The Problem of Pity by Joshua Hren

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The Problem of Pity

Misguided Mercy & Dante's Infernal Purgation
by Joshua Hren

I, one man alone,
Prepared myself to face the double war
Of the journey and the pity.
—Dante, Inferno, Canto II

It is a pity that compassion has conquered our public conversations, our churches, and our hearts. (In this paper, I will at times use the words "compassion," "pity," and "mercy" as synonyms, even as I make necessary distinctions along the way.) Occasions for pity proliferate to the point that many of us experience what the protagonist of David Lodge's novel Therapy calls "compassion fatigue," which is "the idea that we get so much human suffering thrust in our faces everyday from the media that we've become sort of numbed, we've used up all our reserves of pity, anger, outrage, and can only think of the pain in our own knee." Alongside "compassion fatigue," others are plagued by misconstrued mercy, misplaced pity, and an abundance of attendant errors that are typically dignified by the claim that they are "pastoral."

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