This acknowledgment can be strangely comforting, for it allows us to set other things aside and begin to care for our health. We may even feel slightly sorry for ourselves, and that part of our consciousness which would otherwise never indulge self-pity will say to the miserable creature who has just taken to bed, “you poor thing.”
Americans seem to realize that this moment has arrived — that we are desperately sick — and it isn’t just a sickness of the body. For the past few weeks, the idea has bounced around social media, broached by the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole, who wrote that while America has for centuries inspired love and hatred, fear and envy, now, for the first time, we’re mostly regarded with pity. The sentiment was repeated in a New York Times headline last week: “The World is Taking Pity on Us.”
Pity is a hard thing to process, and particularly fraught in this country. Grievance is a powerful motivating force of the American polity, which includes centuries of both legitimate and imaginary grievances. It is also essential to our larger, aggrieved relationship to the world: Look what we’ve done, look how little gratitude we receive. President Trump is particularly attracted to this rhetoric of grievance.
Grievance is closely connected to self-pity. But while America sometimes takes solace in the world’s sympathy — for instance, when so many of our allies responded with compassion after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — we resist pity, because we can’t reconcile that image. Seeing ourselves as pitiable requires rethinking fundamental ideas about America’s history, purpose and destiny. It obliges us to do something that is intolerable, to accept our weakness, even impotence, in the face of larger forces.
For the first time in the lives of many Americans, the coronavirus pandemic is conflating private pain with large-scale, public suffering. Now, the entire country participates in a conjunction of misery that was before limited to Americans who lacked privilege, or were unlucky. The anger we feel at the utter collapse of responsible governance isn’t abstract and, for the most part, it isn’t ideological; it is personal, because now our lives are in danger and family members are dying. Pain and suffering are no longer isolated or remote or contained; they are universal, and with that, there is an uncanny realization that this suffering is no longer a drama on television or a headline in the newspaper. We suffer in the midst of history.
That makes the processing of pity even more complicated, because while we may resist self-pity, it seems there may be no going forward, no hope for the country at all, if we can’t take pity on ourselves as a nation. Unless we can see ourselves as the world sees us — including those who say we are broken, corrupt and failing — we may not be able to survive, rebuild and reclaim anything of our past sense of national identity. Unless we can say to ourselves collectively what we say to ourselves individually — we are sick — there’s no hope of any kind of return to health.
Perhaps this is why many people, at least anecdotally, are feeling a new volatility in their emotional lives, including in how they relate to art, music, literature, nature and other things that we often use to escape or compartmentalize emotion. A friend reports being brought almost to tears in the garden, by the arrival of lettuce and radishes. Another says she can focus only on music. The heightened emotionalism isn’t just about stress, or pressure or any particular loss or tangible grief. It is encompassing, all pervasive, universal.
In 1902, the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal (who wrote the libretti to some of Richard Strauss’s greatest operas, including “Der Rosenkavalier”) published a short story called, “The Lord Chandos Letter.” It was cast as correspondence between a young literary prodigy (who had retired to the country and given up writing) and Francis Bacon, the Elizabethan-era philosopher and statesman who was worried about the silence and disappearance of the eponymous Lord Chandos, a fictional character.
In the letter, the writer says he can no longer find words for anything, that the ordinary world of work, gossip and politics is meaningless to him. He describes how ordinary things — “a watering can, a harrow left standing in a field, a dog in the sun, a rundown churchyard steeple” — can suddenly strike him with an overwhelming emotional force. In one horrifying passage, he writes about the sudden burst of overpowering emotion he feels after leaving poison out to kill rats in his dairy barn.
“It was both a good deal more and much less than pity: an overpowering empathy, a kind of flowing over into the hearts of those creatures,” he writes.
Hofmannsthal’s text was written at a time, the fin de siecle of the 19th century, when many alert and sensitive people felt that an old world was ending and nothing good would replace it. The dread wasn’t just about political matters, or social unrest but rather was encompassing. It included a distrust of old intellectual systems, even language itself. The breakdown seemed universal.
Americans find themselves where they have not been since the Second World War, or the Great Depression, no longer able to separate emotions into private feeling and public sentiment or opinion. We realize that emotion has both depth and breadth, that powerful feelings are inspired not just by deep personal loss, but by large, collective losses, too. And this has put many of us in the same place as the fictional Lord Chandos, raw to the world but unable to articulate or explain the sense of impotence we feel.
There are odd contradictions and paradoxes in “The Lord Chandos Letter.” How does a man who is reduced to silence write one of the most eloquent, if imaginary, letters ever penned? How is a man who feels “almost unimaginable emptiness” and numbness moved to such heights of empathy and emotion? Perhaps it is an acknowledgment of inner sickness by a man who has begun to heal.
It’s strange, and disorienting as an American, to be an object of pity. Pity has always been our defense against the pain and suffering experienced in places that we condescended to think of as poor, or undeveloped or badly governed. But perhaps a good, deep, excoriating and brief acceptance of self-pity is the only hope we have, the only way forward, because it’s now clear that we are desperately sick.