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Wither empathy?

The way and manner in which many of us, today, respond to situations in which others suffer from one form of challenge, vulnerability or predicament suggests that the traditional African society where empathy underscored interpersonal relationships has been replaced with a civilization in which no one is prepared to put his “legs in the other person’s shoes.”

Even the traditional Nigerian society used to be one where everyone was his brother’s keeper; collectively sharing their feelings in joy and in grief.

But when modernity, which Africans looked forward to was fully unveiled on their continent, it came along with a way of life that is now more of a burden than something worthy of celebration.

The loss of one life in one community hitherto dampened the general mood of every resident of the entire neighbourhood, village or town. Today, dozens of lives are being lost in banditry and insurgency attacks.

Yet, it is as if those being killed are not humans. Allah (SWT) reminds us in Qur’an 5:32 that “On that account: we ordained for the children of Israel that if any one slew a person – unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land – it would be as if he slew the whole people; and if anyone saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people…”

The feeling that should encapsulate individuals as human beings in their response to unlawful killings is almost missing nowadays.

Some abnormal situations are gradually being turned by modern factors to normalcy. Some people no longer feel for persons who either lost their jobs or have never had one.

Others don’t feel anything bad has happened when students’ examination scripts get missing.

The disturbing dimension which rape has taken in Nigeria in recent weeks with little collective action to summarily check it shows how empathy is missing in our national character.

Similarly, the empathy you expect to observe in medical personnel (especially the nurses) when attending to patients in clinics or hospitals is absent in many of them.

The quality of sensitivity you see in some school administrators when students complain of poor toilet facilities, poor electricity supply, and scarcity of or unclean water is far from anything called empathy.

Empathy simply refers to the ability to understand, appreciate, and share the feelings or emotions of another person. Definitions of empathy covers a range of emotional states.

Psychologists say it is the capacity to feel what another person is experiencing. Connecting with the other person’s pain is an expression of empathy. Although “empathy”, which is our subject of discourse, and the word “sympathy” phonologically sound similar, they differ in meaning.

While sympathy is a shared feeling, usually of sorrow, pity or compassion for another person. You show concern for another person when you feel sympathy for them. On the other hand, empathy is stronger than sympathy.

It is the ability to put yourself in the place of another and understand someone else’s feelings by identifying with them.

Sociopathy and Psychopathy are two psychological terms associated with the lack of empathy in an individual.

While the lack of empathy among people are generally linked to many factors that include genetic (due to the characteristics inherited from his or her parents), disease, physical or psychological damage as a result of trauma; environment, especially in early childhood, also plays an underlying role.

For example, a child who grew up without experiencing paternal or maternal care and love he deserved to naturally enjoy from parents would grow up to be non-empathetic.

A child despised by and in the community he lives isn’t likely to be empathetic. Rather, there’s even likelihood for him to be violent in behaviour towards others.

Empathy-deficit is a personality disorder which should not be allowed to manifest especially in young persons. However, it is not everyone who lacks empathy that is a sociopath or psychopath.

Empathy is important in life because it helps us to understand how to respond appropriately to other people’s feelings, emotions and critical concerns.

There are many ways of expressing empathy including acknowledging the pain of those in circumstances of distress or sorrow. When a person connects with someone’s pain or struggle, it helps him feel supported.

It also shows the person expressing empathy understands (or is trying to understand) how the distressed person might be feeling. Most times, people in pain just want to be heard.

They want a validation from others that what they are going through is difficult. One would be helping a troubled heart by also building confidence and hope in him; using appropriate consoling words.

For fear of not receiving the expected empathetic response, some people keep their problems to themselves without sharing it with others.

Therefore, when someone chooses to open up his feelings to you, that should be seen to represent the trust such a person has in you.

To reciprocate the trust and confidence, it is only right that you let the person know you actually appreciate his/her choice to share the experience with you.

To further help the person out of his/her predicament, it is necessary to show interest in his/her matter by listening more than you talk. Going through difficulties could be extremely gloomy.

That’s why low-spirited persons long to connect with those they can confidently share their challenges with. Besides showing the person you care by asking relevant questions, it is important to also demonstrate a genuine interest in what he/she has to say.

Abu Harayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) related that the Prophet (SAW) said “Whoever dispels some grief pertaining to this world from a true believer, Allah will dispel from him some grief pertaining to the Day of Resurrection.

“Whoever makes things easy for someone who is in difficulties, Allah will make things easy for him both in this life and in the next. Whoever shields a Muslim, Allah will shield him in this world and in the next. Allah is ready to aid any servant so long as the servant is ready to aid his brother.”

One does not need to be a victim in a crisis before he knows what the affected people are passing through. You don’t have to be poor to understand that the poor struggles to survive. You don’t have to be a woman to appreciate the pains women experience in childbirth labour.

You also don’t have to be a leader before you are convinced that you can be wrongly accused of what you had no knowledge of. By the same token, you don’t have to be a soldier before you believe in the risk of losing life at warfront.

And lastly, you don’t have to be a teacher for you to know he has the least regard and is least appreciated by students, their parents, government and the society. May Allah (SWT) guide us to preserve our emotive sense to empathize for others without being urged to do so, amin.

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