Pity Me

I recently finished reading the superb little book(let) by Leo Tolstoy called ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’, and had several really interesting moments of pause.

I may write more about the story, not least so that others who like short stories will pick it up and use their Christian imagination to think upon the issues raised.

About two thirds through, with Ivan dying, in his 40’s, following an accident putting up some fancy curtains in his posh house, and in apparent great unfathomable pain, we come to his inner thoughts about deception, what he called ‘The Lie’:

“What tormented Ivan Illych the most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason [everyone else] accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and he only need keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result. He however knew that nothing would come of it, only more agonising, suffering and death.

This deception tortured him – their not wishing to admit what they all knew and what he knew, but wanting to lie to him concerning his terrible condition, and wishing and forcing him to participate in that lie. Those lies – lies enacted over him on the eve of his death and destined to degrade this awful solemn act to the level of their visitings, their curtains, their [dinner guests] – were a terrible agony for Ivan Illych. Many times [he had wanted to say] “Stop lying!”…

…Apart from this lying, or because of it, what most tormented Ivan Ilych was that no one pitied him as he wished to be pitied” (my emphasis).

That last line becomes a jolt that later on provokes a discussion with his own soul about the manner in which he has lived his life. And there is a deep truth for us to mine here. Ivan wanted to be pitied in a certain way. A way agreeable to him. A way that maintains the illusion he has lived with all his life: that he’s the important one, he’s the wealthy one, he’s the powerful one, he’s the self-appointed king in the self-constructed castle of the life he has chosen.

When we don’t get the reaction we want from people in certain situations, it can cause a kind of rage to well up inside us. I think this exposes the very thin lines between the life and values, ideals and worldview we hold, and the sheer reality that we are selfish and most of the time, do not have the time or will power to address it. It takes what appears to be someone not responding to us as we would wish. And if this is a conscious none response, then it is one that refuses to play by the often dysfunctional social games we are so good at playing. Sometimes a brutish child needs his mother to ignore his demands before he comes to see that getting heard his way and on his infantile terms, is not going to get him very far. No one should hear a spoilt brat as he wishes to be heard!

For sure, some people get bad responses which can cause anger or pity. An unattended patient in hospital is right to be angry or confused when not being attended to in the proper manner. But a patient who expects certain this or that as extra care because he is the patient, is precisely the problem; it’s the whole “Do you know who I am?” question that breaks forth like the pompous burp it is.

The recognition that when illness and near death or some other event show us that the world does not revolve around us, and that in fact, the world quite happily continues its miserable or merry way, is quite the reality check. Especially when, in pain, misery and a great awakening, we realise that we are exactly like all those who are now not pitying us as we wish to be pitied, because we never pitied others when they too wished to be pitied on their sick beds.

(As a side note on the recent Megan and Harry interview, it strikes me that they could in actual fact be enacting this kind of Illychian pity party. A rather crass claiming of victim hood because they’re not being treated as they wish to be treated, or as they perceive they are being treated, or as they want to be treated by a world that can see exactly what they are doing (I say world, I mean some in the world. It’s all rather embarrassing and such a great shame. I pity them, I really do, but not as they wish to be pitied do I pity them).

Back to my main point: Even if we are the pitying type, even if we did care, we did stop, we did listen, this vision of pity from Ivan Illych would never enter our minds. One doesn’t give pity that he may receive pity. One gives pity at the right times in the right places to the right people without any sense of future pity-reward for oneself.

If you have to ask for pity, it’s not worth having. And it should never be asked for anyway. And if someone doesn’t offer it naturally, there’s no point asking them to do what doesn’t come natural. Wanting pity like this is the last throw of an infantile dice trying desperately to win the game you’ve been playing all your life and sometimes winning and getting the desired dysfunctional response, when suddenly, the rules of the moral universe are now laid bare – and so are you.

For pities sake, pity me!

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