“I have no sympathy for people who…”

I’m getting more and more uncomfortable with this statement nowadays.

I understand there’s people who do terrible things, who act with no care or concern for you or their fellow human beings, who operate in a way that’s so antithetical to everything you’ve come to believe.

But when we give in to the notion that we can “give up” on someone…and decide that I have no sympathy, no empathy, toward a person…then we start to build on the cultural beliefs that:

  • “people can never change…”
  • “you’re doomed to repeat your past no matter what…”
  • “in this world, there’s us and them…”

Part of my discomfort comes from spending time being the person that people dismiss because of x, y, and z. And over time, I started to believe them so much, that I no longer had sympathy for myself…I believed I was just “wrong,” and there was no hope for me.

But then, as I interacted with people who tried to help, who reminded me that anyone can change, who taught me that no one is too far gone if they’re willing to turn back and get back on track.

And after adopting these ideas with myself, I started learning about how to help people change, and how that process requires a gut-level internalization of an idea so articulately communicated by Mr. Rogers:

“Frankly, there isn’t anyone you couldn’t learn to love once you’ve heard their story.”

What does that mean? Empathy is always possible. We’ve just been buying into the culture that’s been sold to us that tells us, “my worldview is the only one that makes sense. What that other person does, thinks, or believes, doesn’t make sense or is invalid, and therefore, I can’t understand, have sympathy for, or ever support that person.”

What this leads to is the partisanship and extremities of opinion and thought that we see today. It starts with simple statements like, “I have no sympathy for people who…”

I’ve also realized what’s bolstered my growing discomfort with the dismissal of other people, is the studies I’ve been able to engage about the life of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and his character.

As a Muslim, I believe the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was the best person to walk the earth, but there’s an interesting thing that comes hand in hand with that belief. If he was the best of all humanity, then wasn’t everyone he ever interacted with him, “worse” than him?

Especially being a Muslim, his actions and his thoughts ARE Islam — they literally help define what we believe to be right and wrong. So if there’s anyone who could’ve ever had the right to believe that his way was correct and anyone else’s way that conflicted with his was incorrect, it would’ve been him (peace be upon him).

But…

He never, ever, ever expressed the sentiment “I have no sympathy for…” a specific person.

A person who came and urinated in the masjid (he let him finish, then talked quietly to him outside), the woman who routinely leaved garbage outside his door (who was missing one day because she was sick, he visited her in her time of need), the man who came to his door with sword in hand with the intention of killing him (he stopped his companions from attacking him and instead opened the door to hear him out — that man turned out to be ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab, may Allah be pleased with him))…

So many instances are shown of the Prophet (peace be upon him) showing empathy, when it was even justifiable to show anger, or distaste, or even to retaliate strongly.

Any instance where he had to dismiss a person, whether saying they’ll never accept, or allowing someone to fight them in a battle if they provoked it…these were all times when Allah had to instruct the Prophet (peace be upon him), to do so, even though he disliked it, and would’ve preferred to let things go, or leave people be.

If the greatest man to walk the earth was also the man with the greatest empathy for every single person, and also the man who had the most impact and influence in changing the world —- can’t we stand to have sympathy for the person we disagree with?

Can’t we see that, in different circumstances, we’d want someone to have sympathy for us? And that if we keep denying ourselves the ability to feel for each other, then we’re just accepting that when we need help, when we need someone to understand and not judge or to turn us away…we ourselves established the culture that guaranteed no one would have any sympathy for us.

It starts simply.

Hate crimes, terrorism, economic inequality — all of our worst problems…they start, simply, with this statement, this declaration that I have no sympathy for this other human being, and instead of trying to understand them, I’ll choose instead to tweet sarcastically about them, to talk ill of them to people who don’t even know them, to slowly let hatred grow in my heart, and at some point…I’ll choose to pull out a weapon, or press a button, or cast a ballot that will harm humanity so much more than I even realize.

Stop giving up on your ability to understand where someone else is coming from. FIGHT the hatred that starts simply with a statement that says you can have no sympathy…

If you can’t, I’ll try to understand why, and have sympathy for the reasons you believe in, and then we can go from there.