Forgiveness and Respect

Although I’ve written on this subject before, I find myself still continuing to regularly grapple with forgiveness and respect – for myself. 

Earlier today a friend posted something from a Christian site that I found to be very powerful and true for all of us, regardless of religion – or lack thereof.  It stated:

“true respect for another comes from self respect. True love for another comes from self love.   True forgiveness for another comes from self forgiveness.” 

How true this is.  We can’t actually connect to others or have any impact on others until we first deal with ourselves.  Jesus (as) is reported to have said in the Bible that we must take the plank of wood out of our own eye before we can comment on the speck of dust in another person’s eye.  But, in order to begin that process, we must first see ourselves honestly.  Prophet Muhammad (saws) said the one who knows himself knows God.  What does that mean?  It essentially means that knowing yourself opens the door to understanding the world around you and all that is in it.  You must truly know yourself before you can know others, and most certainly before you can truly know God.   

My friend also commented that she found the advice timely as she had been “beating (herself) up” over some past sins that God had long forgiven.  Her thoughts resonated with me because I often do the same thing.  Past sins and mistakes sometimes come hurtling back, hitting me like a runaway train, paralyzing me with shame, fear, and self-loathing, leaving me incredulous that I could have ever done such a thing. 

Yet I often wonder what role our past sins and mistakes should have in our lives.  We should not forget them altogether, because then we may not remember the pain and anguish we suffered through the experience, and the important lessons learned may quickly fade.  We may also find ourselves back in the same place again because we failed to keep in mind the small, seemingly inconsequential steps we took initially that eventually brought us to that horrid place.  Yet in contrast, if we always think about our past sins, we may render ourselves unable to pick ourselves up and move on, paralyzed by the shame and self-hatred.  In essence, we can’t forget our past but we also can’t get lost in it.  It’s a difficult balance to maintain.  

Further, if we lose ourselves in our past sins, we’ll be unable to forgive ourselves, which means we won’t be able to love ourselves, and certainly not respect ourselves.  And if we can’t do that, we will have great difficulty in doing that with others in a way that feels genuine and real to the other person.     Yet, if we easily forget our past and dismiss it quickly, self forgiveness, love, and respect may be shallow, and perhaps not even a conscious process, which may eventually lead to not being aware that we’ve messed up in the first place.  Our ethics with others may be superficial as well; fleeting, changing, insincere.  We will quickly find ourselves repeating the same mistakes over and over, either wondering why it keeps happening, or perhaps simply accepting it as an uncontrollable way of life, part of our personality or environment.  And eventually, some may become completely unaware that they’ve done something wrong, and others may even begin to boldy defend their actions as something good.  

As human beings, we have a tendency to block out the bad things and remember only the good.  Think back to your own childhood or to any fond memory.  Chances are, it’s a warming, glowing, positive memory – with nothing negative clouding the view.  In fact, maybe someday you’ll look back on this moment in time right now with fondness, completely forgetting all the hardship and agony you may currently be facing!  So, it appears that we should actually make concerted efforts to remember the shameful, sinful things we’ve done and struggle retain what it felt like and how we got there – because otherwise… we’ll quickly forget. 

A careful balance is necessary though, because if we go too far, it will be difficult to hold our heads up high, speak with any confidence, or even feel worthy to have friends or other relationships.  Ali ibn Abu Talib (as) encouraged us to look at those less fortunate than us.  This doesn’t mean only financially, but in all other aspects as well.  If you keep your sights set on the big picture, you’ll have a more accurate view of yourself and how you fit in with the world around you.  Chances are, you aren’t that bad.  And even if, in the worst case, you ARE that bad, more than likely you aren’t bad in EVERYTHING in your life.  You probably have something not so bad, or perhaps…. even something good. 

You might think that you’re the only one you know with this particular situation so you have no one less fortunate to look to, but in that case, I would suggest looking online!  There are forums on every possible subject imaginable in which people, strengthened by the anonymity the internet provides, share their stories and experiences with more honesty and detail than they ever would in real life.  Reading the accounts of others is eye-opening.  If you still don’t find someone in a worse situation than you, at the very least you’ll find someone who is similar to you, which helps to make you feel not so alone, and – not so bad. 

