Self-control: Anger as Weakness

My new venture in posting hadith has turned out to be more difficult than I thought it would.  I’m finding that I’ll decide on a hadith that I’d like to post and then as I begin reflecting on it, many more hadith come to mind, along with relevant research, ideas, examples, experiences… and then I realize that I need to do a lot of work getting sources and making sure all my facts are straight – and suddenly I find that a few days have passed now and I still haven’t posted anything!  So, my task for now is to try to keep it simple! 

“The one who angers you, conquers you.” -Prophet Muhammad (saws)

(Bismillah arrahman arraheem.)

This hadith, although seemingly simplistic and basic, has massive relevance to our daily interactions, and is much harder to put into practice than one might think. 

Essentially, the message is that if we become angry or upset in response to someone else, we have effectively allowed them full control over our emotions.  They win, basically.  You could have the best comeback in the world; you could succeed in making them upset too – but they still have won by being able to exert that much power over your emotions.  Yet, it is important to remember that your emotions are yours and no one else’s.  You have the ability to conquer and control them, and allowing others to do so instead reveals the lack of control you have over yourself. 

Some people thrive on getting a rise out of other people, as they understand quite well that once the other person gets upset, they’ve won the game.  One of my brothers has always enjoyed this ‘game’ ever since we were kids.  He would pester my other brother and me until we started getting annoyed and responding back negatively.  The more upset we got, the more he laughed.  The more he laughed, the more frustrated we got!  Eventually he would walk away, satisfied and entertained, and we would be left fuming and powerless by our inability to affect him.  He won by succeeding in making us upset – and we lost because he simply smiled and laughed off our vicious attacks intended to hurt him or make him angry. 

Similarly, when we find ourselves getting upset by another person, we need to take a deep breath and take back control of our emotions.  It doesn’t mean that we should repress our negative feelings altogether, but it does mean that we should take a more logical approach to responding to others.  Even the Bible encourages responding without negative emotions, as Proverbs 15:1 states, “A soft answer turns away wrath.”  Instead of becoming angry and emotionally attacking back, we should first look at the bigger picture to see what is really going on, and then decide what is the best way to proceed in order to achieve the desired results. 

If we approach the people who we interact with on a daily basis in this way, many small fires can be put out easily and huge arguments can be prevented.  Many times, fights with a spouse or a family member often stem from something very minor, but spiral out of control when one or both parties relinquish control of their emotions. 

Reacting to someone with full control of your emotions and assessing the actual intention behind the words or action can cause completely different results.  For example,  let’s say a father starts to lecture his daughter about her habit of being late and the importance of being on time.  She could deal with his words on a surface level and ignore the intention behind it, which could cause her to feel angry, become defensive and start arguing back.  Or, she could understand that his intention is only to help her be more successful in life (but perhaps he just chose to deliver the message ineffectively, by lecturing), and instead thank him for his concern, ignore his gruffness, and agree that being on time is important (while not necessarily acknowledging any accusations).  She has now de-escalated the conflict, he feels that his message has been received and will likely stop lecturing her, and she has retained full control of her emotions and both can walk away feeling positive. 

Of course, not all words or actions have a positive intention behind them, so in those cases it is important to first recognize their intention and then determine the source of their intention – while still retaining control of your emotions.  Then you will be in a position to rationally determine what the appropriate course of action should be. 

For instance, perhaps someone is ridiculing your faith.  In this situation, you may determine that a. their intention is to make you upset, and b. their intention stems from ignorance.  So, instead of responding to their intention, you could instead go to the actual source and address their ignorance. 

Of course, all this can be challenging to actually put into practice, and it is unlikely that you will be able to be fully successful on your first attempt.  It will take a great deal of practice, time, patience, and above all, self control.  You have to constantly remind yourself to look at the bigger picture and not be tempted to give in for short term satisfaction (with long term negative results).

