I’ve been reflecting on the differences between pity, sympathy, empathy, and compassion for a long, long time. Today, I’m stepping aside from my kitchen and baked salmon to explore the murky waters of that soul sucking scoundrel: Pity.
This is what I know for sure: Pity comes with judgment. Pity ignores the right of a person to make the best choices for herself and presumes that a person is not able to do so. Pity is tainted with the poison of dehumanization. Some folks pity non-white groups or people with physical disabilities.
My mother just turned 94, and speaks the language of those without memory. Alzheimer’s. I respond to everything with a cheerful “Yes,” and a familiar sadness washes over me. Empathy, not pity, is what’s called for here. In all of the years I’ve known my mother, I have felt that behind her rigidity and unfriendliness is loneliness.
God, we must lose the pity.
Recently, a person I know—someone who has called me almost daily for more than a year and someone who I now understand offered contact from a place of pity—asked me to do a small writing project, a resume–for pay. Now, there are reasons that I declined the offer. One, was a sense that, for this person, “money equals power.” In accepting payment, I’d lose my right to establish boundaries around what I would or would not do. If I did the work for free, my skills would be devalued. And, finally, unlike a typical contract, the expectations were uncomfortably dodgy. I declined.
It’s been a difficult lesson to learn. I sensed that this person, rather than being a real friend, saw me as “needy,” a person in dire need of charity. And, perhaps in the beginning, when I was so blindsided by my condition, I was needy. Yet life offers myriad opportunities to learn from swimming in the muddy waters of pity—both self-pity and that which comes from others.
If you ask or comment, as others have, about how I’m recovering so well, the answer is always the same: I have allowed myself very, very little time for self-pity.
Now, what about sympathy?
Sympathy allows us to truly see pain, but we can remain distant. We may or may not take action, but generally when we do, the action is one that allows us to keep our distance and lets others maintain their dignity. Donating to a non-profit that serves the poor or disenfranchised, working for or in organizations that help others, these are examples of contributing to the greater good in a non–personal way. But, careful. Sympathy can be a slippery slope to pity.
Then there’s empathy. Ahh, sweet empathy. I learned empathy from my father. Empathy is the ability to feel or identify with another’s pain. Daddy would always say: “Before you judge another person, walk a mile in his shoes.” He didn’t mean for us to literally walk in another’s sorrow. He meant for us to understand that, as Phil Ochs sang, “there, but for fortune, go you or I.”
That walking puts us on the road to compassion.
Compassion is taking that empathetic feeling, that ability to feel another’s pain, and turning it into true, non-judgmental, loving action. Action coming from love is compassion. Compassion uplifts and heals. Compassion never dehumanizes. Ever.
What a day. I’ve had my rant. It’s time to enjoy some salmon.
Just Pass the Grits. Okay?
It happened last week. A neighbor uttered two words that don’t go together: “cauliflower grits.”
Nooo. Cauliflower is not grits and never will be.
I understand concerns about diet and health. Lord knows it’s been a daily struggle for me, especially since living with complications from Guillain-Barre Syndrome. Sixteen months in a wheelchair can pack on pounds.
I’m a gal with strong southern roots. I would not trade a bowl of stewed tomatoes and grits, cheese grits or grits with liver and gravy for cauliflower “grits.”
As my nieces would say, “That’s just wrong.”
For anyone without southern roots, I can forgive the confusion. My neighbor is a woman of solid culinary tastes. She eats at fancy Italian restaurants and thrills over Vietnamese cuisine. She is also a cauliflower devotee.
“You will love it,” she gushes.
No. I will not love it because I have never loved cauliflower, a vegetable that I choose to call white broccoli. Seriously, I’d walk barefoot over hot rocks before subbing cauliflower for grits.
I don’t just cook for nourishment. I cook for joy, otherwise what’s the point? Love of food and the kitchen makes me happy.
My mother died this month. When I was asked to write some words for her obituary, I wrote about her love for God and how she instilled that love in each of her children. But really, I could have written about her prowess as a home chef with exemplary imagination and culinary skill. Everything we learned about food came from her southern roots: her kitchen, our grandmothers’ kitchens, and our aunts’ kitchens. Food and kitchens make me happy.
There were childhood breakfasts with bowls of hot grits, fried chicken livers and onions, and hot biscuits. If for no other reason than the legacy of southern cooking, I take full affront to the idea of replacing grits, rice or potatoes with a ground-up vegetable.
This morning, I sautéed onions, kale (in homage to the green veggie craze), garlic, and mock sausage. I mixed all the veggies into a creamy pot of grits and added cheese. As I watched it all come together with a kind of brown gravy tint, I felt sorry for folks who will never enjoy the warm belly comfort of real grits or rice.
“Cauliflower tastes just like rice” says my neighbor.
No. It doesn’t taste just like rice.
There are real reasons that some folks are choosing cauliflower instead of starchy grains. Recently, concerns have been expressed about rice. Where is it grown? Does the soil have arsenic? Is it from the southern United States or Vietnam? White rice is high on the glycemic index and can contribute to blood sugar level spikes. I acknowledge these concerns, but a good rice pudding or cream of potato soup ain’t the same with cauliflower.
When I was a child, foods like grits, kale, and collards were standard southern fare. However things have changed, and with change I find myself in a world where organic collards, once almost free for the picking, are three dollars a bunch and grits are nouvelle cuisine. With change comes a cultural temptation to make things “better,” healthier, to explore new tastes.
“Have you tried the cauliflower pizza crust?”
No. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The more my friend yammered on about cauliflower rice, the stronger was my pull for a dish of rice covered with a rich chicken stew. So, I followed the urge and─
“Cauliflower would have been good in that stew!”
Posted in Creative Non-Fiction, Essay, Family memories, Food, Humor, Memoir, Writing. Loving.
Tagged Commentary, Creative Non-Fiction, essay, food and humor, food and memory, Humor, Life Stories, memoir, Opinions, Reflections