For the past year up until a few months ago, I was incredibly eager to quit my job. I came to a critical point where I couldn’t wait for a new opportunity to present itself that would relieve the various frustrations I perceived in my work environment.
The thought of quitting on a whim crossed my mind on several occasions, but I always came back to my senses with the help of family and friends, and knowing such a move would be utterly illogical, professionally and financially, given the state of the global economy.
During the course of daily prayers, I would ask God to ease the tensions and fill my heart with patience to be able to handle whatever annoyances arose until He deemed it the right time for me to leave. In my free time, I kept myself busy writing for my blog, studying Arabic and starting to passively search for a new job. I was able to find a balance in my life and appreciate the job security that maintained it. Yet, impatience continued to gnaw at me regularly; I couldn’t help but feel frustrated and annoyed.
Then the scenario that was furthest from my mind unfolded. For reasons that were beyond my control, and quite out of the blue, my position was cut in July as part of a restructuring that involved phasing out the research function of bank where I have worked for the past two years.
Just like that, all of the stresses that had at times consumed my mind faded into thin air, as though they never existed. They were replaced with a new focus: what I would do next.
Office cubicle photo courtesy, Flickr
So I thought: isn’t this how things always turn out? I recalled previous job stresses, difficult bosses, failed love stories, illnesses and familial pressures that had at one time or another provoked me to spend hours in anguish and annoyance. Then, when things had smoothed over, these issues barely crossed my mind again.
I remembered a story about a woman named Aisha Gouverneur described in the book “Women in Sufism: A Hidden Treasure”, by Camille Adams Helminski of the Threshold Society. This was the first book I read last year while attempting to understand and build a renewed bond with God. The writings and stories of female Sufi mystic poets, scholars and saints in this anthology affected me profoundly.
Aisha , a seventh-generation Kentuckian, reminded me a lot of myself: an ambitious, modern woman with “inexhaustible energy and activities” who sought to understand the spirit of her faith. At one point in her life, Aisha became paralysed and in a matter of weeks was “completely unable to move”. Over time, she came to accept and endure her condition, later found to be Guiallane-Barre syndrome, and says she was able to “bear it patiently and with equanimity”.
“But,” Aisha continues. “I did not love it; that was the key.”
I paused after reading that line because I did not understand why enduring a hardship patiently was not enough. After all, why would someone love to be ill or struggling? I certainly did not love the frustrations of my job, even if I was willing to bear with them as a test of my patience. Intrigued, I read on.
Months into being paralysed, Aisha was asked to give a talk, and she chose to discuss Islamic explanations for why illness afflicts people. The main lesson she found was that “illness is an opportunity, if not complained about, to purify one’s Being.” I have paraphrased what she said next to many friends and family members in the past year because it describes superbly the energy that enticed me to the Islamic state of mind. She said:
“I realised, as I was giving this lecture, why Muslims always say, ‘All praise is due to God’ whenever they are asked how they are and especially in adversity. I, too, realised that I was overwhelmingly blessed to be given ‘this,’ not a broken finger, but the full trial. And suddenly I loved my illness; I thought, ‘God thought I was up to this!’ And when I loved it, it was like flowing with the Divine Will — my fingers started to move, and then bit by bit, [the paralysis] came undone. So it showed me very clearly: love your trials, welcome them, really say Alhamdulillah (Praise be to God), Hallelujah, for every trial you are offered, because in them is the greatest benefit.” (Women in Sufism, 258-9)
Hallelujah indeed. If Aisha could learn to love being paralysed, then I should surely be able to love challenges, some small, some big, that God offers me, rather than allowing them to torment me.
To internalise the idea that God places no burden on us greater than our ability to bear, as the Quran teaches, requires that we regard our struggles as opportunities to strengthen our souls. Patience on its own is not enough; it is appreciating the blessing of the trial itself that reinforces our faith.
The bigger the challenge, the stronger our souls have the potential to become. That should, in a situation of perfect faith, lead us be glad when we are tested rather than grumble about the difficultly of the test. I cannot say I apply this principle fully in my life, as my continual struggle to accept even small work annoyances illustrates, but that is my goal and I am trying my best to work toward it.
In the Quran, God informs us, “Surely, with every hardship there is ease”. (Quran, 94:5) He chooses here to say with rather than after, which would change the meaning entirely. At the same instant that something happens that could potentially entice stress or anguish, we can find relief. We can learn to love our grief when we see that trials and blessings are the same side of the same coin.