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A Bridge From Heart To Heart : Empathy
Jan 1, 2004

The environment of today is one equipped with high-tech means of communication, some of which are so complicated that we find them difficult to conceive; such a world causes the people of today to lead their lives in isolation. As empathy is an important element of human communication, it should be given more emphasis today than ever before. Taking into account all the machinery and gadgetry of today, it becomes evident that human communication has become more dependent on nonverbal and intangible elements than previously. Technology can provide us with complicated communication devices that are beyond our imagination; yet, the question of whether people are really able to understand each other better or not with all these gadgets is debatable.

Nowadays, children and parents are estranged, employees and employers are continuously at odds, the government is deaf to the public and the public seems to be unaware of the government, the teacher and the pupil no longer talk the same language; these phenomena can all be explained when we realize the serious lack of communication that we are facing. What has gone wrong?

The reason that we are removed from one another in terms of communication, despite physical distances having been lessened, is that we either are unaware of that important component of human communication, empathy, or we are not giving it due consideration. There are many definitions of empathy; a brief definition is that it is the ability to recognize and understand another person's perceptions and feelings and to accurately convey that understanding through a com- passionate response. In other words, it means understanding another person so well that you feel as he/she does. Native Americans expressed this as walking a mile in another person's moccasins. It is being able to listen so intently and to identify so closely with another that you experience that person's situation, thoughts and emotions. Empathy has many different descriptions, but they all narrow down to the same thing: developing the ability to see the world from another's point of view without judging. Being empathetic is a bit like being an anthropologist; when an anthropologist goes to study a different people or tribe, there is no judgment or criticism involved, the anthropologist just accepts and describes the way of life, the way of seeing things. One must develop the ability to put oneself in another's shoes, to see the world as they see it, without judgment or criticism or over-identification and agreement. Good therapists are said to do this; the same can be said for good friends. It is only with empathy that we can understand each other thoroughly and proceed to build close and reliable relationships.

Empathy acts as an inhibitor of aggression and violence. A person with greater empathy tends to act in pro-social ways simply because such a person is able to identify and recognize the plight of others. On the other hand, people acting in antisocial ways are likely to lay the foundations for violent and aggressive patterns. In this respect we can say that there is a strong relationship between empathy and morality. Morality can be explained as a set of principles or ideals that help an individual distinguish right from wrong. It is a term used to cover those practices and activities that are considered significantly right or wrong, the rules that govern these activities and the values that are embedded, fostered or pursued by these activities and practices. It would be correct to say that a man of high moral values is at the same time highly empathetic. This is true because the ability to see the world from another person's point of view without personal biases or judgments usually leads one to a correct understanding of the situation and therefore assists one in making a correct decision. An empathetic person always places him/herself in the place of the people with whom he/she is in contact, looks at events from their perspective and thereby is able to attain a deep understanding of the situation. When it comes to making comments about the situation, such a person still assumes that he/she is still in the other person's place and talks as if he/she is not talking to somebody else, but to him/herself. The result of such behavior is perfect comprehension and a correct evaluation of the situation.

To be empathetic in this way is a difficult human relations skill to gain. It would be relatively easier if there were only few people with whom one is in contact. At least then one would know each of these people's characteristics and could understand each of their situations more easily. But what if there are many people with whom one is in contact, each having his/her own personal differences? Now it is that communicational ability arises and that one must be able to adapt to each situation, without being self-centered. This can only be achieved by a skill that has been fostered by high moral values. A person who has such skills is one that creates a feeling of intimacy and well-deserved trust in others. Such a person becomes someone to whom a story can always be told in confidence, and such a person may even understand a situation better than the person involved.

This is how the Almighty Creator wants us to be and how he expects us to be. This reality is evident in the religions that God has sent to us with His messengers. What is called The Golden Rule is a prevalent idea of Christianity. The golden rule is best interpreted as saying: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you. To use this rule, one must imagine oneself to be in exactly the same place of the person who is involved in the action. If we act in a given way toward another person, yet are unwilling to be treated that way ourselves under the same circumstances, then we have violated this rule. To apply the golden rule adequately, we need both knowledge and imagination. We need to know what effect our actions will have on the lives of others. And we need to be able to imagine ourselves, vividly and accurately, in another person's place in a given situation. With knowledge, imagination, and by applying the golden rule, we can progress far in our moral thinking.

The golden rule is best seen as a principle of consistency. It does not replace regular moral norms. It is not an infallible guide by which to judge the correctness of an action; it does not provide all the answers. It only prescribes consistency - that is that we not let our actions (toward another person) be out of harmony with our desires. It tests our moral coherence. If we violate the golden rule, then we are violating the spirit of fairness and compassion that lies at the heart of morality.

Moreover, Prophet Muhammad, upon him be peace and blessings, the Messenger of Islam, says He who does not feel the hunger of his neighbor when he goes to sleep in his comfortable bed cannot in any way share our values. It is of utmost importance to put effort in empathizing with another's circumstances and to understand other people well. Islam actually states that the most important of all the divine characteristics that a person should have is their personal relations with other people. That is the only thing for which God, the All Merciful, will not directly show His compassion when the time comes to account for our sins after death. In other words, suppose that you have mistreated somebody in this world; God will first ask the person who has been mistreated whether you are to be forgiven. This is God's absolute justice, an important part of His character.

There is no doubt that God gives particular importance to communication among people and to their understanding of one another. Taking into consideration the scientific finding that almost 90 percent of human communication is comprised of non-verbal elements, empathy plays a great role in the part of good communication. In the history of humanity so much has changed, but the main component of communication, empathy, has maintained its place as before. It is the invisible bridge that connects our hearts to one another through which we understand and feel one another, a bridge that God wants us to construct to span our hearts, a bridge via which God's love can be acquired.