Empathy can be a tall order when we are inundated with a daily media diet of vitriol and violence we see perpetrated under the shadow of sacred flags. No matter how reasonable we think ourselves to be, we struggle to shake off the knee-jerk disgust that we find ourselves feeling when the same symbols are now flashed before our eyes. What erstwhile would have induced awe and respect now invokes fear and hate. Of course, we know better than to conflate centuries of complex and rich traditions with the impoverished and grotesque modern-day aberrations under their name. Yet we easily succumb to the fallacy of guilt by association.
It is precisely in times like these that we most need to challenge ourselves critically and try and empathize as deeply as possible. For are we not ourselves embarrassed, if not pained, by similar acts of depravity committed in the name of our cherished values and ideals? There is perhaps no significant idea or philosophy that has not generated a misguided zealot that brings shame to his own camp. Yet, the choice is ours when we are presented with examples of both humanism and misanthropy. Do we choose the more challenging option of holding charitable views of the Other, even if it seems as if such ideals are increasingly endangered and scarce? What is the story we choose to believe? What is the story we want to hand down to our children?
“One must always find an excuse for one’s brother”, goes a popular Muslim adage. One must always think the best of the Other. Despite -or, perhaps because – all appearances are to the contrary. Only such radical Christ-like or Gandhian or Muhammadi generosity of opinion towards the other can defuse the mistrust that we have heaped upon each other and are breaking under the burden of.
Let us resolve to never look at the Other with any less charity in our eyes than that we bring to ourselves. Let us resolve to see in the Other the hand of God inviting us to behave our best, with dignity and grace – doing what may be required in the situation. We will need to act from mercy or from rigor – but never out of spite or self-righteousness. Our traditions teach the virtue of honoring the stranger or guest as if we were serving God Himself. Each human heart is a temple of the divine, as a narration attributed to the Prophet Muhammad teaches. And every single one of us is like the various beams of light emanating from the same single Sun, as Sri Krishna teaches in the Bhagavad Gita.
This might seem naive or idealistic from a practical point of view. But have we not had enough practical thinking this far? Perhaps the problem has never been an excess of idealism, but an over-abundance of practical men seeking to serve ideals. Perhaps we need more idealism – the kind of idealism that is not an escapism from the very real catastrophe engulfing us. But an idealism that is a courageous act of hope in the face of encroaching darkness. Such idealism makes little sense outside of some kind of faith. The Quran strongly states that one must always be ready to make peace with one’s opponent even amidst immediate conflict. Don’t let ‘practical’ concerns about strategic loss and gain trouble you. Instead, choose peace and rest assured that you are in God’s good hands. “And if they incline to peace, then you should incline to it; and put your trust in God”.
It is practical concern or fear that prevents us from fully stepping into this empathic frame of mind. What if my rights get denied as I seek to ensure the rights of the Other? What if my concerns get trampled upon as I seek to serve the Other’s concerns? Why, indeed, must I be the first one to be large-hearted? Why don’t they get their act together first? Of course, it hardly needs saying that it is utterly unproductive not to be the change you wish to see in the world. Jiddu Krishnamurti most presciently diagnosed this fear induced moral myopia:
“Fear is one of the greatest problems in life. A mind that is caught in fear lives in confusion, in conflict, and therefore must be violent, distorted, and aggressive. It dare not move away from its own patterns of thinking, and this breeds hypocrisy. Until we are free from fear, we may climb the highest mountain, invent every kind of God, but we will remain in darkness.”
Empathy is an act of courage. But empathy is also a dying art. It is a virtue on ventilator. Yet we must find whatever means we can to resuscitate it. Our life and the lives of our children depend on it. And need I say, our afterlives are also on the line.
2 responses to “Return Hate with Empathy”
Doesn’t help us to be reductive in any matter , let alone religious discourse. A great addition to the present dialogue. 👍