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​The power and price of pity

This is the time of year when many of us are forced to be face to face with the demons from our past. We may have family members that we don't want to be around, and yet we're forced to socialize with because it's the holidays. We may be reminded of past relationships as we put up our decorations or get catalogs for them in the mail. I thought that this would be a time to talk about the tool I've used to put many of those demons to bed: Pity.

I'm not talking about empathy or sympathy. Those are positive emotions, ones that guide us to building bridges and making connections. I can usually find at least some sympathy for people in most situations. I use it to dull my tongue when I want to lash out or say something snarky, or to reach out and help someone feel less alone.


Pity is an emotion of distance. It's a feeling that you are not only distant from the subject, but above it. You may not exceed them in every way, but you know one place where you can stand on the high ground, and you will cherish it. It's a dark emotion, and one that should only be broken out when every other tool has failed.

I discovered how powerful pity was when I was planning for my second wedding. My mother and I had always had a strained relationship, but the past few months had left me dreading her call. Dreading might actually be too light a term. Seeing her name on my caller-id made my stomach sour and pulse quicken. A few times, I began to hyperventilate. I would mentally start gearing up for battle.

The fights were over trivial things, but that's the nature of wedding fights. They're proxies for larger fights that you'll never engage with directly. She was used to controlling my life, from where I went for holidays, to what my children wore to said holidays. When I was picking out names, my opinion was never asked, and when I stated a name I liked, she gathered forces to convince me I was wrong.

With my second marriage, she realized she was losing ground. I made more money. My fiance made more money. We were financially stable and able to get whatever we wanted without begging her for a loan. The lynchpin to her hold on me had fallen out. I no longer needed her as a backup in order to ensure my children would never starve. So, she deployed every emotional trick in the book to bring me to heel once more.


It was during a fight over my shoes that something inside me snapped.

She thought I should wear heels. I was wearing flats. It was such a stupid argument. Footwear shouldn't matter this much to anyone, and yet she'd called me three times in one morning to scream at me for not wearing shoes with a bit of heel. On the third call, I felt like I stepped outside myself. I heard a voice in my head:

"God. How sad that she cares so much about something trivial."

After that thought popped up, the fight didn't matter. I laughed at her. I had never, ever laughed at my mother (though she often imagined I did). She was flustered, and tried a few more tactics, but the spell was broken. She lost that fight. She lost every fight after that.


But there was a price.

I was never close to my mother, not how she thought, but I thought that perhaps, one day, we would be. Once the kids were older, or she calmed down, or life was different. But that feeling of pity keeps a wedge between us because I know now that I will never see ourselves as being on the same level.


But I did get to keep my sanity. Maybe it was a reasonable price to pay.

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