Hadith for Saturday, March 20th

Bismillah arrahman arraheem,

I have decided that in addition to writing lengthier posts (such as the series on intercultural marriage and other topics), I will also post hadiths with a brief explanation periodically, as doing so takes much less time and is something I can do throughout the week.  It usually takes a lot of time and mental effort to write the longer posts, so in lieu of going for a few weeks at a time when I’m too busy to post, doing smaller, more manageable posts in the meantime might be a good solution to keeping my blog still active.  So, I’ll post hadith that I particularly like, as well as expand my knowledge by finding new ones as well. 

“Uncover your secret only to one who is nobler in faith than you, and thus you will find nobility.  If you do this, you will find well-being.”  -Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, Lantern of the Path.

The message of this hadith is essentially that if you have a problem or issue in your life, it is unwise to discuss it with others at random.  Instead, you should think carefully before opening up to anyone, and consider that person’s position in relation to yours.  Is this someone who could really understand your situation?  Is this someone who has a great deal of knowledge about the religion?  Someone who is wise and experienced? 

For example, if your car is making strange noises, you wouldn’t tell the cashier in a grocery store about your situation – the clerk may be sympathetic, but they are unable to actually help you.  In fact, if they do attempt to advise you, they may even give you misleading or incorrect advice.  Instead, if you are having an issue with your car, you would go to a mechanic and ask an expert. 

Likewise, if you are dealing with a specific issue in your life, be cautious in revealing it to others; only reveal your issue to someone who is in a higher position to advise you.  Disclosing your problems to others thoughtlessly can cause a host of other problems.  Others may give you poor or false advice.  They may turn around and gossip about you behind your back.  They may misunderstand your situation, or they may use it against you.  Others’ perceptions of you may change as well – perhaps they previously saw you in a certain way, but may subsequently attribute all sorts of other assumptions to you when they find out that you are dealing with a certain situation. 

A common issue that comes up frequently is when a female having an issue in her relationship confides in her close female friends.  The friends provide sympathy, perhaps may comment on what they would do in that particular situation, and will typically always side with the female.  Yet, when the issue is resolved later, the female will move on in her relationship while her friends still retain a bad image of her partner, and may begin to give suggestions based on that negative image – even to the point of suggesting that the female end her relationship.  Thus, the friends, while trying to be helpful and sympathetic, will subsequently have a negative impression of the partner that is unlikely to change since they aren’t directly involved in the situation and likely don’t hear about the partner’s positive attributes as much as they hear about his negative aspects.

Instead, the woman in this situation may be better off talking to a professional or someone who she deems to be experienced in this particular area about her relationship issues.  She could also talk to a religious leader, who also has training and religious knowledge of how best to deal with the situation.  Both of these individuals are unlikely to hold a grudge, gossip about the other person, or allow this particular situation to inappropriately color their perception of the other person. 

One thing to note is that Imam as-Sadiq mentioned specifically talking to someone who is higher in faith than you.  In Islam, this is by far the best option, as someone more advanced in Islamic faith and knowledge will have a well-rounded knowledge of life and the human experience in general, due to the wisdom and incredible knowledge available from the Quran, the Prophet, and his family.  This person will not only be able to speak to your situation, but they will also give you advice grounded in the religion.  Someone who is merely experienced in a certain area but not in religion may be able to understand your situation, but may not give you Islamically sound advice, and may lead you in the wrong direction. 

This particular hadith has made a huge impact on my own life.  I used to have the attitude that my life is an open book and I have no secrets and nothing to be ashamed of – so I would talk to anyone about practically anything in my life.  After converting to Islam, I realized the folly in such an attitude, because I noticed that sometimes some people would start to treat me differently or not respect me as much, and at one point several vicious rumors had started about me that were based on what I had said but had been exaggerated to the extent of being untrue and very hurtful.  So while it relieved some stress initially to get my problems off my chest, in the long run the effects were quite deleterious and damaging.  I would have been better off holding my tongue and seeking out someone who is in a better position to understand my particular situation and who can offer sound advice.

