His brightly polished royally brown oxfords tapped along the cool morning pavement as he rushed to who knows where on a brisk morning. Surrounded by celestial sky scrapers and monumental edifices, he was reminded that he was where he belonged. In front of Copley Square, he noticed a homeless man struggling to find comfort on a bench painted by morning dew. I stood near the intersection’s curb, watching the two classes intersect. It’s these moments that remind me of the deep fissure of inequality that cuts across our society and that can reinforce so many stereotypes if one lets them. However, there is a different way to look at this very same scene.
I’ve passed by this kind of sight daily on my way to school and I’ve realized that the easiest thing to do when passing by someone who looks so destitute is to think that they are lazy people, undeserving of the petty change that rattles in their cup. After all, why can’t they get a job or an education like me and make something of their lives? However, we must step back and contemplate whether such judgments are really an evaluation of these peoples’ character as much as it is an attempt to raise our own image and satisfy our own need to feel superior. The latter is much too often the basis of our critical conclusions.
Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported that the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “No one who has the weight of a seed of arrogance in his heart will enter Paradise.” Someone said, “But a man loves to have beautiful clothes and shoes.” The Prophet said, “Verily, Allah is beautiful and He loves beauty. Arrogance means rejecting the truth and looking down on people” (Sahih Muslim).
Rejecting truth and looking down on people can have several manifestations. Of course, there is the obvious insult but there is also the pervasive yet hidden inner smirk you give yourself when you see someone slipping. Maybe it’s because you don’t realize that were it not for incredibly auspicious circumstances you could have been the one being looked down upon, satisfying the passerby’s ego. When you think of all the people in the world that were born in difficulty and toil, you wonder, are they in that situation because they are worse people than me? When we realize that the answer is often a resounding ‘no,’ we appreciate the reality that our wealth, health, and lifestyle are as much of a test for us as is the struggling of those in abject conditions.
The reality is we can’t discern who is really a product of hard work and self-sustained motivations and who is a victim of our defunct societies. We cannot assume the worst of that individual despite how easy it may be. I think one of the most valuable skills a person can embody is empathy. Empathy is what prevents you from looking down on someone who doesn’t enjoy the same favors you do, and instead, realizing that you have no idea what the other is going through; and were you to be put through the same set of trials you may come out in a worse situation.
Empathy is what lies at the heart of it all. Whether you are passing by a homeless man, speaking to a friend about a low grade, or hearing from a close one that they are experiencing difficulties with family or even struggling in faith, we need to remember that our own successes are not entirely the products of our toil and sweat but a result of a spark of divine blessing that allows us to enjoy the innumerable favors that we do. Knowing that, we must still realize that whatever good we are blessed with may either be a tool to increase the blessing or a testimony that will profess our ineptitude to be thankful on the day we meet our Lord and Master.
As Allah says in Surah Ibrahim, verse seven, “And remember! Your Lord caused to be declared (publicly), “If ye are grateful, I will add more (favors) unto you; But if ye show ingratitude, truly My punishment is terrible indeed.”
The least we can do is acknowledge the favors that we have and help others no matter how undeserving they may seem. How easy can you get a job interview when you didn’t have a place to shower and no comb to coif your hair and no deodorant to mask the humiliation of your state? People are more complex than we understand and it behooves no one to ignore these precious subtleties so that we can inflate our own worth. If we remember to be empathetic and feel what it is like to be in another person’s shoes, then we can support each other on the path to fulfillment and self-realization, culminating in pleasing our Lord.