Why Pity and Regret Are Worthless Emotions

Pity circa 1795 by William Blake 1757-1827

There are unhealthy emotions that I experience from time to time: anger, envy, lust, to name three. But there are two culturally ubiquitous emotions that I consider unhealthy and even dangerous.

They are: pity and regret.

I dislike pity because it is arguably the most objectifying, erroneous form of compassion. After all, the word “pity” comes from the Old French pite, which means “compassion.” It also comes from the Latin pietas, which you may recognize in “piety.” Unlike honest compassion, which assumes an active sympathy in the suffering of others, pity is often passive. Pity is performed sympathy. And because of that it is often objectifying and erroneous.

For example, I work a part-time job as a student worker in the dining halls at UCLA, and I have talked to friends who pity the full-time career workers. “It must suck, to be stuck working here,” these friends say in an off-handed way. “I feel bad for them.”

The thing is, I used to feel this way too, before I got to know these full-time career workers, before I heard their stories. The thing is, they are fine. Many of them are happy people with loving families and friends. Sure, they often encourage me to aspire to more ambitious careers and hope that I will achieve my dreams, but they are not themselves miserable people who live in perpetual regret or long for escape routes. They are autonomous—they have the power to change their own lives, and they do not need the kind of sorrowful “validation” that pity offers. Furthermore, pity often expresses itself in a condescending way, from privilege, from superiority. People go on dates out of pity, have sex out of pity, befriend others out of pity. It is all fake. As Aaron Ben-Zeév writes in “Do Not Pity Me,” pity is “related more to contempt rather than love.” And as Josh Billings said, “Pity costs nothing and it ain’t worth nothing.” It is inert.

Regret is also an unproductive emotion. At the end of the day, it is fantasy. What people regret (not) doing comes only in hindsight, which distorts the reality that they experienced at the time of the doing. What does it mean, to regret that you had not taken advantage of an opportunity? There was a reason that you did not take advantage of it at the time—you were either too scared, too uncertain, etc. And because of that, you were not ready for it. What does it mean, to regret that you had hurt another person’s feelings? You hurt them for a reason—that came from somewhere, and it does nothing to improve the situation if you dwell on what you could have otherwise done. Regret does not lead to self-betterment.

Pity and regret do not lead to growth or happiness or any of the things that emotions can and should help us experience. What do you pity? What do you regret? And how have these emotions impacted your life?

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