Sometimes when my kids ask me for help with certain things, I specifically don’t help them.
When they make a mess, I deliberately have them clean it up themselves. When they ask particular questions, I direct them to a book to look it up instead of immediately giving them the answer myself.
I consciously step back and let my children struggle, strive, fail, become frustrated, pick themselves back up, try again, make mistakes, fix the mistakes, and seek alternative solutions.
This used to be hard for me as a mom, but it has gotten easier over the years alhamdulillah.
As I’ve grown older and gained more experience with childrearing, I’ve realized some important realities:
I am a mother, not a martyr.
My children are adults-in-training, not perpetual babies.
Sometimes the most helpful thing you can do is to step back and not be overly helpful. Get out of the way.
This applies to our relationship with our children, but also to other relationships in our life.
You can’t solve other people’s problems all the time. You can’t save people from themselves if they aren’t ready to help themselves. You can’t over-function to compensate for people who under-function.
For some people, this can be a hard lesson to learn. Those of us who are empathetic by nature, who feel obliged to help, who are moved to do for others, this is often a nearly impossible concept to truly grasp. The feelings of guilt and anxiety get too strong.
We are, socially, taught to be kind, to have empathy, to show compassion. We are pressured to help others, moved by guilt or pity or a sense of obligation.
And these directives are true, in some cases. These values of kindness, empathy, and compassion are excellent values. As Muslims, we know this.
But…at what point does empathy become enabling?
At what point does compassion become coddling?
At what point does repeatedly asking for mercy become manipulation?
At what point does our help simply teach others to become helpless, dependent on us continuously, and irresponsible for their own actions?
Sometimes, when someone we care about makes bad decisions, we feel compelled to shield them from the results of their poor decisions, instead of letting them face the natural consequences of their actions.
Our empathy for them compels us to constantly bail them out, to fix or cover for their mistakes, to swoop in to save the day. We absorb the impact so that they don’t feel a thing.
The pattern becomes cemented: we are the eternal saviors/ helpers, and they are the eternal victims/ babies.
This, done for years or decades, will yield disastrous results.
Not only for us, the perpetual helpers who will feel emotionally burned out, but also for them, the perpetual victims who never learn to change.
Anything given in unchecked excess causes damage.
If parents have excessive empathy for their children, they may coddle, pamper, and baby the children until they grow into entitled, irresponsible, incompetent overgrown infants with no life skills who become a burden to society.
If a husband has excessive compassion for his wife who acts unjustly, he may continually overlook her egregious behavior, go along with her tyranny, or repeatedly excuse her bad actions with some feel-good platitudes about “love” or “wisdom” or “mercy” even while the rights of innocents are usurped.
If a friend has excessive empathy for another, they may never comment on bad behavior, never give sincere advice that’s badly needed, never hold up a mirror to their wild, wayward friend who lacks accountability.
If a popular “Islamic speaker” is laser-focused on ideas of mercy and love in Islam exclusively at the expense of concepts like Islamic justice and Islamic rules and principles, he ends up grossly distorting people’s understanding of the deen in the name of “tolerance” or “prophetic adab.” Such people mis-portray Islam as some feel-good Christian-like “God loves you” and “Don’t judge” and “Piety is only in your heart” fluff with no substance. This misplaced, over-exaggerated, heavy-handed “compassion” is why we call such speakers “Compassionate Imams.” (In Arabic we call them “el imams el cute.”)
Of course, compassion, empathy, and mercy are wonderful and important values–but they are not to be applied indiscriminately in any and all situations blindly. This is true on the societal, the familial and the individual levels.
Mercy must be tempered with justice.
Love must be tempered with discipline.
Empathy must be tempered with reason.
Feelings must be tempered with facts.
Emotions must be tempered with logic.
Emotional reactions must be tempered with reality and rationality.
Otherwise, when we over-apply excessive empathy, thinking we are helping others, in reality we are only hurting them and ourselves.