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What is the Difference Between Pity and Empathy?


Friedrich Nietzsche


Each week I have the pleasure of meeting with some young students who study at an Orthodox Jewish school near me. They are very bright kids, and I get the opportunity to hear Yiddish outloud and discuss with them commentary by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the primary teacher of the Lubavitch Chasidic lineage in Judaism.


Passover is coming up, and one of the brightest students called me yesterday. He is extraordinarily insightful, and I always learn from our discussions. Yesterday, because it is Passover, he brought up the story of the four sons. In order to discuss this story, let me briefly describe it.


The story of the four sons goes like this: there is a wise son, a wicked son, a simple son, and a son who does not even know how to ask a question. During the Passover seder, we read, as we sit around the table with our family, questions each sons asks, and the questions are typologically insightful, since they help us think about types of people and then ask larger questions about character, or fate, or who we are as individuals or communities, or even questions about freedom and liberation in the context of the exit out of Egypt.


When we discussed these sons, my young friend brought up the point that each of us carries these four types inside of us. We are all wise, we are all simple, we are all wicked in some sense, and we are all at times unable to ask a question. Fine. But what else can we draw from this?


Our conversation at a certain point moved towards the idea of wickedness. What does that word mean? We talked about it for many reasons, but one is because it's a problematic word, and we need to be careful about how we apply it. How so.


Nietzsche famously wrote that most people in our world who claim to be moral are not moral. They are banal, mediocre - they do not think for themselves, they are bitter, infantile, they do not think, they swallow any lie that comes their way, they hate people who have inner lives, and they thrive on chaos and a kind of madness, an inability to simply take responsibility for their lives. Trolls, in other words. And bullies. They play energetic games; they try to get us to think within the prisons of their own internalized toxic scripts. They use anything and everything to make them feel secure, when they are plagued relentlessly by their own insecurities. They have no control over their lives, because they drift, and because of this they try in sad ways to control other people. It never works, but it gets tiring.


For Nietzsche, morality was strength. Morality was refusing to back down, but doing so in a way that would not cause physical violence. It was playing the game in a different way, sort of being oneself, doing one's work, and seeing what would happen. It was exhuming one's unconscious assumptions, so that one could become more conscious. It was being open to the strangeness of the reality of consciousness as the fundamental datum, I would think, in our world, and how this affects every single inch of our intentional world.


But because morality is strength, it also means people are threatened by strength. For example, think of a Black man walking down the street. Is he actually seen by people? No, I would say, usually not. What do they see? They see all their unconscious assumptions, their fear. They do not see a person, an individual. They see themselves. And every reaction they have, every decision, every move, emotionally, intellectually, physically, spiritually, is based on that fear, that inability to see, that cowardice to refuse to examine the harmful effect they have on other people because of their fear of seeing their own selves in the mirror.


We have to be careful with the word wicked, because oftentimes the strong people are called that, as a game the trolls play to manipulate. In other words, sometimes the strong people are the ones who are misunderstood, or denied empathy, because the trolls want that to happen. The trolls main intention is to isolate and manipulate in order not to examine their lives, in order not to face their own jealousy and how it has literally taken over every decision they make. But the question then becomes, how do we differentiate between actual wicked - the trolls - and the people perceived as wicked but are actually strong?


I think most people already are able to do this, in some sense, but I like putting words to this process, since I find it useful to have words for experiences that are more intangible. I think, to differentiate between the trolls and the wrongfully accused - in life, in coffeeshops, at the library, at school, in class, in one's community - we need to become better readers, of books and situations. Reading is a form of listening, and listening can be a very deep process. When we really listen - if we have examined and worked on our own unconscious issues - then we start to see and hear and feel those issues in other people who haven't. If they haven't, but want to, then we respect that, since no one should be denied the chance to grow. But if they haven't, and they refuse to, out of cowardice, and their cowardice is causing actual harm to other people, and therefore communities, then we need to recognize that this person is actually being wicked, is actually being a troll, and then we need to start thinking about the evils of pity, versus empathy.


We should empathize with the wicked who are misinterpreted, and we should never pity either the actually wicked or the wicked who are misinterpreted. In other words, when we learn to listen, and we do, and we work on our own unconscious assumptions, then we begin to see all the evils of the world, like a Pandora's box. They come flying out, strange distorted fleas, gnats with fangs, disfigured eagles with red eyes, howling beasts loping towards some ugly bloodred sundown. They come flying out, and we see them, we hear them. But then what do we do?


We should not pity them. We should hold them accountable. Those who are not deserving of love - who only play games, over and over and over again - are not people we should pity, because that is a form of enabling, and people - innocent people - wind up getting hurt, maimed, which leads to things like depression, suicide, drugs, alcoholism, and other societal problems.


By listening, we can hear the unconscious assumptions, and we can notice people's behavior, their body language, their tone of voice. A barbed comment should give us pause; a good feeling in the heart should make us feel trust, or the possibility of trust. Feeling is enormously important for these decisions, these differentiations. When we overcome many of our issues related to fear, and become better listeners, then we feel more deeply, because we understand where people - the people who actually want to grow - are coming from. Then we can appreciate how we are all wise sons and daughters, simple sons and daughters, wicked sons and daughters, and sons and daughters who do not know how to ask a question. What we are not are trolls, actually wicked people; and those are the ones, again, who do not deserve pity, which is not empathy, as the former is a cop out, and the latter a responsible way of valuing others and learning to trust one's community and one's ability to work as an agent of change.








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