By Wael Abdelgawad | IslamicSunrays.com
“When the seas of life are rough, grab a surfboard and ride the waves.”
That’s something my old friend Samayya used to say. Actually she used to say that she was “boogie boarding on the waves of life.”
So what does it really mean to ride the waves of life? Does it mean that the problems of life are irrelevant and we can just surf over them and have fun?
Not at all. If you know Samayya, then you know that life has never been easy for her. She was married to an abusive man, got divorced and raised a child on her own while working multiple jobs, and yet she always found a way to move forward. She never stopped seeking truth and growth. She struggled to provide for her children, not only financially but Islamically as well. Nothing was ever handed to her. She has had to work hard for every single step forward. So when she says she’s boogie boarding on the waves of life, you can be sure that it’s not the whimsical statement of some spoiled trust fund kid.
1. Don’t panic: Everyone Experiences Hardship
To me, Samayya’s statement is first of all an acknowledgement that life is hard – sometimes extremely so. Allah says,
“And We will surely test you with something of fear and hunger and a loss of wealth and lives and fruits, but give good tidings to the patient, who, when disaster strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah , and indeed to Him we will return. Those are the ones upon whom are blessings from their Lord and mercy. And it is those who are the [rightly] guided.” – Quran 2:155-157
The philosopher Philo of Alexandria said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” But we often don’t see into the depths of affliction that other people are experiencing. We pass people on the street, or we see them in the masjid, and we don’t realize that one person has a parent dying of cancer; another is caring for an aunt who suffers from dementia; another has a disabled or mentally ill child; another is living in an abusive relationship and cannot find a way out; another is facing the loss of his home; another has experienced divorce and is feeling the anguish of heartbreak and loneliness. (These are all examples from people I know in my own life).
We don’t see these things on the faces of strangers, and even the people we work with often keep such things to themselves. Maybe they don’t want to burden us, or maybe they don’t feel close enough to tell us, or maybe they don’t want to be seen as complainers. So we sometimes imagine that we are the only ones suffering.
When we know that every single person on this planet experiences pain and loss, we will not panic or despair when it happens to us. We will recognize that such trials are a part of life, and we can survive and come through the other side.
2. Trust in Allah’s Plan for You
People often ask, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The problem is that we human beings have narrow vision. Compared to Allah, we know nothing. A thing may seem bad, when in reality it is good for our souls or our futures. If you can permit me a clichéd example, you might miss an important flight and think that it’s a disaster, then the plane crashes and you realize your life was saved. In reality the consequences will not always be so obvious. You might be engaged to someone and so excited, then the engagement falls through and you are heartbroken and asking, “Why did this happen?” And what you don’t see is that maybe the person was unfaithful, or has a drug problem, or is violent, and Allah has saved you from a life of misery.
As Allah says,
But perhaps you hate a thing and it is good for you; and perhaps you love a thing and it is bad for you. And Allah Knows, while you know not. – Quran 2:216
So trust in Allah’s plan for you. This is why belief in Qadar (Divine predestination) is one our pillars of imaan (faith). Because we believe that Allah loves us, and is caring for us and guiding us, even in times of misfortune.
3. Don’t Think That You are Being Punished
In the same vein, so many people seem to think that hardships are a punishment from Allah. They write to IslamicAnswers.com – another of my websites – and they say, “Why is Allah angry with me? When will Allah stop punishing me?”
SubhanAllah, the truth is just the opposite. Allah attaches no value to the things of this world. That’s why you see so many of the corrupt and powerful living in material luxury. They are being given rope with which to hang themselves. Material comforts are meaningless to Allah. If Allah wants good for you, He tests you. Allah causes us to suffer in this life so that we can be purified, so we can grow and be ready for Jannah.
Doesn’t He say in the Quran:
Do the people think that they will be left to say, “We believe” and they will not be tried? But We have certainly tried those before them, and Allah will surely make evident those who are truthful, and He will surely make evident the liars. – Quran 29:2-3
The waves of life run roughshod over everyone. If you read about the lives of the Prophets, they all suffered in one way or another, some to an extreme degree.
