Time teaches many lessons to us. We don’t always know what they are, being preoccupied in our busy lives as we find ourselves most of the time, but we can contemplate the truth of our lives in those moments of somber reflection and rest that we sometimes snatch from the jaws of obligation - when the opportunity arises, that is. Many of us work all the time and feel we don’t have a moment’s rest, but if we grasp at those quiet times we can recollect what has happened – and is happening – and try to make sense of the meaning of it all.
One of the lessons I often think about these days is the idea of constant change. My grandmother, who is still alive, was born into a world where planes and airports hardly existed. Cars as a technology were only 20 years old and only a wealthy few had them. Computers, cell phones, robots – even huge grocery stores and malls did not exist either. So what is she to make of all the changes over the last 80 or so years of life? Does she yearn for the ‘good ‘ole days?’ Does she feel that life was better ‘before?’ Strangely, I also find myself comparing my own ‘good ‘ole days’ to the modern world. Do you feel life was better when you were younger?
The Prophet Muhammad (p) once remarked that a person was not fully mature until they reached forty years of age. I can attest to a change in my own thinking that occurred after that milestone. When I was in my 20s and 30s I felt I knew a lot of things, and as I look back now I realize that I might have had facts, but the wisdom to make sense of them was still undeveloped. Even further, I understand enough now to realize that when I am in my 50s, 60s and beyond, I will look back on these days and feel the same about them as I feel about my younger years now. The Qur’an exhorts us to respect our elders for a reason!
Years ago I used to read the newspaper every day. I was literally a sponge eagerly soaking up every tidbit of news – hoping to create a store of knowledge I could use to better manage my own world and rise in the worlds of others. Then a few years ago I realized something profound: the news never changes. For example, back in the late 1980s as a young man I would read stories about the conflicts in the Middle East, but in the 90s – it was the same types of stories! In the first decade of the 2000s - the same thing. Now in the second decade of the new millennium, nothing seems to have changed! Whether it’s about the economy, other parts of the world, politicians, celebrities, sports – again, like the ancient saying goes: ‘There’s nothing new under the sun.’
So here we are now, in the so-called ‘modern world.’ Are things so different? Twenty years from now this time period here will seem quaint and naïve, and people living in the future will be the lords of the new ‘modern world.’ Events seem to move rapidly, and indeed in a global economy and network you see ripples traveling faster than how the world used to be just 30-40 years ago. I personally feel this is a dangerous time for all, but as a person of faith I realize that living in a world where we each get only a small number of years to live – every day is ‘dangerous’ to each of us. You never know what tomorrow will bring. I sometimes smile when I hear people emphatically looking for the ‘Signs of the Last Day,’ as if they want to be released from the mundane world in a great and overwhelming Event. I smile because it seems that those people forget their own impending ‘last day’ which is their last day of life. That is more likely to happen to each of us than the angels descending from the clouds. Better to focus on we have control over, rather than on what we have no control over.
Even that is difficult in a busy and fast-changing world. I know from personal experience that when you combine a busy personal and work life with concerns about politics, religion and the economy, that it can all seem so overwhelming. How can I work sixty hours a week and then be involved with community activities? How can I try to control political actions or make sense of events far away when I’m worried about paying my electric bill or feeding my family? These concerns are valid, though the great danger is in letting them overwhelm us and make us feel powerless. The Qur’an tells us to, “Act as you are able.” So what power do we have to offer? What can we do in a wider context?
To begin with, as the Qur’an teaches, we all began from nothing –and now look at us! We are strong, capable, versatile and have some level of power over others, even if it is seemingly only a little. Indeed, the head of a household makes the major decisions, a boss dictates what his workers do, a teacher directs his or her students, an employee has a measure of control over what the customer will receive and in what manner they will get it – even an older child has power over a younger one. The main point to consider is that from a helpless baby we have grown and have possibilities to act regardless of the level or scale.
