On the subject of pity
I was listening to Dax’s podcast, Armchair Expert, a few weeks ago and there was a moment that stood out to me in the episode with Ashton Kutcher. Ashton was talking about his disabled brother, who told him something along the lines of ‘every time you pity me, you make me smaller’.
I’ve been stopped and prayed for since I was a kid. People have looked down on me since I can remember. I’ve watched people clutch their chests while they stare at me with sad eyes. Sometimes people try the argument that maybe I’m just interpreting things wrong, but I’ve had people tell me straight to my face that they pity me and would rather be dead than disabled.
So, yeah, I know pity when I see it.
Here’s the thing, though. My life is all I’ve ever known. If you’ve ever read anything I’ve written before, you know I’m fine with my disability. I don’t need pity from anyone. No one needs it!
What it really comes down to is this: pity doesn’t help me, it only helps you. People seem to think they’re doing me some kindness to tell me they’re so sorry for me. I’m not sure how anyone came to the conclusion that it’s a nice thing to hear, but it’s not.
Compassion is one thing, but I feel like it’s completely different from pitying someone. I’ve had plenty of people disagree with me, so let me try and explain.
When someone pities me, they usually see me as some sort of victim or someone who is suffering. They come to that conclusion the second they see my wheelchair and that snap judgment is what controls their behavior around me.
Let’s say I’m out in the park with my friends. We’ve got a picnic, we’re clearly having a good time minding our own business. Nothing bad has happened, and yet someone who walks by realizes I’m disabled and believe that my quality of life is less than theirs. Then they use that negative assumption to make themselves feel better. Maybe they use it as a reminder to be grateful, or maybe they decide to tell me I’m an inspiration before patting themselves on the back for doing a good deed that day.
Someone who is compassionate is someone who treats others the way they’d like to be treated. They’d see me with my friends and smile as they passed by us in the park. We’re all out having a good day and we’re on the same page. If something were to happen, like I were to get my wheelchair stuck in gravel or I had some kind of a medical emergency, they’d come over to help – but not because I was disabled, just because I was a human being who needed a hand.
In my experience, compassion is shown out of kindness and a desire to help from someone who looks at you as an equal, but pity comes from someone who feels a misplaced sense of guilt because they think they have it better or are better than you.
No one needs to feel guilty for something as ridiculous as being able to walk. People in wheelchairs don’t care about your legs, I promise. You’re fine. Please get over it.
I am not a victim, and I am not suffering. Even if I were, I don’t want anyone’s pity. Like Ashton’s brother said, it makes me smaller. Especially if it’s coming from someone that I have to interact with, like a professor or a doctor. It’s not always just a stranger, it comes from people who have a real, lasting effect on my life. It’s not just some harmless opinion, it’s whether or not someone respects me and it determines whether or not I’m able to have a conversation with someone or feel safe in a group of people.
Understand that no one wants to feel like their existence makes someone else feel sad or uncomfortable. If you feel bad when you look at someone disabled, maybe try and figure out why that is. It probably has less to do with them than you think.