Our Noble Messenger Muhammad (pbuh) never knew his father, then lost his mother at a young age, then his grandfather. He had garbage dumped on his back in Makkah, and stones thrown at him in Ta’if until his shoes filled with blood. He lost his wife Khadijah (ra) because of the hardship of the boycott against the Muslims. He lost his son. He suffered.
Look at the lives of the Sahabah; many were tortured, and some were tortured to death. Do you think that Allah was punishing them? No, He was martyring them! They were heroes!
4. Check Yourself
Even if your misfortune is a punishment, it’s still a blessing because it means that Allah has chosen to punish you in this dunya (earthly life) for your sins, rather than subject you to the much worse punishment of the aakhirah (hereafter). That is a kindness from Allah, and He would not do it if He did not love you.
The other reason we are punished is so that we can learn and do better. When we punish our children, it’s not because we hate them, but because we love them and we want them to learn and become better human beings. Allah also loves us, and wants us to be purified, and to fulfill our potential. That is a blessing from Allah.
So if you seem to be going through constant hardships, check yourself. Be brutally honest as you assess your life. Ask yourself, “Am I still on the straight path, or have I wandered? Am I living my life according to the Quran? Am I taking the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) as my example? Am I sincere with people and myself?”
Recognize that if the misfortune you have experienced causes you to analyze your life honestly and make positive changes, then there was a purpose behind the pain. That too is a blessing.
5. Find Solace in the Simple Joys
We have established that no one is exempt from misfortune in this life. The question is how to handle it. How do we deal with pain and loss so that it does not overwhelm us? How do we continue to find happiness in life?
To continue the waves metaphor, I was once knocked down by a large wave when I was twelve years old. I lived in Tripoli, Libya at the time and used to spend much of my free time at the beach. I was in water up to my waist or so, when a huge wave slammed into me and dragged me along the bottom, under water, tumbling me over and over. I was panicked and frightened and swallowed a lot of water. When I recovered, my skin was scraped raw from the sand, and I knelt on the beach, coughing up sea water.
Other times I’d time the wave’s entry and body surf on top. That was so much fun.
Surfing atop the waves means that your troubles don’t totally grind you up and scrape your spirit raw like that wave did to me. Instead you find solace in your relationship with Allah, and in the simple joys of life. Sit down with your child on a cold evening and have a cup of hot chocolate, and savor the rich taste. Pray Fajr then watch the sun rise, and listen as the birds begin to wake and sing. Buy a camera and take photographs of beautiful things in nature, or anything that you find appealing. Read the Quran, go for a hike, play frisbee with your friends. Devote some attention to your hobbies, whether it be writing poetry, knitting, running, or any other productive past time.
6. Be Grateful
Whatever blows hit you, you have been given the greatest gift and blessing of all: Islam. It was not done because of any special merit on your part. You are not more worthy of Islam than a poor herdsman from Ethiopia, or a Japanese fisherman. It’s only the grace of Allah.
Be grateful for your ability to see and hear, and for the food on your table, and the roof over your head. You can’t imagine living without any of these things, but so many people do not have them! Focus on what you have been given, rather than what you have been denied.
7. Keep a Sense of Wonder
Going back to my friend Samayya for a moment, I think one of the reasons she has come through life’s hardships so well is that she continues to cultivate a sense of wonder. She is in awe of Allah subhanahu wa ta’ala. She goes outside with her children to gaze at the full moon. She can be inspired by an ayah from Quran, and moved by a poem. Her sense of wonder keeps her spirit young, and her innocence alive. She knows how to laugh. I won’t say that she doesn’t struggle with anger, bitterness and fear, but don’t we all? The trick is to not let those negative emotions consume us. Experience them, then let them go, and return to the sense of awe and wonder that makes us tremble before Allah.
Read my recent poem, Fill it With Al-Fatihah, which deals with this process of finding joy amid pain.
