The Close Enemies of Pity and Compassion: What’s the Difference?

This past week, I finally got around to reading Louise Penny’s novel The Cruelest Month. This is also the title of my first completed novel. When I first found out that the title was “taken,” I was a bit miffed. But after an embarrassingly long period of time, I got over it, laughed at my silliness, and read my first Penny novel. Loved it. So I’ve worked my way through her series.

In The Cruelest Month, psychologist Myrna is talking to Chief Inspector Armand Gamache of the Sûreté du Québec. While they are chatting about the various people in the town of Three Pines, she mentions an interesting phrase: the near enemy. Gamache is intrigued and asks her to explain.

“ ‘The near enemy. It’s a psychological concept. Two emotions that look the same but are actually opposites. The one parades as the other, is mistaken for the other, but one is healthy and the other’s sick, twisted.’ (. . . )

“ ‘There are three couplings,’ said Myrna, herself leaning forward now, and whispering though she didn’t know why. ‘Attachment masquerades as Love, Pity as Compassion and Indifference as Equanimity.’”

–Louise Penny, The Cruelest Month, page 197

What’s the difference, Gamache asks. Myrna explains:

Compassion sees the needy person as an equal. Pity sees that same person as inferior.

This made me wonder how many of our charitable efforts are done from an attitude of superiority? Do we see the recipient as our equal or our inferior? Has pride crept into our hearts?

Years ago, I read a quote in a Donald Miller book. I can’t remember the exact wording, nor do I have the book anymore. But it went like this, “We all like to give to charity, but no one likes to be charity.”

Why? It’s humbling to be charity. Part of that is simply the human desire not to admit our own brokenness and inability to help ourselves.

But another part may be this: we sense that the charity-giver perceives himself as better than we are. They’re in the position of power (giving to fill a lack) versus our powerless position (having a lack that needs to be filled).

One’s full, the other’s empty. One is pitying the other.

Of course, the charity-giver may not perceive the other person that way. They may truly have compassion on us and view us as their equals. In my experience, the most compassionate people are ones who have been through seasons of brokenness and responded with honesty and open hearts, not denial and embittered spirits. This makes them aware that we are all equally broken, giver and receiver alike. There’s no room for pride before the throne of God.

Here’s the problem: from the outside, pity and compassion look the same. The prideful pity-giver and the humbled compassion-giver may both take the same actions: work at the soup kitchen, give a buck or two to the homeless guy, visit the bereaved, say a kind word to a dejected person. The difference lies within the heart.

photo by jclk8888,
photo by jclk8888,

The heart isn’t visible. The action is.

So—and I’ve been here—the recipient might feel suspicious of the charitable action. Once, a pastor went out of his way to talk to me while I stood on the group’s outskirts. I dismissed it as pity. He only felt sorry for me, I thought. He didn’t want to talk to me for me, but he felt that he had to because he’s a pastor!

Stop right here for a second. What was wrong here? My response of self-pity and bitterness. (Not to mention a warped way of looking at another person initiating a conversation with me.) At this point, the recipient (me) needed to work on my attitude. I couldn’t do anything about the other person’s attitude or actions, only my own.

Just because others show only pity for someone and view them as inferior doesn’t mean that person can’t have a meaningful and beautiful life. But living in self-pity and bitterness isn’t life and is anything but beautiful.

(Want a literary example? See the character of Agent Nicol in Penny’s Gamache series. Trust me, you do not want to be Agent Yvette Nicol.)

We’re only responsible for our own response.

If I’m the recipient of charity, then I can choose to respond with gratitude or bitterness. The attitude of the giver is not within my power.

If I’m the giver of charity, then I can choose to view the other person as my equal or my inferior. The response of the receiver isn’t within my power.

The results of one choice may be more obvious than the other. (That’s why the “close enemies” are pity and compassion, not gratitude and bitterness.) You’re more likely to be aware of your own bitter response than aware of your own pride and attitude of superiority.

Either way, it’s important to search our hearts. We’re all equals before God. Let’s use this knowledge to extend compassion to others, not pity.





10 thoughts on “The Close Enemies of Pity and Compassion: What’s the Difference?

  1. This makes perfect sense to me, Laura. Just the other day I was in a study group at church and one of the questions in the study was about how we can reach out to the weak and marginalized. Someone pointed out that the question didn’t move us to acknowledge that WE may be weak and marginalized ourselves in some way (or as you put it, “we are all equally broken, giver and receiver alike”). Instead the focus was on what we have to offer to someone in need, which is a good thing to consider but can also foster pride if we continually put ourselves in the position of giver and therefore possibly as superior. Instead we may need to acknowledge our own neediness and that grace is sometimes needed to be a recipient of help rather than the giver of it.


    1. That remark from your Bible study member was a great reminder, Jeannie. It’s hard for many of us to acknowledge that we need help and it takes grace on the parts of both the giver and the recipient, though for different reasons.


  2. Very interesting. I am reminded of the book ‘The People of the Lie’. There were people in that book whose actions looked like love, you could say their actions masqueraded as love but were fuelled by self-interest. They managed to do it in such a subtle way that it was difficult to see and equally difficult to bring it to their attention because they could always justify themselves as acting from love. I realised very recently that a close family member is like this. This person’s actions are always fuelled by self-interest. I used to view their pity as compassion, but now I see it isn’t. No wonder I didn’t see the manipulation and coercion in my first marriage for so long… I was already used to it, from someone far more subtle, too. EMDR is like jenga: you pull out the pieces and all the rest come tumbling down, BUT it also, for the first time, allows you to put large pieces of the puzzle together. This is one of those ‘aha!’ moments. Thank you, Laura, I needed to read this today. 🙂


    1. I’m glad this was a timely post for you, Sandy, and I’m so thankful that God is allowing you to put pieces of the puzzle together and realize things that had gone unrealized before. I’ve had that happen in counseling. Not fun but worthwhile.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Interesting distinctions, Laura. I don’t mind asking for and receiving help. but I can get a but miffed if I’m pitied. Then again, there are times when I am pitiable, so perhaps I should get over that too.


    1. I get miffed if I have to ask for help on something that I think I should know how to do. It feels so pitiful to have to have someone to remind me of simple, basic things. (Complicated things, not so much.) But sometimes that’s exactly what I need: someone to remind me of what I already know (a task, a fact, a truth from Scripture).

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is a timely word. I have been thinking about the topic of motives for the last several weeks. Especially when it comes to helping others. I have found that in most cases when I do try to help someone else I always benefit in some way even though that’s not the intention. I have been trying to teach the kids in my class the same thing. I want them to use their strengths to help others, but also to realize that the “others” they help have strengths in different areas. Everyone has something to offer.
    I really believe that God wants our relationships to be give and take, even though we don’t approach helping in the hopes of getting something back. All the references in the NT that the church is of the body of Christ implies that we are interdependent and Jesus is the source of all things. Thank you for reminding me again of the importance of having a compassionate and humble attitude towards people.


    1. I think it’s wonderful that you’re teaching these little ones such a vital lesson, Denise. I also think you’re right: as a body, the church universal is interdependent. A body doesn’t function well if one part isn’t working right!

      Liked by 1 person

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