Intercultural Marriage: Sex

Sex.  It seems like such a basic, simple process – how could there be any disagreement about that?  But alas, such is not the case, and sex, even among same-culture couples, continously ranks as one of the top most argued about subjects (money, sex, and kids).  There are many issues surrounding sex that stem from unconscious beliefs and views that few have taken the time to reflect on.

Purpose

The purpose of sex may vary due to the culture or religion of an individual.  In some cultures (i.e. Western culture), sex is seen as a pleasurable, loving act between a couple, in which mutual enjoyment is key.  Yet others might believe that sex is necessary for procreational purposes and little else.  Female enjoyment is not necessary or even desireable in some cases.  On the extreme end, in some FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints) Mormon circles, sex for pleasure between a married couple constitutes adultery!  Even if a person does not espouse the beliefs of their childhood or culture, having grown up in such an environment can have a profound impact on their ability to feel comfortable sexually.  Even in the US, women from more conservative backgrounds often have trouble combatting years of sexual repression, and struggle to be able to express themselves sexually in a healthy manner.    

When

When to have sex is a conflict common even among same culture couples, as ‘normal’ frequency depends solely on an individual’s unique needs.  Nevertheless, culture plays a role in determining our beliefs regarding how much is enough.  Even some religions weigh in on the debate: Islam stipulates that a certain number of months without sex is grounds for divorce, and recommends sex every few days. 

Further muddying the waters, once a woman becomes pregnant, many men the world over have difficulty seeing mothers as sexual and may no longer desire their partner.  In fact, Western studies show that the ‘best’ time for a man to have an affair is when the female is pregnant or has just given birth!  This unconscious belief that pregnant women/mothers aren’t sexual is unfortunate, as pregnant women often experience an increased libido due to the hormone changes (particularly if she’s pregnant with a boy).  Yet, it is not just a belief common among men – some women hold this belief as well and may not feel comfortable having sex while pregnant or just after giving birth. 

Many religions and cultures deem sex during menstruation as taboo, so that could cause conflict as well if a couple is from differing religions or cultures.    

Birth Control

Beliefs regarding birth control also vary greatly.  Some religions prohibit birth control altogether (i.e. Catholicism, FLDS, for instance).  Even the types of birth control allowed may vary.  Some women may not want to take birth control due to the numerous negative side effects, and some men may not want to use condoms due to discomfort or allergy.  Clearly, the potential for conflict regarding birth control is great.

Closing

Clearly, open communication is essential for navigating the sensitive, yet elemental waters of sex and all that it entails in an intercultural relationship.  Many are hesitant and feel uncomfortable discussing sex, yet since it ranks as one of the top three most argued about issues plaguing married couples, it is of utmost necessity to do.  If talking to your partner directly about it seems too overwhelming, start first by finding out what your partner’s culture believes about sex, and work your way inward.  Then move on to their subculture, religion, community, family, friends, and so on.  A person is unlikely to escape from all these spheres of influence unscathed and unaffected.

Intercultural Marriage: Food and Drink

What we eat and what we drink seem like innocent, every day issues that we would never expect to be a problem in a relationship.  Yet, even same-culture couples experience difficulty in this area: one partner likes certain foods while the other likes something else.  Likewise, in an intercultural relationship, tastes in food and drink can vastly differ.  The food once thought to be exotic and fascinating in the beginning of the relationship soons begins to appear distasteful and the longing for one’s own comfort food creeps in.  Not only can tastes differ, but so can many other aspects surrounding meals: where the meal is eaten, who is present, the timing of the meals, the importance of the meals (which meal is the main meal), what constitutes good table manners, and so on.

