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Compassion or Condescension?

Just Passing By

By C. Rommial ButlerPublished about a year ago 8 min read
A Crude Pictorial Riddle

From Edgar Allen Poe’s The Bells:

“Hear the sledges with the bells—

Silver bells!

What a world of merriment their melody foretells!

How they tinkle, tinkle, tinkle,

In the icy air of night!

While the stars that oversprinkle

All the heavens, seem to twinkle

With a crystalline delight;

Keeping time, time, time,

In a sort of Runic rhyme,

To the tintinnabulation that so musically wells

From the bells, bells, bells, bells,

Bells, bells, bells—

From the jingling and the tinkling of the bells.”

I open this essay on compassion with the first stanza of this iconic lyrical poem to illustrate a point about condescension. This poem can be found all over, and I urge anyone to take the time to read Poe’s verse, as it is among the best history has to offer. However, what struck me about this stanza, where I most recently found it, was a footnote by the editor of the work, Benjamin F. Fisher, which was attached to the word “tintinnabulation”. Fisher remarks:

“Ringing or jingling; Poe used difficult words partly to appear more educated than he was.”

Let me first state that I much enjoyed Mr. Fisher’s arrangement of Poe’s work, so I am not trying to belittle his efforts. He is a Poe scholar that likely knows much more about Poe’s life than me and he did an excellent job presenting it in this volume.

But I find the above assertion dubious.

I first encountered Poe’s writing like many of us: reading The Tell-Tale Heart in a grade school textbook. I was a fan of the Vincent Price film adaptations of Poe’s stories, but I’d not really begun to understand Poe until I read his writing. It so fascinated me that I undertook to pore over his work, an unabridged volume of which I found in the school library.

I recall reading The Bells for the first time. What struck me was not that the word “tintinnabulation” was out of place, or too clunky, or not minimalist enough. Being only a child, I had yet to be overexposed to such banal criticisms.

What awed me was that this man wrote this perfectly rhythmic poem and somehow managed to fit a word like “tintinnabulation” into it as naturally as a bell’s chime reaches a distant ear.

I was too young, of course, to have thought of it in quite so ornate a manner, but it was for this very reason that I aspired to emulate this beautiful approach to language. It shaped my thinking, my life, and every fundamental principle that I hold dear which has saved me from the ravages of fate where, more often than not, other people have simply not been able to help at all and have all too often made matters worse where they did try.

Therefore, I must deny Mr. Fisher’s assertion. Undoubtedly Poe had a rough childhood as an adopted orphan, screwed up his own education at West Point, and spent the remainder of his life struggling to fit in with his peers as a writer. He was sometimes insecure but aren’t we all? He coped by self-medicating with alcohol, and he was from his own earliest memories a morose thinker. Melancholy was his literary forte, after all.

But to assert that Poe used “difficult” words in order to come off as more educated than he was rings hollow. For Poe, these words were not difficult. He was a master poet, and an innovative storyteller, whose works had so many layers that Baudelaire, the great French symbolist, spent a disproportionate amount of his own precious time translating it. Poe was, in his sphere, a genius without equal, and the proof of that is everywhere evident from the diverse influence his work has had to the present day. Lyrical poetry, character development, the models for the entire genres of detective fiction and psychological horror—all of these are Poe’s legacy.

This brings me to my point about condescension.

condescension: noun. an attitude of patronizing superiority; disdain

I have often been accused, on account of my choice of words, of condescending, and I have no doubt that Poe was treated the same. However, if this is the way one teaches oneself to think, and one is speaking to you plainly, one is not condescending.

To be accused of condescending by those I am speaking to as my authentic self is, in fact, exceedingly painful. To have to constantly navigate a world where people expect me to talk down to them and get mad at me for treating them as equals, has at times driven me to the brink of despair.

It is a bitter irony: when others accuse me of treating them with disdain for utilizing the vocabulary I worked so passionately and lovingly to incorporate into the complexity of my thinking, they are not asking me to treat them as equals, or with reverence, compassion, or anything resembling empathy.

They are asking me to suppress, stifle, censor, redirect or cut out a part of myself for the sake of ameliorating their own insecurities. They are requiring me to condescend to them while hiding the resentment that would naturally arise from such a coerced act of self-debasement as a condition of being allowed to communicate.

At that point, no real communication will happen anyway, so I give up and go off on my own. This is not a matter of assessing the respective superiority or inferiority of the involved parties. There are all sorts of people in the world that serve all sorts of purposes. Human endeavor is not an ascending vertical process, it’s a self-contained sphere that revolves, a wheel of fortune that rolls toward a destiny unknown.

All parts of a circle are equal.

Nor am I particularly upset about the idea of being alienated. I can handle a lonely life if need be, so long as I can live with myself. If I am to be equally lonely pretending to be someone I am not among the crowd, I should rather seek to be lonely becoming my entire self, alone, walking in the shadows of trees, under the guardianship of roaming clouds, in the bright light of a sunny sky or a starry night, ruminating on the words of others who came before.

