Pity Isn’t Kindness

Last week I had an epiphany somewhere between Kings Cross and Russell Square. This moment was deeply emotional. I felt great relief, as if the weight of the world had been lifted off of my shoulders. You see, I had realised, for the first time in my life, that I didn't need to solve all the problems in the world.

I should back up a little.

I don't know when it started. It may have been when I was a child and I realised that I got a lot of approval for being clever. Perhaps it was during my parents' divorce when it seemed to me that the world of grownups had let me down and only I, eleven year old me, could sort it all out. Because I was clever, you see.

Perhaps it came later. Perhaps it was a range of things. But I do recall feeling, for as long as I can remember, that somehow the world was a mess and that if only I was clever enough I should be able to fix it.

Writing this down it immediately seems absurd. No one person can fix the world. Absurd or not, this has been a feeling that has nagged at me. A pressure that I've put on myself – to always be the one with the answers.

This pressure has not been good for me. In fact, I realise now that it has been behind a lot of the fears that have dogged me. You see, the chain of wonky logic goes like this.

  • The world needs me to fix it
  • Therefore the world is filled with suffering people who are helpless
  • But I am not strong enough to fix the world
  • So maybe I'm just like them – helpless
  • I could end up like them… suffering and unable to fix it!
  • The world is scary and sad

I said the logic was wonky but it is logic, given the view of the world that I held in my head. This belief that all that stood between me and helpless suffering was blind luck kept me afraid, seeking to ignore the darkness in the world for fear that I was looking at my future.

But, you might be thinking, you're a coach! How can you be a coach and believe the world is hopeless? Isn't that antithetical? Well, yes. In fact, I'm pretty sure that this is what has attracted me to the coaching concept. I think, deep down, the idea that this is a discipline that believes utterly in the ability of each person to fix his or her own problems, called to me because it's what I wanted to believe.

Perhaps it's because I've spent so long now actively working to build this new way of thinking that my epiphany came about. This is what happened.

I saw an advert. The advert was seeking low paid workers, filling unskilled jobs. And I felt a pang of sadness. I thought about people who were only able to get work like that. I thought about times in my life when I've had to take on work that was boring and poorly paid. And I felt pity for the people who still had to work these sorts of jobs, and with it a little twinge of fear; there but for the grace of god go I.

And then I remembered a comedy sketch, of all things, in which David Mitchell played a middle class man wracked with guilt every time he came into contact with someone he felt was in a demeaning or low prestige position. Robert Webb played said persons and the entire thing highlighted how unfair it was to think that way. To look at people with pity. I saw myself in that comedy sketch and I was ashamed.

Instead of just feeling ashamed, however, I asked myself what I could do about it. I decided to force myself to look at the people around me and instead of seeing all the potential pain, look at all the potential joy. So I looked and I tried to imagine everyone on the tube, everyone in the stations, everyone on the street, being OK.

I realised, when I let pity become my overarching emotions, that I was counting only the negative elements and that's why I felt so dark. But someone in a shitty job situation isn't just someone with a shitty job. That person has family and friends, interests and hobbies, can dance and play and hug and listen to music and read books. I realised that I was looking at the darkness and ignoring the light. What's more, someone who can hug and play and dance and love, that person can also think and hope and strive. Someone who is a full, rounded human, not just an object of pity, is empowered. That person doesn't need me to solve his or her problems. They just need me to believe in them.

And then something switched in my head. A moment of clarity and relief. Finally I had let go of my need to always be the hero. I'd stopped putting myself under that pressure and chosen, instead, to believe in people. That was my moment of epiphany. That was my breakthrough.

They say, when you learn to be a coach, that your first and most challenging client is always yourself. The more I continue on this journey the more I see that this is the case. I believe I'm a little different to the person I was last week. I believe this difference will help me to be a better coach, a better friend and a happier person. And every day I try to take a moment to remember this difference. Reminding myself of the moment, how it felt and what it meant.

Because, even though it looks quick from the outside, instant change always happens gradually and, despite the desire for clever tricks, making it stick is hard, but it isn't complicated.

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