We all have our beginnings somewhere, and as we rise we have no choice but to become holders of responsibility. As the Qur’an says, “(He created you) so that He could test (you in order to bring out) which of you is most noble in conduct.”
Our purpose in life is not to pay the electric bill, though we have to do it. We were not created to open a store or drive a taxi or make the best foods for our family – though we have to do those things. We were created with the obligation to work, but that is not why we’re here.
There are duties to perform for our survival, and then there are the responsibilities we have to our Creator that will benefit us both in this life and in the next. When we internalize that reality, then we no longer become slaves to our jobs, our career goals, our studies or our families. We take care of those things in the best way we can because they are a part of life, but our focus is on a higher goal, on a spiritual level, realizing that no matter what we do in this uncertain world, we are not meant to live here forever.
We can build the best business ever, but our hands will weaken and then crumble to dust and it will be sold or closed by others when we are no longer here. So what was the point if all that blood, sweat and tears? We can take pride in our large families and use them to gain influence in the community, but what happens to that influence when we pass? As Prophet Zachariah exclaimed, “I’m worried about what my relatives will do after me…”
We can travel all over the world to seek our fortune, but we still cannot escape dying in the land where we are meant to die. We must get an education, but our brains are destined to deteriorate until we ‘know nothing after having known much,’ as the Qur’an warns.
But can we live our lives in a comfortable and responsible way by doing nothing and relying on fate to bring us what we are destined? Of course not, and the Prophet Muhammad (p) was once quoted as saying that those who think like that, “Do not understand the teachings of Muhammad.” Strive, work hard, make progress – but never forget the true goal of life! As Allah said:
“Those who believed (in Allah), who migrated and who struggled in the cause of Allah with their wealth and their lives – they are valuable in the sight of Allah, and they are the ones who will be successful. Their Lord has given them the good news of mercy from His Own Self, of His satisfaction and of gardens filled with everlasting delights that will (be theirs) forever! They will live within them for all time, and with Allah are the greatest rewards! (9:20-22)
When you free yourself from the notion that your job, your family, your schooling and other worldly things are the sole purpose of your life, then you can put them in context. We have to do them, and to do them well is a form of ‘ebadah, or worship. So we can energize ourselves at work realizing we are pleasing our Lord when we do a good job. We can add sweetness to our home life when we understand that it is an opportunity to show love, mercy and understanding to please our Lord – suddenly all those hadiths and ayahs about loving the family make sense! When we study in school we can do it with the understanding that Allah loves for us to be educated and rewards us for it!
The context is the key! Know why you are doing something, then it no longer becomes toil, heartless busy work or a source of temptations to do bad deeds. Think of the business owner who does not focus on Allah and his purpose in life, and who is tempted to cheat to make more money. His or her only focus is that the business is the purpose of their life, and so to make it better by any means necessary is acceptable. Or consider the young man or woman who gets married only thinking of ‘family alliances’ or status. If marriage only means that, then love, honesty and shared faith mean nothing – surely a recipe for long term unhappiness!
We must put our life’s activities in proper context. Then it is no longer drudgery. We no longer need to long for the ‘good ‘ole days’ because every day is a chance to please our Lord and improve ourselves spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Even setbacks and hardships become easier to handle, though they still hurt – but at least we realize the tests are also a source of reward and growth. The Muslim is an optimist, not a pessimist.
So how can we get involved in things beyond our own busy lives? When we put our lives in context, and see the true meaning of what our purpose is, then it becomes easier to go to the masjid, to get involved in affairs that can improve the lives of others. We are on this earth for a set number of days, and our purpose is to build our character, our faith and our understanding so that we are worthy of something beautiful and eternal after our short life is over.
Those who deny this are doomed to small lives of heartache and pain – the world is full of examples of those who are miserable, lost in their own delusions. Let the light of eman illuminate your daily struggles, and you never have to worry about getting lost in the dark. May Allah make it easy on us to make small changes in our lives that can add up to more happiness both today and in the next life. Ameen!