Citizenship, Prompt 5, Susan Dixon

Written by:

Jose Barreiro used to say that guilt is a useless emotion. Since I was raised with a pervasive sens of guilt and shame it took me a while to understand this. I came to recognize how guilt can be a distancing mechanism. Jose said it kept people from getting things done, moving forward. I came to see it as locking oneelf dysfunctionally in the past, of not being able – or willing – to stay in the present. In some ways, self-flagellation is so much easier than facing the music.

I see the same dynamic in the use of “pity.” It is a way of maintaining a safe distance. One feels pity at a remove, reflected in someone saying, “I don’t need your pity.” One essentially looks down on the object of pity: “better you than me,” or “there but for the grace of God.”

The real problem, for me, is that for someone to have that pity, even to have compassion or empathy, one needs to have decided that the other person is, in fact, suffering. All of Phil Klay’s examples were of people who had decided that veterans, by definition, are suffering, even if they themselves don’t know it or won’t admit it.

The neighbor who took Joe and me to dinner, asked about the book I was writing, and then, knowing only that, wondered how Mark could sleep at night after killing all those children, had already created a story about any and all veterans. She had been clinging to that story of these years and was not interested in changing it.

The problem is not pity per se, or even compassion and empathy per se, but in creating a story the other person is forced to fit into.

Taking the part for the whole is a logical fallacy, meaning it is a flaw in thinking. Even if someone is genuinely in misfortune,is genuinely worthy of compassion or empathy, there is a danger in assuming exactly what the misfortune consists of. People who see only what they think of as poverty can miss close family relationships, rich culture, or the wisdom of elders.

Taking the part for the whole misses complexity. It is an over-simplification that reduces the person to the one quality the observer thinks is defining.

When Phil Klay would tell people his job had been administrative and he did not suffer from PTSD, he would be told, by people who needed to believe this for their own comfort, that he was fooling himself. Such a story suited that person’s preconceptions of an experience utterly foreign to them.

So “pity” says more about the one supposedly feeling it than about its object. John Fisher’s guilt about participating in the Vietnam War relied on Vietnamese to forgive it. “Pity,” depends on its object to fulfill a role they themelves did not want and did not define.


I have taught writing in classrooms for decades, mentored beginning writers, and supported stalled writers in finishing their project. I write both non-fiction and fiction and participate in three writing groups. I am always on the lookout for new writers who just need to know they have a story and that their story is worth telling.