Event vs Capacity
There are two ways to respond to suffering - one is to focus on the event, the other is to focus on the present-moment distress. Pity is part of cluster of event-focused responses, while compassion becomes possible when we resonate with the level of distress.
Event-Focused Sympathy (Contempt-Empathy-Pity)
People who are unskillful with suffering tend to focus on the events that caused it. They unconsciously assign a value to what happened. For example, they might classify a broken nail as "1", a broken heart as "100", and the preventable death of your child as "10,000."
It's like Goldilocks trying to find something "just right". If the triggering event is perceived as too trivial, suffering is met with dismissal or contempt. If the event is too enormous or overwhelming, the response is pity. Empathy only occurs in the sweet spot between the extremes. Like contempt, pity is a distancing response. Both add to suffering by making the victim feel alone. Ironically, event-based responses are often turned on the self where they become inescapable and particularly corrosive. Addiction bounces between the twin pillars of self-pity and self-contempt. Pity and contempt feel awful, but even empathy is dissatisfying. If we define "ego" as the part of consciousness that tells us we are distinct and different from others, we can see how empathy is an ego state. When we are being empathetic, we are looking at events and thinking about how we would respond to them. Therefore, people trying to be empathetic will often talk about themselves during your moment of crisis:
"Oh, I'm so sorry, I remember how I felt when I found out my husband was cheating."
They will hit sour notes that have more to do with them than you:
"You must be devastated to learn your child has autism." or "You quit your job? How frightening!"
Contempt-Empathy-Pity is more about the future or past than the present moment. By focusing on the initiating event it tends to isolate people in victimhood.
Only a fellow rape survivor can understand what it was to be raped and no one will ever understand exactly what happened during your rape.
When Contempt-Empathy-Pity attempts to be "positive" it usually devolves into advice:
"Look on the bright side." or "You can always get a new dog/husband/job."
Distress-Focused Sympathy (Compassion)
Fortunately there is a different and more skillful way to handle suffering. Compassion focuses on the present moment and deals with events/suffering that is happening here and now - if there is a splinter in the lion's paw, compassion pulls it out. However, compassion doesn't search afield to find the source of the suffering - it resonates with the suffering at hand. If compassion encounters someone crying about a broken nail, it doesn't have to decide if they are being stupid or childish, or if in their particular extenuating case, it's ok to let a fingernail get you down. Instead, compassion responds to the level of distress it encounters. The ability to meet another person based on their present moment suffering (as a percentage of capacity) means there is no barrier to entry. A relatively shallow person can relate compassionately to someone whose events are incomprehensible to them. When I taught preschool, I would see this sort of natural compassion all the time. A kid would come in crying and other little kids would begin to cry as well or approach and pat the weeping child on the back. (This person is 100% upset. I've been 100% upset!). If you are 75% devastated by your broken nail, compassion doesn't make a distinction between a prom queen whose whole night is ruined and a chemotherapy patient with foreshadowing of the suffering to come. If I'm practicing compassion I can sit beside any person and reflect their particular level of devastation. I may sit in silence or I many gently repeat back the words they have said. I may murmur or cry with them; what I am unlikely to do is to chatter on about myself. Because compassion is riding the present moment, it surfs the waves that accompany distress. When my friend's husband lost his leg in a motorcycle accident, I sat with her in the Emergency Room. We wept, we paced and when my friend turned to me and hiccupped, "Mike. Can't...Mike can't pace anymore...He's going to have to walk in small circles!" I grinned like a damn fool until she stopped laughing. Then we wept again. Compassion is ok when two weeks after the rape we're "all done with that and moving on"and compassion is there when 48 hours later we are "Not all done. Not all done! Never going to be all done!" In the presence of compassion, we experience suffering as an auger. There is agony as the bit hits bedrock, and then silence when the drill breaks through. In the presence of compassion we become deep.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes EMILY DICKINSON
In this spaciousness, it becomes harder and harder for our own broken nail to fill us to 75%. We begin to experience real peace. Ironically, just about the time we begin to appreciate the benefits of depth, it becomes harder to achieve as our personal suffering wanes. Fortunately, practicing compassion allows us to continue to deepen as we sit compassionately with others in pain. Eventually a person can reach such depth that even their own death seems like a minor affair. This depth is one of the qualities of enlightenment.