So, we can’t forget what we’ve done… but we can’t let it destroy ourselves either.  As Hussain ibn Ali aptly stated, “Moderation is wisdom.”  And so it is.  Balance, moderation… this is the wisest – yet most difficult – path.

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Trials and Tests

Once again, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  There are numerous reasons for my silence – the same reasons as always: too busy and too stressed from work and health problems (which inshAllah will get better soon).  But, on a related note, I wanted to cite a few verses of Quran which are constantly on my mind, especially during these trying times:

Do people think they will be left alone after saying, “We believe,” and not be tested?” (29:2)

“Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits of your toil, but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, who say, when afflicted with calamity, “To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return,” they are those on whom descend blessings from Allah, and mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.”  (2:155-157)

I memorized the first verse when I first converted, as I knew that I would be facing a long, difficult journey ahead of me.  I realized from the beginning that I would be tested – and indeed, I have been. 

Too often, people look at trials and hardship as the result of God being unfair – in fact, some even leave religion altogether because they don’t understand how a fair God could allow such things to happen to innocent people.  Yet, what they fail to realize is that life in this world is not the end all, ultimate destination.  Rather, this life is a test for our placement in the eternal world of the hereafter; it is a transitory, temporary phase of existence.   

The reality is that our current life sucks.  It’s incredibly difficult.  For hard-working, sincere, “good” people, it’s usually even more miserable, with hardship after hardship; it seems they never manage to get a break.  For the careless and self-absorbed, they seem to get off easy; life is fun and effortless.  But actually, life in this world is like the kind of test in which you answer one question correctly and you are automatically upgraded to a harder question, and if you get it wrong, you’re downgraded to an easier question.  In the end, you get the score you deserve.  The only difference between this test and real life is that in life, God is there helping you along the way, showing you the steps to take, and in fact, giving you all the answers.  But some of us are arrogant and want to do it on our own.  Still others would rather not be taking a test at all and instead just play around and not take it seriously.  Yet the inescapable reality is that we all are in this test, whether we like it or not. 

Life tests come in all shapes and sizes.  As in the aforementioned verse, we can be tested with our financial security (hunger).  Or with the lives of those around us (family, friends) – or with our own lives.  Or with a loss of our possessions, or despite all our hard work and best intentions, being blocked at seemingly every turn.  In tests like these, some people put their faith in God and rely on Him more as they realize that their sustenance does not come from our material world, but from God alone.  Yet others turn away from God during hardship, blaming God and feeling sorry for themselves for being given such an unfair life. 

Tests can also come in the form of blessings and ease.  Not only does God want to reveal (to ourselves) how we react to hardship, but He also wants us to see how we respond when things are going well.  Some people are grateful and thank God continuously for the blessings He’s granted, while others forget God and attribute their success to themselves alone. 

Why do we have tests at all really?  Especially since God already knows the state of our hearts?  Well, even though a teacher can generally get an idea of how a student will do even from the very beginning of the class, the student still needs to go through the coursework and various assessments so that they will know that they got the grade they received because of their own actions.  Not because the teacher liked them or didn’t like them; rather, their grade is based on actual proof and evidence of their performance.  Likewise, on the Day of Judgment, when our final ‘grades’ are revealed, we will be unable to argue that it was unfair – our actions will be unfolded and replayed before our own eyes as clear proof.  We earned our final grade, fair and square.  And in fact, God is more merciful and loving than any teacher could ever be – He gives us numerous chances to start over despite how often or how badly we mess up, and He even went to all the trouble to give us all the answers via prophets and holy books.  So if we still end up getting a bad grade in the end, despite all the invaluable assistance and support we’ve been given all along the way, it is truly fully and thoroughly deserved. 

So if you find yourself in the midst of trials and are feeling particularly down about it all, cheer up.  God tests the believers.  The harder the test, the further along you are and the better shape you’re in.  Just like an athlete who must undergo an arduous, strenuous training regimen, or the MD student who faces rigorous, extensive testing of their knowledge and expertise, so must the believer pass through difficulty to make it to the final destination.  Of course, the testing period is extremely difficult, but the athlete, the MD student, and the believer keep striving forward because they know very well the wonderful reward that lies at the end.