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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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.

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/