Let’s Talk About Empathy

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One sunny afternoon, my 6-year-old son came home to school and started to tell me about a “dot-man”. After inquiring, I found out that his teacher had named a boy in his class as such since he would just put a dot on his worksheets.

Unfortunately, this is just one of the many cases which occur on a daily basis and are not restricted to the school environment. Even at home, mothers take out their frustration by shouting, name-calling or even hitting their easiest targets: their children. And this is where the problem begins: inside the very places where these children were supposed to be dealt with warmth and compassion so that they could be nurtured to benefit the society. Instead, these children grow up with lack of empathy and compassion simply because of the lack of worthy role models and due to betrayal at the hands of those who were supposed to take care of them: their parents and their teachers.

Empathy can be simply defined as the awareness and emotions of other people. It is empathy which makes us put ourselves in the other person’s shoes and feel what others feel when our sharp words hit them. In my son’s story, had the teacher offered words of encouragement instead of calling him names, the outcome would have been certainly different?

Allah has praised the Prophet’s empathetic behavior in the following verse:

“There has certainly come to you a Messenger from among yourselves. Grievous to him is what you suffer; [he is] concerned over you and to the believers is kind and merciful.” [Qur’an: Chapter 9, Verse 128]

In fact, the Prophet explained empathy as follows:

“The believers in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever.” [Bukhari]

Believers are encouraged to practice empathy and feel the hardship of others.

“And what can make you know what is [breaking through] the difficult pass? It is the freeing of a slave or feeding on a day of severe hunger, an orphan of near relationship, or a needy person in misery. And then being among those who believed and advised one another to patience and advised one another to compassion.” [Qur’an: Chapter 90, Verses 12-17]

The Prophet even had care and empathy for animals. Once, upon entering a garden, the Prophet saw a camel that was just skin and bones. Upon seeing it, the Prophet began crying, then he put his hand on its head until it was comforted. He said to the owner of that camel: “Don’t you fear Allah about this beast that Allah has given in your possession? It has complained to me that you keep it hungry and load it heavily which fatigues it.” [Abu Dawud]

In the field of counseling, counselors are often trained to lend an ear to the client and understand where he is coming from as opposed to directly start giving them advice.

Empathy, in short, is a tool that we use to make others feel that they are cared for. And what better place to start with than our own selves. Won’t mothers feel less frustrated if they started off with realizing and caring for their own needs as well? Won’t teachers treat their students well if they just took off an hour a day to care for their own selves?


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