that bump-in with Laura but see it in a new light. I know now that pity is a strange & misunderstood emotion. It stems mostly from compassion, but it also involves a sense of relief and a chance to feel fortunate at the expense of the pitied.

For example, we don’t just think “How hard it must be on that child’s parent. I wonder how I could help,” We also feel lucky and relieved to have “normal” children — to have been spared, so to speak. The pitied person knows this, even if we say nothing, as most people can perceive when we feel sorry for them or their child. The whole situation becomes awkward awfully fast, especially when evidence of the contrasting situation is right there.

The inaccuracy of my perceptions is now obvious. Today, I view the parenting experience a bit like that of Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince with the rose and the fox.The Little Prince Book

The Little Prince had a rose that he loved and thought very special because he believed it to be the only one of its kind in the universe. When he comes to Earth from his tiny planet, he discovers that there are hundreds of flowers just like his rose — a realization that utterly devastates him.

To the Little Prince’s salvation comes a fox, who opens his eyes to see why his rose is indeed special–as you care for another being, it inevitably becomes unique to you, and so does everything connected to it. With great clarity, the Little Prince realizes that his rose is truly the most important in the world TO HIM, because it’s the one he cared for, that gave him trouble, and who depended on him for love and survival.

At the end of the chapter, the fox shares this secret: “One sees clearly only with the heart. Anything essential is invisible to the eyes.”

When I pitied Laura and her son, I was only seeing with my eyes, and all I saw was Down syndrome, which to my past (more) ignorant self, meant mostly heartache.

When people pity me because of Diego’s disabilities, they likely see mostly with their eyes, which is the more superficial view. Diego is certainly different and very high maintenance –that they can see. They cannot, however, imagine how noble and loyal his affections are and how pure his thoughts – all of which his loved ones see every day.

I don’t know if there is a right way to respond to or convey pity. I certainly don’t think that we need to be self-conscious about it either. I just know for certain that our first reaction is usually superficial. Even today, pity is sometimes my first reaction when I encounter an unfamiliar situation that appears difficult to me.

Last summer, while visiting an aquarium with Diego and his friend (also with special needs), I saw the tallest women I have ever seen in person. I caught myself feeling sorry for her. “How hard it must be to find the right clothes, the right furniture, to live in a world not designed for people that tall. I’m glad my height is average.”

Very likely, she thought to herself, “Poor lady. Imagine taking care of two young men who talk to themselves, make weird sounds and behave so strange! Thank goodness my kids are fine.”

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