Empathy is different from sympathy. My heart can be small yet large enough to feel sad or pity for the less fortunate or privileged. My heart can be large also to put myself in the shoes of those less fortunate and privileged and do something about it. Sympathy is a fleeting feeling that comes and disappears in that moment. However, when sympathy continues to lodge itself in the heart, the mind thinks about the situation and ponders on the effects of the situation not only on those undergoing it but also on oneself. In the process of this putting the self in the shoes of the other, is born that beautiful emotion empathy. Empathy then is the ability to understand the feeling of others, feel the same way and respond in helpful and compassionate ways.
Once it flowers in the heart, sky then is the limit for action to enable a visible and telling change to alleviate the suffering. Empathy is the glue that bonds humans to one another and interact with compassion and understanding. Understandably empathy is also a more complex skill that we realise as this is like sugar, while sweet some have more, some less and some none. What is more important about this skill is the fact we can all enhance our capacity for empathy throughout our lives.
Research studies indicate that children who are empathetic make friends more easily, are able to generally perform better academically and more importantly demonstrate a higher level of moral and emotional development. Genes dictate largely our appearance or intelligence. However, all humans are born with the capacity for empathetic behaviour which is what determines whether or not we mature into caring and understanding adults.
While it is true that abstract qualities are caught and not taught, in these troubled times where human values seem to take a severe beating, there seems no option but to teach this golden value of empathy and age is not the criteria as we can start on this as early as the toddler stage. At age 1or 2, the toddler may not have the cognitive ability to recognise this as a skill and learn it as in formal learning however they are observant and ape what they see and can also recognise feelings in others. They soak in impressions around from parents, relatives and this is the foundation of on which they unconsciously build their patterns of social interaction which also directs their growth into adults that ae secure and compassionate.
Pre Schoolers in Nursery Schools learn empathy through ‘sharing’. This stage is one where this quality can be nurtured through having children help in the kitchen, learning to share their toys etc. As the cognitive ability increases, children are able to associate emotions of self with those of others. At this stage it is important to help children associate expressions with feelings as also discuss the impact of actions on others and more importantly engage them in role play of how it would feel to be in that situation. As children grow talking regularly about feelings and recognising feelings in self and others help to identify emotions and situations as well as connect with others. This exercise enables understanding of how people are very similar in regards to emotions no matter their age, geography or gender. As children grow older, talking about hypothetical problems help in putting in place the process of ‘standing in the shoe of the others’. For example, an imaginary situation where the child is called a name and the feeling associated with it. Such exercises aid in strengthen the emotional quotient of children which is far more critical in the 2st century as opposed to IQ. Additionally as children get older, the fact that although two people may experience very similar situations they may not both react or feel as strongly as the other can be highlighted.
Parents and teachers are the first and most influential teachers and good role models ensure children growing into caring empathetic adults. In the daily hustle and bustle as well as the stressful and troubled times that we live in do not leave much room for letting our children see our kind and thoughtful actions, or express concern for the feeling of others. Empathy can be easily caught not only from parents and teachers but also from influential figures in society which nurtures children to practice empathetic skills of listening, helping and showing generosity.
Growing up, Abdul Sattar Edhi that prominent philanthropist, social activist, ascetic and humanitarian who founded and headed the Edhi Foudation in Pakistan for over 6 decades was always a super hero and role model. This ‘servant of humanity’ that hailed from a trading family in Gujarat, India chose to listen to his heart and felt compelled to do something about the sight of bodies floating in Karachi harbour after Pakistan became his home post the partition of 1947. The need to give a decent burial for these unclaimed bodies started the Edhi Graveyard Service that grew to a vast network of Edhi orphanages across Pakistan. A new life was given to the abandoned infants in the cribs and also to some grown up like the differently abled Indian girl Geeta that the Lahore police brought to his orphanage and subsequently returned to India earlier this year unharmed and safe.
A Divine call of a Divine man that was overflowing with empathy that helps humanity beyond boundaries of gender, geography or faith. It is said that our emotional quotient and spiritual quotient is going to be the deciding factor for the quality of our lives as move forward into the 21st century. Edhi was not formally educated but he has become an education for us on empathy for generations to come. If our education is only going to teach our children to read and write I would rather call it the literacy system as knowing how to read and write is just that if it does not take care of the blossoming of the heart.
Rumi says “My heart is so small, it is almost invisible. How can You place such big sorrows in it? “Look” he answered, ‘Your eyes are even smaller, yet they behold the world.”
- A writer, thinker, published author, and an educationist, Dr. Farooq Ahmad Wasil, is GLOBAL HEAD low cost schools, GEMS Education, Dubai, UAE. He has over 3 decades of experience in the field of education – setting up, operating and managing schools. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org