What I am really trying to call to the fore here is the fact that those who preach the loudest about compassion and empathy all too often fail to practice what they preach. I am not even asking them to be compassionate. I am asking them to drop the façade. Whatever it is we may suppose empathy to be, however much we may strive to achieve it, one cannot feel anyone’s feelings but one’s own.


It is in the perpetuation of this very logical fallacy—that we can experience any experience but that of our own internal selves—that we fail the most to achieve anything that might even resemble empathy. For to presume that one’s individual experience qualifies one to make decisions on another’s behalf is the most dangerous sort of belief. The source of all the greatest atrocities is the point of no return when a group of people who believe they share a common feeling presume to act on behalf of those who disagree with them.

This quote from Herbert V. Gunther and Chogyam Trungpa’s The Dawn of Tantra is the best analogy I have seen for this often overlooked problem:

"We have the example of certain types of people with so-called good intentions who do not take the trouble to become aware of what the people they are being "good to" really need. They are so involved in their preconceptions and biases that they think whatever they like must be good for everybody. Such a person might like milk and exert himself to get everybody to drink milk. But what about people who are allergic to milk? Such a thought would never make any impact on such a person's good intentions. The example may appear ridiculous, but it is precisely this sort of ridiculous action that we encounter constantly in life. We act on the basis of our understanding, our awareness, and if this is not open and alive, then our actions are necessarily clumsy and inappropriate."

"...compassion belongs to hatred. The connection can be seen in the process that sometimes takes place when through enmity one person cuts another down and renders him helpless; then the one who has the power can aid the helpless one and feel himself a good person. This is the usual version of compassion and philanthropy.

But compassion is possible without aggression to create the original intimacy."

Let me end my essay with an appeal to those like myself who are told that they are just showing off, or that they are intellectual bullies, when they use the vocabulary and knowledge they worked so hard to acquire to fully express themselves:

When people do this to you, take the advice that Zarathustra gives to the fool at the city gate who the rabble coined his “ape”: pass by.

***** * *****

Other essays by C. Rommial Butler:


About the Creator

C. Rommial Butler

C. Rommial Butler is a writer, musician and philosopher from Indianapolis, IN. His works can be found online through multiple streaming services and booksellers.

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  • KJ Aartila8 months ago

    Love it! I've been labeled "too smart" and I'm not sure what that means? I think it's a phrase meaning the same as "condescending," but the user lacked the vocabulary. Since I cannot converse in any other languages or way than what I know, my words may come across as condescending to some, though not intended that way, so, as you, I take it as a cue to quit talking & leave. 😍

  • Jay Kantor9 months ago

    Hi CR ~ My-Midwestern Chum ~ You so 'Tinker-Bell-Me' - Not in a Trans Sorta Way. Ah, a fellow Stick-Figure Drawing Artist: My fabulous artist Terrilynn; aka my 'Love' has nothing on us!  *Permission to speak freely on this blessed Memorial Day? Never-ever my intent to be "Condescending" in any way: Will you please open up your suggestion box for me? You are so imaginative and communicative. Please, just once, write a Short-Folksy-Schtick about YOU! Perhaps something about the burned tire smell that 'Clouds' during Indianapolis racing events? Poe is cool but, so are YOU. With all of the "Compassion" I can evoke. I know your fellow 'Vocalites' would think of you, as a 'Folksy' Story~Teller, too! So, glad you could relate to 'Choice' we ALL go through that ~ Even "Goof Writers" such as myself ~ So 'SiT~TiT' and please "TiT-4-TaT" and view "TYPE" and "Fired" if you haven't done so? It may bring a "Folksy" Giggle from you? I know I've said I'm not into contests! But, it was so nice to see Doc Sherwood's Shout-Out about me last week: I mean WHO doesn't like compliments!? Yes, I think you're so creative - You're such an educated and carefully succinct Author - put one out by just Quoting YOU! A Very GOOD-Thang! With my Respect ~ Spin out Indy ~ 'J' Jay Kantor, Chatsworth, California 'Senior' Vocal Author - Vocal Author Community -

  • Michele Hardy12 months ago

    This was a great read and I love your perspective about compassion vs condescension. And that you spoke about Poe with such understanding and empathy. When it comes to using “intellectua” vocabulary, a quote from Mark Twain comes to mind: “Don’t use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” And I always took that to mean expressing your thoughts and ideas in clear and concise language is best. But after reading your story, it occurred to me a quote like that could also be considered condescending since it might seem to advocate talking down to your audience or even “dumbing” down your own language intentionally. But ultimately it’s all about how we express ourselves. Sharing our thoughts and feelings and experiences with others is only limited by our mastery of language. The more language we know how to accurately use, the better we can share with others. And so thank you for sharing your thoughts. It was an excellent read.

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