What

What is eaten is often the easiest potential problem to spot.  It can be obvious that if a couple has differing likes and dislikes, disagreements may occur later down the road.  Some people are naturally adventurous and enjoy trying new foods.  Others have a difficult time and are psychologically grounded in foods from their childhood and may become allergic or sick to new foods.  I can personally testify to that – I’ve always cautiously tried new foods, but trying is one thing, eating it for a main meal numerous times is something completely different! 

When studying abroad in Japan, my host family seemed to enjoy eating okonomiyaki quite often for dinner (a pancake type thing with various vegetables and meats in it, topped with either mayonnaise or a brown sauce).

 

I’d had it before and liked it, but having a large portion drowned in the slimy brown sauce before being served to me and then being expected to eat all of it was a different story.  I got sick more than once from trying in vain to force it down (if I didn’t eat it, the host mother would have become angry and I would have been told how rude I was, how my mother didn’t raise me right, and other various insults that I wanted to avoid).  However, if  I had been given a choice of toppings, I would have discovered that it was quite delicious with mayonnaise!

Our emotional states may dictate the foods we crave; feeling sad, stressed, overwhelmed, or even homesick may cause us to desire specific foods that we believe to be the only thing that can soothe us.  When sick, we also desire certain foods that are highly culture specific.  We may be causing more distress out of our loving desire to help a sick partner by plopping down a bowl of chicken noodle soup and 7-up in front of them, when what they really desire is something completely different – and they may be too sick to communicate that. 

Religious and lifestyle choices dictate specific dietary needs.  A Muslim may avoid alcohol, pork, non-halal meat, and certain seafoods.  Hindus do not eat beef, Buddhists avoid all meat, vegetarians avoid all meats, and some people prefer to eat only organic food.  The first time I proudly made chicken enchiladas (sans chicken) for my Muslim partner (I was not Muslim at the time), I was devastated when, instead of diving in immediately, he poked at it suspiciously and declared that he couldn’t eat it.  Unbeknownst to me was that the cream of chicken I had used had very small chicken pieces in it!  These seemingly insignificant things that we completely take for granted can have a huge impact when in a relationship with someone from another culture or belief system. 

Certain holidays specify certain foods; Christmas traditions vary all over the world, Muslims abstain from food during Ramadhan, and various other holidays have specific customs and food that may seem strange to a newcomer but essential to the rest.   

When

Some cultures prefer to have the big meal of the day in the evening; others at midday.  Some prefer to have a large breakfast, while some may eat something small or nothing at all.  In some families, people may eat individually, yet in others everyone is expected to eat together.  Even the timing of meals differs – some prefer to eat right at noon, while others may eat at 2.  Some may eat between 5-7, others from 9-12.  With all the individual and cultural variation, there’s no predicting what may happen in an intercultural relationship! 

I managed to luck out since my family has always typically eaten late (often between 7-9) when I was growing up, and I continued this trend in college.  My partner comes from a culture in which the evening meal occurs very late, even as late as midnight!  So, having late meals is something we both peacefully agree on (although sometimes he’ll decide he wants to eat about the time I need to go to bed so I can get up for work the next day…).  We also prefer to have the main meal in the evening, yet in some Latin American countries, the main meal is the midday meal.  This can be a challenge for a foreign wife who is suddenly expected to make a huge meal in the middle of the day! 

Where

Some families like the meal to be a somewhat formal occasion and may use the dining room for all the meals.  Others may be content with simply eating in the kitchen, or even on bar stools next to the kitchen counter.  Some cultures dictate that all family members must be present for at least the main meal, others are more flexible and make adjustments for busy schedules.  This can be a source of conflict between a couple or between one spouse and the other spouse and all the kids.  A foreign spouse in the US may expect everyone to be present for the main meal, yet be frustrated and hurt that the kids are too busy with extra curricular activities to eat with the family. 

Manners

Finally, manners can play a huge role in mealtime conflict.  In Japan for example, it is expected for one to slurp their soup, smack their lips, or belch in order to show satisfaction.  Whenever I went to restaurants, I was always a little disturbed by all the eating noises around me that I couldn’t help but perceive to be rude and childish.

