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.

The Most Destructive Force: Ignorance

Often when we think of things that cause massive destruction and chaos, common images that spring to mind are guns, bombs, war, violence, and so on.  Yet while all of those are indeed destructive, their use does not happen randomly and without reason.  These are all symptoms of a greater cause – which is often ignorance.  Indeed those who are in power may not be ignorant but are instead in pursuit of power, wealth (resources), and so on, but the tool they use to garner the support of the population is almost always ignorance and disinformation.  Without the support of citizens, it can be very difficult for governing powers to wreck havoc on the world.  Thus, ignorance is our biggest enemy, and all of us must do our best to first identify the ignorance in ourselves, then second, seek knowledge to rid ourselves of the ignorance, and finally, do our best to spread truth to our utmost ability.

Imam Jafar as-Sadiq (as), one of the early descendants of Prophet Muhammad (saws), so eloquently discusses ignorance that I will simply quote him and not attempt to paraphrase:

“Ignorance is a form whose composition is of this world.  When it advances, there is darkness; when it retreats, there is light.

Sometimes you find that he [man] is ignorant of his own qualities and praises them, while he recognizes their faults in others and criticizes them.  At other times you find that a person knows his own nature and criticizes it, while praising the same in others.

The key to ignorance is being satisfied with the knowledge one possesses, and placing all one’s trust in it.  The key to knowledge is the desire to exchange one level of knowledge for a higher level, together with divine grace and guidance.

The lowest quality of an ignorant man is that he lays claim to knowledge which he does not deserve; his most common characteristic is ignorance of his own ignorance, and the most extreme aspect of his ignorance is to reject knowledge.”

(Imam Jafar as-Sadiq, Lantern of the Path p. 44).

In essence, when we feel satisfied with our knowledge and decide to stop learning, this is a big indicator that we are not knowledgeable but are in fact ignorant.  One thing I have experienced in my 9 years of higher education is that the more I learn, the more I realize that I know very little.  Delving beyond the surface and probing deeper and deeper into a subject opens our eyes to the unending facets and subleties that we had no concept of previously.  It then becomes a lifelong task to discover the world around us – there is far too much to learn in one single lifetime.  As the Prophet (saws) aptly exhorted, “Seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave.”

Being in constant pursuit of knowledge prevents us from living in the darkness of ignorance, and keeps us from making grievous errors against ourselves and others.  What a different world we would live in if we all just took the time to carefully research everything before adding it to our list of beliefs!  Discrimination against race, color, background, religion, and country would fade away and as a result, would avert so much violence, hatred, and bloodshed in the world.

In Pursuit of Wisdom

As a child, my fervent prayer was always that God would give me wisdom.  Prophet Sulaiman (as), even in Christian tradition, is known for his phenomenal wisdom, so I often scoured the book of Proverbs (supposed to have been written by him), searching for something that would make me wiser.  I thought that if I prayed hard enough, I would wake up one day and suddenly have all the answers and have a poignant, succint comeback for everything… yet it never happened. 

Now, several years later, I have come to realize that back then, I had no concept of what wisdom even was.  And, I certainly had no ability to determine whether someone had wisdom or not.  So, without any idea of what wisdom was or how to recognize it, I lacked the clarity to understand how to attain it. 

Since converting to Islam, I have finally come to see what wisdom truly is, and am now able to recognize it, due to the Quran itself, and to the examples of the lives of the Prophet (saws) and his Ahl-Bait.  In fact, the main reason for being so attracted to Islam, aside from the Quran, was the incredible wisdom of Imam Ali (as).  I was so blown away by even the simplest utterances he spoke.  I had never even imagined or encountered such deep wisdom and insight.  Learning more about Imam Ali also helped me to learn more about the Prophet, because as the Prophet said, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is the gate.”  Imam Ali never spoke of his own – he merely reflected what he learned from the Prophet.  What a vast ocean of knowledge the Prophet then must have!

Discovering Imam Ali and his relationship to the Prophet helped me to finally understand an essential component to the path to gaining wisdom – knowledge.  Having knowledge does not make you wise, yet it is impossible to be wise without having any knowledge.  Therefore, a key ingredient to gaining wisdom is by acquiring knowledge. 

So then, what is knowledge?  The Prophet was once asked this very question.  He responded by saying that first, knowledge is to keep silent.  Next, it is to listen attentively.  Then, it is to remember.  Next, it is to act on upon what was learned, and finally, it is to teach others (Al-Majlisi, Bihar Al-Anwar, vol. 2 p. 28). 

So, then, we must first be quiet – to stop talking, to stop guessing and making conjectures and adding our opinions – we need to stop everything and be silent, putting aside our stereotypes, preconceived ideas, and biases.  Then we need to listen.  Search out those who are knowledgeable and listen to them – don’t try to compete with them or judge that which you still do not have full knowledge of.  Also keep in mind that knowledge can be gained from even the most unlikely sources, so we must keep an open mind to the fact that knowledge is not confined to one particular belief system or worldview.  Once we start to listen, we then need to remember.  Listening is useless if we don’t try to preserve the information in our own minds somehow, so that we can process it and begin to live by it and act upon it.  Finally, we need to teach others – but not before all the prior steps have been completed.  As Imam Ali said, “The one who teaches and instructs themselves is entitled to more esteem than one who teaches and instructs others.”  Without having knowledge deeply imbedded in our own minds, it is impossible to effectively teach others.

Wisdom entails gaining knowledge.  Wisdom involves being able to conceptualize and understand life experiences, which cannot be done without knowledge and guidance.   We all know people who have had a lot of difficult experiences in life, but on closer evaluation, we often find that these experiences are patterned – the person continually does the same actions (mistakes) over and over again.  So then, does their experience alone make them wise?  No – because they lack the tools to analyze their experiences and learn from them – knowledge. 

So why is it important to be knowledgeable anyway?  Knowledge helps you understand yourself.  The Prophet mentioned that understanding yourself is the path to coming closer to God.  When you become self-aware,  you can more accurately and objectively see yourself and how you fit into the world.  You can also understand the world around you.  You become more aware of your Creator – and more grateful, thankful, humbled,and submissive.  Things are no longer sheer black and white – you will begin to see the abundance of various shades of color in between.  Being able to see the various levels and complexities of the world around us helps us to accurately classify and categorize, and then use that information to guide our steps.  As long as we are armed with true knowledge and pure intentions, we will never go astray from the true path.

As Imam Ali stated, “Knowledge is better than wealth.  Knowledge guards you, while you have to guard the wealth.  Wealth decreases by spending, while knowledge multiples by spending” (Nahj al-Balagha p. 600). 

The pursuit of wisdom is a complex path that takes an entire lifetime to travel.  The key to its attainment is taking each part of the process step by step, carefully and thoroughly, with patience and sincere intention. 

“One who proceeds on a path in pursuit of knowledge, God makes him proceed therewith on a path to Paradise.” (Prophet Muhammad, Al-Kulayni, Al Kafi, vol. 1). 

http://www.al-islam.org/nutshell/files/knowledge.pdf

Sermons, letters, & sayings of Imam Ali (Nahj al-Balagha): http://www.al-islam.org/nahj/