The park mum who had recently taken up residence on the prime position park bench beside me was starting to look vaguely ruffled. My inner psychic sensed that now was not a good time to discuss the woeful state of my balcony geraniums. The words “water”, “fertilizer” and “choice to neglect or nurture” were likely to be forthcoming. A sympathetic hug was unlikely.
This was the first time the park mum and I had exchanged pleasantries and I still don’t know her name. So lets just call her “Rose”. Anyway, it turns out Rose had been thrown more life challenges than her immaculate appearance suggested. I would go so far as to say that after hearing her story, most people’s natural instinct would be to “feel sorry” for Rose. So her fiercely antagonistic view on the “feeling sorry for someone” concept was both intriguing and worthy of respectful consideration, as she’d probably had more cause to contemplate the issue than most.
As I have always understood it, “feeling sorry” for someone is an expression of empathy. It’s about saying that you can see the difficulty someone else has endured and that you appreciate the pain that they have experienced. And you want to help them work through that experience. So why would Rose revolt against this so fiercely?
I strongly suspect it’s because people have always felt sorry for her. And that’s the last thing she wants. Or needs. She rejects it vehemently.
She’s happy with her lot. She’s thrown down the gauntlet to life … and she’s winning. She’s intensely proud of her triumphs. And so she should be. In her eyes, there’s nothing to feel sorry for. She would resent you if you did. And that’s ok … it’s her call, I guess.
But not everyone is Rose.
We all know people who are living an apparently charmed life… but who are sinking. Spinning deeper and deeper into the dark depths of despair. They are so lost they don’t know which way is up or where to reach. They’re drowning.
Who can feel sorry for someone who is leading such a charmed life?
Rose is adamant that she would not feel sorry for them. She would argue that they don’t know true suffering as she has. Whenever she measures someone else’s challenges by her own yardstick, they will invariably come up short. Yet not everyone has her inner strength. Her tenacity. Or her resilience.
Now I don’t want to take anyone back to the horror of high school English symbolism interpretation, but some of you may remember the character Mayella Ewell in the novel “To Kill A Mockingbird”. The Ewell house was said to be a chaotic, decaying mess, yet “against the fence, in a line, were six chipped-enamel slop jars holding brilliant red geraniums”. She tended to her geraniums with great care and as a result, they were a beautiful display of vibrant colour, starkly contrasting their depressing, unkempt surrounds. Mayella’s life was not a good one by any stretch of the imagination. So for Mayella, the geraniums symbolized hope. The belief that there was the potential for good in everyone. That hope was all she had.
What if, hypothetically, Rose had sat down next to Mayella in the park one day and heard about the woeful state of her geraniums?
There is such a negative connotation associated with feeling sorry for someone. It implies that you are encouraging them to wallow in misery. But surely out of feeling sorry for someone comes a sense of compassion and a willingness to help them work through it, rather than encouraging them to simply brush it under the carpet and let it fester and eat away at them? Even if that help is simply a matter of listening, understanding and acknowledging what they’ve been through.
Mayella and I both have the same love of geraniums, yet what their woeful demise means for each of us could not be more different.
Your assumptions are your windows on the world. Scrub them off every once in awhile, or the light won’t come in. – Alan Alda
Do you ever see the value in feeling sorry for someone?