Utensils are an important part of manners – which fork should be used for which foods, how should the spoon be used, the correct way of holding chopsticks, and even the appropriate way to use one’s hand for eating.  Some cultures have strict rules about what food items can be used with the various forks, spoons, and knives, while others are more lax.  Eating with chopsticks requires more skill than simply being able to pick up the food; there are manners dictating how you should pass food to another person using the chopsticks or how to serve yourself from the main dish with your chopsticks.  And of course, the biggest taboo of all for Japanese: never stick your chopsticks into a bowl of rice and leave them sticking out – this is the symbol for death!

I once had a Korean friend come to my house for Thanksgiving.  He had never seen this type of food before, and had no idea how to go about eating it.  Instead of waiting around to see what we did, he got busy mixing everything together into one large, brownish, unappealing-looking mess that he contentedly ate with a spoon.  Mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, turkey, yams, and cranberries all together…. we were amused but left him to eat it on his own! 

The first time my partner came with me to eat somewhere with my parents, he was nervously unsure about the whole thing because he wasn’t sure if he could use the utensils correctly, as he was so used to eating with his hands. 

 He believed that they would use utensils for everything since I do (I hate eating anything with my hands; I hate my hands getting dirty in general).  However, his fears were put to ease when he realized that while my siblings and I overused utensils, my parents didn’t, and none of us had any strict opinions on how utensils should be used either (my partner seems to like using a spoon for things that I think should be eaten with a fork – it confuses me to the point where I always ask him what he wants to eat with before every meal to avoid any potential conflict!). 

Even the way we handle food has certain norms attached to it.  For instance, I prefer to peel the skin off of a potato or cut vegetables and fruits with the knife going away from my hands.  My partner cringes every time he sees it and comments that his mother would pass out if she saw me doing that (and then he usually takes it from me and starts doing it himself).  The way one eats fruit also should be done in certain ways.  Peeling an orange has a certain technique for some (my Korean friends amaze me with how they manage to peel an orange so quickly and neatly – I always have a big mess of peels and juice everywhere by the time I’m done).  My partner also cringes at the way I eat dates – I have no idea how he can pop the whole thing in his mouth and spit the pit out within seconds.  I’ve tried but end up drooling all over myself and making a mess.  Instead, I just hold the date in my hands and squish the pit out – and then eat it.  He also pops seeds and nuts into his mouth with the shell and adeptly spits out the shells into the trashcan or into a pile beside him.  He is amused as I struggle with my hands to open the shells first – and I’ve given up trying to eat the smaller seeds with him! 

Drink

Even what we drink can have a cultural difference.  Some may like a cool glass of water or tea as they drink; others believe that drinking cool liquid is unhealthy (a former Korean boyfriend would watch in horror as I downed a big glass of cold water after exercising).  Even others may not drink anything at all during the meal (found this out when I was in Japan.  I was dying of thirst while everyone else was placidly eating).  Tea may be sweet or unsweetened (my Japanese friends almost gagged everytime they came to my house and sampled my mom’s southern-style sweet tea).  What may be a hot drink for one may not be nearly hot enough for another (try diving into a steaming cup of Arabic coffee – I waited for mine to cool down the first time I tried it, but my tongue was still burned for days!).  Every time my partner and I go for coffee, he always has to ask for his to be ‘extra hot’ because the default is not nearly hot enough for him! 

Closing

Food is such an integral part of our every day lives that it is bound to cause some sort of disagreement – or amusement – when we invite someone from a different culture into our personal, intimate space of daily life.  Although novel and entertaining at first, it may soon grow tiring and frustrating if both aren’t willing to have an open, adventurous attitude and are unable to see beyond the everyday issues to the big picture of their love and their reasons for being in a relationship as a whole.    

*Some concepts from Intercultural Marriage by Dugan Romano*