The images are all too familiar. Scruffy, malnourished looking children with big, scared, sad eyes looking vacantly and hopefully at you. The haunting look so commonly ascribed to represent the orphan, their vulnerability, abandon and lack of hope all embodied in the caption of a single image that subtly says, ‘you can save them’.
It is important to also realize this. Not all orphans or children who lack a mother or a father or both are abandoned, impoverished or suffering. Similarly, not all children who have both parents alive have security and support against the hardships of poverty. In fact, it is not uncommon to find orphanages in some parts of the world where non orphan children from poor families are sent as a means to ensure that they are taken care of and given meals when the parents themselves are unable do so. But despite such cases, there is also the most commonly understood orphan, who lives in the face of poverty, vulnerable to types of exploitation such as child labour, human trafficking, and sex labour, to name only a few. This can happen when their access to school, healthcare, food, shelter and safety are jeopardized.
Orphans cannot be singled down to a single representation. We cannot forget that they have their own stories and their own unique lives. Their humanity cannot be captured in these silencing images that serve to promote excessive sympathy.
But what is wrong with sympathy?
The kind of sympathy that is often stirred in our hearts as we are fed these images is the sense of feeling sorry for someone’s condition. It is the kind of feeling sorry that is experienced from a distance, while perched in a position of privilege. This has its dangers for several reasons. If we are not careful in how we emotionally and behaviorally respond to those less fortunate, we can easily fall into the trap of developing a sense of self-entitlement. This is what I mean.
The stereotypical images of the abandoned orphan child, plead for us to ‘save them’. It is with this plea that we respond with the sense that we have the power to save them, and change their lives and that the wellbeing and mercy of their delicate, blossoming souls lay in our hands. That feeling, while meant to be empowering upon the person intending to help, can be subtly self-destructive. Feelings of power, or feelings of having a person’s life in one’s hands can lead to a delusional sense of invincibility towards one’s own privilege. Invincibility and self-entitlement make us forget about the fact that the makings of our very lives and the possessions we ‘own’ are actually gifts of Allah which He owns, and which He can, if He wills take back. In essence, we are utterly at His mercy, and the powers we are able to exert come from His great power, which He alone allows us to exercise.
Another important thing to remember is that it is Allah who provides and takes care of His creation. That our assistance towards someone is not the result of our own power to save them, but it is because of Allah’s power to assemble the circumstances in such a way so as to maintain the survival of those we help. This reminder should humble us to realize that our privilege and wealth is not self-endowed.. We do this out of obedience to Him, in response to the favours He has granted us, and it is His will that our assistance helps those who need it.
In these moments a few things are important to always keep in mind. Our duty towards individuals in our local or even global community is a virtuous duty. In Islam, we are frequently reminded of the virtues and the necessities of giving charity, assisting the vulnerable, the orphan and the hungry. This emphasizes communal cohesion, interdependence, and the concept of family that extends towards our family in humanity. By upholding these virtuous acts, we help to narrow the gap between the fortunate and less fortunate, as well as the effects of inequality and injustice that lead to such situations.
If not sympathy, what are we supposed to feel?
Having a humbling appreciation that what we own is not ours to claim, helps us develop an awareness of our own sense of vulnerability especially when faced with the stark reality of the condition of much of the world. The response is a sense of empathy, the experience of shared emotion, or ‘being in someone’s shoes’ where we almost experience the devastation that others experience. This bridges our hearts together with an inclination to alleviate the devastation.
The respect and dignity of orphans and other vulnerable people should be upheld through our humbling response towards them. Our actions to reach out and provide for others who have had their means of independent provision taken away from them, from the injustices and tragedies they experience, can help to restore their belief in the love that still pervades, and who’s reach is borderless. Assisting the orphan does more than provide them with protection and resources. It provides them with the inspiration and examples to lead their own adult lives, God willing.
About The Author
About The Author
A Tanzanian Canadian and globe trotter all my life, I hope to be a globe trotter for life. Besides working towards a double major in Bioethics and Anthropology, artsy endeavors in photography, writing, painting and especially poetry are the hallmark of my life. I’m a book lover and café lover, combine both and its heaven! I love watching documentaries and one day I hope to make one in honour of the people I hope to be an advocate for.
More From Reflections