A Selfish Person Can Be Sympathetic But Not Empathetic
A Selfish Person Can Be Sympathetic But Not Empathetic

A Selfish Person Can Be Sympathetic But Not Empathetic

A Selfish Person Can Be Sympathetic But Not Empathetic

Author: Faraz Malik

Author: Faraz Malik

Date: September 18, 2023

Date: September 18, 2023

Defining words is a difficult task. You may have to explain the context. Maybe the word can be used in multiple different ways.

In Classical Arabic, it is common to define a word through its opposite. By identifying the true opposite of the word, you are helping the reader to identify the exact meaning of the word at hand.

The word I want to try and find the opposite of is selfishness. When you look up the antonym of selfish, the first entry you will find is selfless. However, both selfishness and selfless are unhealthy mindsets and lifestyles. In professions of healthcare we find “selfless” people burning out by sacrificing their families and their own health, and eventually harming themselves and those around them.

None of us want to be selfish, and so we strive to be the opposite of that, selfless. This mindset, unfortunately, has been too widely accepted and is hurting those whom we need the most.

I argue that the true opposite of selfish is empathy. Selfishness is a mindset when one puts themselves over others in their everyday thinking. Empathy is when one is actively thinking of others, their situations, and their feelings over one’s own needs without neglect of their own needs.

A selfish person can be sympathetic but not empathetic.

Jacob: My daughter is sick and working is not going that well.

Sympathy: That must be very tough. (Thoughts in their head: That is why I don’t put them in daycare. They need to do a better job of planning their schedule, that’s what I do!)

Empathy: That sounds really stressful and exhausting. (Thoughts in their head: I can’t imagine trying to take care of a sick child at home while completing their work and also having their boss frustrated with them.)

In other words, empathy is not a set of words you use, but a state of mind. I believe this was the lesson the Prophet Muhammad was trying to teach ʿUmar.

ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb said, “O Messenger of Allah, you are more beloved to me than everything but myself.” The Prophet said, “No, by the one in whose hand is my soul, until I am more beloved to you than yourself.” Umar said, “Indeed, I swear by Allah that you are more beloved to me now than myself.” The Prophet said, “Now you are right, O Umar.” [Bukhārī]

The Prophet Muhammad was not teaching ʿUmar to be neglectful of himself, but rather teaching him to be more empathetic. It was a difficult lesson and took him some time to learn.

When one loves the Prophet more than themselves, that effectively means they love God more, they love their ummah more, and ultimately they understand their role in this world.

Gaining empathy is difficult. You are rewiring your brain in how you view yourself and your needs. Empathy is not foregoing your needs. Empathy is not ignoring yourself. Empathy is mentally putting your thoughts aside about yourself in specific moments and truly thinking what is best for the person and what they are going through.

Defining words is a difficult task. You may have to explain the context. Maybe the word can be used in multiple different ways.

In Classical Arabic, it is common to define a word through its opposite. By identifying the true opposite of the word, you are helping the reader to identify the exact meaning of the word at hand.

The word I want to try and find the opposite of is selfishness. When you look up the antonym of selfish, the first entry you will find is selfless. However, both selfishness and selfless are unhealthy mindsets and lifestyles. In professions of healthcare we find “selfless” people burning out by sacrificing their families and their own health, and eventually harming themselves and those around them.

None of us want to be selfish, and so we strive to be the opposite of that, selfless. This mindset, unfortunately, has been too widely accepted and is hurting those whom we need the most.

I argue that the true opposite of selfish is empathy. Selfishness is a mindset when one puts themselves over others in their everyday thinking. Empathy is when one is actively thinking of others, their situations, and their feelings over one’s own needs without neglect of their own needs.

A selfish person can be sympathetic but not empathetic.

Jacob: My daughter is sick and working is not going that well.

Sympathy: That must be very tough. (Thoughts in their head: That is why I don’t put them in daycare. They need to do a better job of planning their schedule, that’s what I do!)

Empathy: That sounds really stressful and exhausting. (Thoughts in their head: I can’t imagine trying to take care of a sick child at home while completing their work and also having their boss frustrated with them.)

In other words, empathy is not a set of words you use, but a state of mind. I believe this was the lesson the Prophet Muhammad was trying to teach ʿUmar.

ʿUmar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb said, “O Messenger of Allah, you are more beloved to me than everything but myself.” The Prophet said, “No, by the one in whose hand is my soul, until I am more beloved to you than yourself.” Umar said, “Indeed, I swear by Allah that you are more beloved to me now than myself.” The Prophet said, “Now you are right, O Umar.” [Bukhārī]

The Prophet Muhammad was not teaching ʿUmar to be neglectful of himself, but rather teaching him to be more empathetic. It was a difficult lesson and took him some time to learn.

When one loves the Prophet more than themselves, that effectively means they love God more, they love their ummah more, and ultimately they understand their role in this world.

Gaining empathy is difficult. You are rewiring your brain in how you view yourself and your needs. Empathy is not foregoing your needs. Empathy is not ignoring yourself. Empathy is mentally putting your thoughts aside about yourself in specific moments and truly thinking what is best for the person and what they are going through.

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