(This post originally appeared on a former blog of mine, on June 28, 2007. For an updated and illustrated version, check out thabto.wordpress.com on July 15, 2012. )
“Are you condescending to me?” What emotions does this word conjure in you? Discomfort? Annoyance? Do your hackles raise, catlike? Are you prepared to be miffed? The verb ‘to condescend’ has such a strong pejorative sense that it’s hard to think of it in positive terms at all.
But the verse of a hymn has been running through my head:
He is our Guide and Friend;
To us He’ll condescend;
His love shall never end.
(“Come, Christians, Join to Sing”, lyrics by Christian H. Bateman, 1843)
I was surprised to find that the original meaning of ‘condescend’, from 1340, was ‘to back down, to submit, yield deferentially’–quite the opposite of its more current meaning, ‘to stoop to the level of one’s inferiors,’ which dates to 1611. Literally it means to “descend with”, but its most common connotation now is that one has a sense of being superior and doing something beneath one’s dignity. It tends to be paired with the word ‘patronizing’ and carries the idea that you are doing a great favor to someone or a group by deigning to act in such a manner–and that you let them know it, on no uncertain terms. One who acts in such a way is labeled a snob, and seems to take pleasure in letting everyone feel his vast superiority.
Being condescending, in this sense, makes people uncomfortable: they feel guilty that they troubled you, they cower fearful that they’ll do something gauche around you, or they’re insulted that you consider them so obviously beneath you. But I would contend that someone who makes you feel that way is actually NOT condescending in any real sense, because they are making no attempt to join you at your level. Rather, they’re making you very much aware of how different your station or situation or education or…whatever…is than their own. Rather than finding a common ground, they are looking down from a lofty elevation from which they have no intention of descending.
True condescension can be more than uncomfortable for the one who’s doing the stooping; it can be literally painful. I’ve just finished an excellent series which looks at the story of Pride and Prejudice through the eyes of Fitzwilliam Darcy (the author is Pamela Aidan, for those interested). His actions, undertaken out of love for a woman who is his inferior in fortune (and whose affections he is quite unsure of), are condescending in the literal sense. His rescue of her wayward sister takes him into the most disreputable and dangerous sections of London, where physical filth rubs elbows with moral depravity, and both reach out to accost unwary passersby.
On a more mundane–but practical–level, I condescended tonight to weed and deadhead my perennial garden. And it was painful to get down on the weeds’ level: either I was stooping awkwardly and my back complained, or I was squatting or kneeling and my legs were unhappy. Condescension is no picnic. Think about scrubbing floors, hunting for lost toys under the couch, or even talking to preschoolers by stooping down so you can look them in the eye. Physically, this is demanding, un-fun stuff.
Want more proof? How about a great artist who stoops to become part of the work he’s created? Limiting himself so narrowly that he is confined inside the world that he invented? What happens when the creatures, in this world of his own making, turn on him? When they kill him? Is that evidence enough that condescension may be hazardous to one’s health?
And yet. “Go into all the world.” “Look out not only for your own interests, but the interests of others.” “Care for widows and orphans.” “Whatever you do for one of the least of these…” “The servant is not greater than his master.”
The call to community, to servanthood and humility, is the call to condescension, to get down and get our hands dirty, to stoop to the level of those we serve, so that we can really understand their needs. Banker to the Poor is the memoir of a man who left his university’s ivory tower to see whether the economic theories he was teaching really had any bearing on the lives of the poor wretches barely surviving in the next village. Thirty years ago Grameen Bank was born out of his overwhelming compulsion to make fair, modest, short-term loans to people–mostly women–who without such simple assistance (in one case, the lack of less than one dollar’s worth of supplies) were trapped in a vise between moneylenders and starvation. This man, and the majority of his students who are bank employees, are Muslims. Their compassion and willingness to leave their comfortable lives and go into the most destitute places, patiently and repeatedly, in order to explain the hope they offer, puts me to shame.
Condescension is such a good descriptive word. Pity it’s gotten to be so negative. Humility isn’t much better–it feels powerless. But to humble oneself this way requires strength of character, resolve, perseverance, and a thick skin. What do you think is a better word for this stooping to understand and come alongside someone in order to help them? Is there such a word? Should we coin one?