Our Empathy Ambassador Nura Farah writes stories so that people can better understand their differences. “For empathy to arise, one has to have the courage to face differences”, Nura says. As an author she believes that we need more different kinds of stories and viewpoints.
Nura Farah, you are an author and have written two books that tell stories about Somalia. Do you think it’s possible to learn empathy through literature?
Yes it’s possible. People can learn to understand other people and cultures through books. I write stories so that people can learn to understand differences, and to understand why a certain person is a certain way, what fears they have, and in what ways they are vulnerable. For a person to feel empathy, they must themselves have the courage to deal with their own feelings – and to be vulnerable.
Why do you think it’s important to talk about empathy?
It’s important to talk about empathy because empathy is part of humanity. It is our ability to see another person and relate to another person’s distress and pain. On a personal level empathy is important, because that’s how we understand humanity and humaneness. Empathy also occurs in encounters between people. In these interactions it is obvious that empathy should be constantly present – to be present in yourself, and also present in how you treat and encounter other people.
If you don’t feel empathy towards yourself it can be difficult to feel sympathy towards other people too.
I don’t think people talk enough about empathy. If we think for example about international trade deals, or climate change, they too are linked to empathy. We can’t consume this Earth forever, and we should think about how it affects other people as well. You should also feel empathy for yourself. We are a very performance-oriented society. If you don’t feel empathy towards yourself, you can become exhausted and worn out. If you don’t feel empathy towards yourself it can be difficult to feel sympathy towards other people too.
Have you ever noticed a lack of empathy?
I think Finnish people are very empathetic. It’s for example wonderful that there are so many fundraisers before Christmas when people give to others even if they don’t have much money. We try to keep everyone aboard and together. The Finnish welfare society is very empathetic – but of course you can never have too much empathy. Lack of empathy is evident in how we still struggle to understand people who have come from elsewhere and the obstacles they face. For empathy to arise, we should have the courage to face differences and think outside of our comfort zone. Difference doesn’t just mean skin colour – it can also mean sexual orientation, disabilities, or for example scars on your face.
Could Finland be a more empathetic society?
There are a lot of empathetic people in Finland. The Finnish welfare state supports us all, and hopefully will continue to do so in the future. There could be more empathy in social media. In social media people quarrel with each other over irrelevant things. In the media there could be more stories about people’s hardships. By hearing other people’s stories it is harder to ignore their suffering – although nowadays we tend to be very aware of such things. We do talk about many things, like being a vegetarian and climate change, but we always need more stories and different viewpoints.
Who is your empathy role model?
The great author Elie Wiesel is my empathy role model. He is a Holocaust survivor. He has talked a lot about lack of empathy, and his disappointment that there still are wars in the world. He talked for instance about the war in Rwanda and asked, “Have people still not learned about empathy?”. He is my role model because he didn’t want to feel anger, even though he had experienced a huge tragedy, losing both of his parents and his little sister in the Holocaust. But he still didn’t want to be angry, just to continue his own story. Through his own story he also empowered me to think that even though tragedies do happen they can also teach me to be empathetic.