I can remember being very young and growing out of my favorite white dress with tiny red roses all over it.
I thought that by its sheer beauty it would make everything turn out ok, like it had for the girls with pretty dresses in fairytales.
I didn’t want to get any bigger so the dress wouldn’t fit, but that’s not how life works and soon I knew my mom would make me hand the dress down to my little sister.
I feared the day I would have to say goodbye to the red rose dress. But when that day came, I was surprised by the feeling of watching my sister enjoy the dress. She looked so beautiful and happy in it that not even my attachment to it could make me regret giving her the dress.
Having three sisters and two brothers, lessons about sharing and giving were present in everyday life. When I grew a little older, we read books like “The Giving Tree” and learned that handing down our favorite clothes and toys was our duty, that being nice and helpful could be fun and that thinking about others first was a priority. This kind of mentality was essential in a house full of kids. And we learned that it was essential in a world full of people.
As I came into adolescence, and wanted to spend all my time shopping, I learned that my little sister wasn’t the only one who needed others to share and give. Walking through the city, we would come across people who had nothing and begged just for something to eat or drink. And we were taught to give what we could.
My siblings and I were shown that charity, kindness, and helpfulness start with the family. And that being charitable, kind and helpful with those less fortunate was our next duty. I am sure most children have these experiences. But as we get older, we forget these lessons or call them naïve.
Learning a Different Lesson
And sure enough as I approached adulthood, the lessons shifted. Society started to teach me that the poor are poor because they are lazy or irresponsible. I started to learn political positions on poverty. History and political science teachers taught that if we feed the poor they will not learn how to get by on their own, that they will become dependent. I learned that the best thing you can do with your time and money is to work and save.
I was conflicted between the two ideologies and didn’t know which to trust. That is until two things happened: I converted to Islam and became an orphan. The Muslims in my community took me in and showed me every manner of kindness and expected nothing from me in return. I saw in them the look I had when I gave my red rose dress to my sister. When my new Muslim brothers and sisters showed me hospitality, smiled at me, shared their food with me, I could see their face brighten with joy.
I wanted to experience that joy I saw in them. After dealing with great sorrow from losing my parents and losing other people in my life when I came to Islam, I needed a coping mechanism, and decided that doing good for others was as good as any. What I found was that it was really better than any coping mechanism I have ever come across.
Helping people, visiting the sick, smiling, giving what little money I had to the destitute made me forget my problems and made me remember the joy I felt when I watched my sister in my red rose dress.
What Allah and His Messenger Say
I began to read about all the ways we can do good for others and remove our own burden in the process. I realized no act was too small when I read the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said:
“Do not dismiss certain acts of kindness by deeming them to be insignificant, even if (such and act) is to meet your brother with a smiling face (for that is a deed which might weigh heavily in your scale of deeds” (Muslim, 121)
And I came to realize that the saying of the Prophet (peace be upon him):
“Give charity without delay, for it stands in the way of calamity.” (At-Tirmidhi, 589) meant more than calamity in the next life. I saw that giving in charity removed the feeling of calamity from my life in the here and now in a big way.
It was the little actions I did that brought me joy in a time of much sorrow and hardship. But it was the big acts I did that brought miracles into my life. Every time I would give something, do something for someone for the sake of Allah, I always saw a return of that kindness in ways I never expected.
Science Substantiates these Claims
Science has come into our realm of understanding and time and time again it proves the truth Allah has already given us. Social scientist and researchers have studied the effects of charity on the human brain and our outlook.
According to psychologicalscience.org, “A brain-imaging […] showed that the “pleasure centers” in the brain, i.e., the parts of the brain that are active when we experience pleasure (like dessert, money, and sex), are equally active when we observe someone giving money to charity as when we receive money ourselves!”
The research proved that “giving to others even increases well-being above and beyond what we experience when we spend money on ourselves”.
Elizabeth Dunn, at the University of British Columbia, also conducted an experiment where “participants received a sum of money and half of the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves; the other half was told to spend the money on others. At the end of the study, which was published in the academic journal Science, participants who had spent money on others felt significantly happier than those who had spent money on themselves.”
Doing good to others doesn’t have to be grand gestures, small things like smiling can be a big deal to those who receive the kindness and those who do the kindness.
Try washing the dishes for a loved one or friend. Why not pay for another person’s meal in a restaurant. Remove something harmful from a path that people travel. Give even a little money to a charity. Offer water to those working outside in the heat. Cook extra food when making the family meal and give it to someone who you know is busy or in need. Complement someone who looks down. Tell people to have a nice day and mean it.
There are so many ways to be kind and giving. We cannot get wrapped up in thinking that this world is every person for him or herself. We cannot convince ourselves that people are only in need because they did something wrong. We cannot become miserly and hard hearted.
This is not the tradition of the best of mankind. This is not what Allah directs us to do. Allah tells us, The Prophet tells us, science tells us and our experiences all tell us that helping others not only benefits the receiver, it greatly benefits the giver.