I was reminded, in reading Martin Lloyd Williams' new book, Beauty and Brokenness, of the distinction between pity and compassion. Williams completes his book with a meditation upon compassion. It's a buzzword of sorts these days, a word that can make me roll my eyes, even. I sometimes think it is used as a way to bypass responsibility, to overlook behavior that is hurtful to others or self-destructive. But Williams identifies this attitude as fatalism. He quotes Henri Nouwen: "We are always tempted with fatalism…When we say, ‘that man never had a loving father or mother, you shouldn't be surprised that he ended up in prison,' we speak as fatalists…" So compassion is something more than dismissing another person's failings or explaining them away.
Williams also clarifies his point when he says, "not all acts of kindness are necessarily acts of compassion. There are many disabled people, for example, who feel that they have been reduced to being somebody else's project…" In this statement, he is making a distinction between compassion and pity. Pity, like fatalism, is a distancing mechanism. It turns the person who is in need into an object. It is a way of protecting ourselves from engaging and entering into the pain of another person. In Williams' words, "compassion is the unlikely blending of gentleness and tough, persevering directness." It is neither fatalism nor pity. It is com-passion, to suffer with. It's a hard road. A road of beauty, and brokenness, and blessing.