Saeed Anwar Anuj
Reconciling Self-Care and Empathy
As life in this whirling globe moves at an increasingly faster pace, we often grapple to reconcile our own yearnings with the needs of others. The ubiquitous presence of technology and social media encircles us, offering both a sense of connection and a feeling of detachment. Sociologists and psychologists today harbor anxiety that we are losing touch with our inherent humanness—our capacity to empathize and exhibit compassion towards others.
The paradox of self-care and empathy stems from the ethical predicament of harmonizing individual rights and obligations with the wants and concerns of others. On the one hand, people ought to tend to their own needs to preserve their physical, mental, and emotional well-being. This arises from their intrinsic value as human beings and their entitlement to lead a dignified and rewarding life. On the other hand, people have a duty to tend to others, uphold the welfare of all individuals, and contribute to the greater good. This duty necessitates that individuals prioritize the needs of others over their own interests, even if it entails forfeiting their own well-being.
From a theological perspective, Abrahamic faiths, i.e., Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, indoctrinates the paramountcy of empathy and kindness. In fact, empathy and kindness are core values in all three of these faiths. These faiths exalt compassion and respect as cardinal virtues that all must uphold in word and deed.
The Quran, the holy scripture of Islam, instructs its adherents to "speak kindly to people; establish prayer; and pay alms-tax" (Surah Al Baqarah: 83) and "kind to parents, relatives, orphans, the poor, near and distant neighbors, close friends, 'needy' travelers, and that 'bonds-people' in your possession." (Surah An-Nisa: 36). It beseeches Muslims to embrace empathy and kindness as a way of life, to be generous and courteous to all, and to offer aid to those in need. Prophet Muhammad (Sallallahu Alayhi wa Sallam) proclaimed in a hadith shareef that "none of you [truly] believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself" (Al-Bukhari 13). This aphorism encapsulates the essence of Islamic teachings, urging Muslims to care for others as they would care for themselves. Furthermore, Islam exhorts Muslims to practice self-care as a form of gratitude and worship. Muslims believe that their bodies are a divine gift that must be cherished and nurtured. To this end, they must protect their health and well-being by adhering to God's laws and avoiding harmful practices. They must also nurture their souls by praying, fasting, giving charity, and performing pilgrimage. As the Quran says: "do not throw yourselves with your own hands into destrution" (Surah Al Baqarah: 195), Muslims must shun actions or words that harm themselves or others.
In Christianity, similarly, the benevolent teachings of Jesus Christ urge his devotees to "love your neighbor as yourself" and to treat others in the same way they would want to be treated. These treasured principles reflect the belief that every soul is made in the likeness of God* and, therefore, is entitled to be treated with respect and consideration. The Apostle Paul also asserted that people's bodies are sanctified as temples of the Holy Spirit, and thus individuals must honor God by taking care of their bodies (1 Corinthians 6: 19). This signifies that practicing self-care is not just a personal choice, but also a spiritual duty for Christians.
In Judaism, empathy is an indispensable virtue. The Talmud teaches that "he who is merciful to the cruel, will end up being cruel to the merciful" (BT, Shabbat 151b). This implies that while we must show compassion and understanding, we must also exercise discernment and not let others take advantage of us. Jewish teachings emphasize the importance of "loving your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19: 18), promoting empathy and kindness towards others. It's fascinating to note that Islam also places great emphasis on this commandment of "loving your neighbor as yourself". Self-care is a precious gem in the crown of Judaism. The Torah imparts wisdom that our bodies are a divine gift, and it's our duty to cherish them with care. Like a gardener tending to a garden, we must tend to ourselves with love and kindness. For even the Talmud warns us, "It is forbidden to harm oneself or cause oneself injury" (BT, Baba Metzia 30b). Thus, we must prioritize our well-being to better serve others and fulfill our responsibilities. The ancient wisdom of Jewish sources offers practical tips to foster self-awareness and manage stress. They advise us to reflect on our strengths and weaknesses, seek guidance from wise people, practice gratitude and forgiveness, and nurture positive emotions. By adopting these practices, we can restore our balance and harmony.
So, how can the teachings of these religions help us reconcile self-care and empathy in today's fast-paced world? Some may think that being compassionate and focusing on self-care are mutually exclusive. But in reality, compassion and self-care can coexist like two dancers in a graceful waltz. In fact, by taking care of ourselves, we become more empathetic and better able to care for others. For only when our own cup is full can we pour into the cups of others.
Another way is by prioritizing our self-care and empathy based on the situation. At times, we must prioritize our own well-being, like a gardener tending to their precious plants. Especially if we find ourselves drained and worn out, burnt by the flames of stress and exhaustion. Yet other times, we must prioritize the needs of others, like a bee buzzing from flower to flower, collecting nectar to share with the hive. Especially if those around us are in crisis or need urgent assistance. And let us not forget that these concepts of self-care and empathy are as dynamic as the ocean's tides, always in flux. Therefore, we must constantly assess our own needs and the needs of those around us and adjust our approach accordingly.
Indeed, the teachings of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism can guide us toward a harmonious coexistence of self-care and empathy in this modern world. True success and fulfillment can be achieved by striking a balance between caring for ourselves and showing compassion to others. So let us live a life of empathy and self-care, for in doing so, we can sow the seeds of kindness and make the world a better place for all.
14 March 2023
*This is true for most Christians, but not all. Some Christian denominations, e.g., Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons, have different views on what it means to be created in God’s image