8. Reach Out to Others
When you are suffering, reach out in two ways. First, go to someone you can trust and tell him or her about your problems. There is value in sharing your pain. You may not want to burden someone else, but a true friend will be there for you, and will be happy to listen. There is a proverb: Happiness shared is happiness doubled; sadness shared is sadness halved.
Second, reach out to others who are in pain and comfort them. You may think you have nothing to offer, but you’d be surprised what a little bit of gentleness can do. A kind word and a pat on the shoulder can do wonders, and in the process you will experience a human moment, a connection, that will help you with your own problems as well.
9. Accept Change
It’s been said that chaos brings growth and liberty; while order brings habit and stagnation. From the most difficult periods of your life will come change. Continuing the waves metaphor, ocean waves keep the beach clean by carrying away dead matter and debris; and they bring in fresh water and food for the tide pools. At the same time the waves leave behind beautiful sea shells and driftwood for collectors.
Think about a beach and how popular it is. Would anyone go to a beach if it had no ocean, or no waves? People go there to experience the motion of the waves rushing in and out. The sea shore is a place of constant change and renewal, and that is its beauty.
I mentioned that I once got knocked down by a wave, and that sometimes I would surf atop the waves. Well, other times I would dive straight into the large waves. By diving into the center of the wave, you negate its power and you come out on the other side unharmed.
Diving into the wave means that you accept the hardship that has come into your life. You approach it with sabr (patience) and determination, trusting Allah, knowing that He will bring you through. You embrace the lesson that it brings, for every single hardship in life – big or small -carries a lesson.
To use an example from my own life, I went through a divorce in 2008, then I was engaged to be married in 2009 and that relationship failed as well. I went through a period when I was deeply depressed and confused. I could not understand why Allah had led me down such a lonely path. But I persevered. I kept my faith in Allah, and I tried to be a good father to my daughter. I continued working, writing, and practicing martial arts. I also looked deeply into my own actions, and questioned my own sincerity. I concluded that regardless of what mistakes other people may have made, I bore a share of responsibility for my misfortunes. In my marriage, I was not fully present. For various reasons, I held back some of my love. In the relationship that followed, I was not 100% patient and trusting. I allowed my insecurities and fears to get the best of me at times.
Coming to these realizations allows me the opportunity to do better next time. I have pledged to hold nothing back with my future wife, Insha’Allah, whoever that may be; to release all the immense love that I have; and to be patient and trusting at the times when I am most full of fear. I have also become a better father, a better writer, and a better martial artist.
My pain was not wasted because I learned from it. I dived into the wave and came out the other side, confident that I am a better human being, and that I will do better next time, Insha’Allah.
10. Ponder True Victory
There are two kinds of true victory. Neither one includes material wealth, which is fleeting and ultimately meaningless:
“Whatever you have will end, but what Allah has is lasting. And We will surely give those who were patient their reward according to the best of what they used to do.” – Quran 16:96
The first true victory is spiritual success. That is recognizing Allah’s guidance, following it, sticking to it, and being grateful for it. It’s a victory because it helps us to live lives of meaning and purpose, and to be peaceful and patient.
The second victory is Jannah (Paradise), and that is the ultimate achievement.
Sometimes we experience a victory in life and we clearly recognize it. Other times we may achieve a milestone of success and not even realize it, because it comes veiled in pain or loss. We must trust that Allah’s promise is true, and that victory belongs to the believers in this life and the next. Take heart, and don’t fear. Allah’s victory is near, even when we don’t see it. Allah is merciful to us and He wants good for us. Have a good opinion of Allah, and let your faith in Him be strong and ever renewed, like the well of Zamzam that never runs dry, or the waves of the sea that keep coming and coming, day and night.
“By the time, Indeed, mankind is in loss; Except for those who have believed and done righteous deeds and advised each other to truth and advised each other to patience.” – Quran Surah 103 (Al-Asr)
In part two of this article I will Insha’Allah discuss some specific spiritual actions that make a tremendous difference. These include salat, dua’, dhikr, affirmations, meditation, and fasting.
In part three I’ll look at some physical actions that directly affect our emotional state, including exercise, massage and a healthy diet.