In a seminar that I attended in the States, the presenter narrated how her first pregnancy became a lesson in joy and pain. As a young expecting mother, she was first given the pleasantly surprising news that she was expecting twins. In the same sitting, she was then informed that the twins were unlikely to survive. There was more to come. After she delivered the twins, one of the girls survived, while the other passed away a few days later. This experience made her realize that life can be about holding great joy and immense pain at the same time.
As she narrated this experience of joy and pain, an important occasion in Rasulullah’s (sa) Seerah came to mind when with the victory at Badr came the news of the passing away of Prophet’s (sa) beloved daughter Ruqqayah (rah). We see in Rasulullah’s (sa)’s and his companions’ life that as they strived and struggled for Islam they leaned into the challenges that they faced instead of shying away from the accompanying discomfort and difficult emotions. They often held on to joy and pain together, gracefully.
When we look at ourselves though, most of us are not emotionally and mentally equipped in being comfortable with the uncomfortable. There are several reasons for this.
Pacified by Materialism
We are increasingly living in a world where notions of what is important in life is being shaped by the narratives put out in the mainstream media. We are sold the myth that life is supposed to be about acquiring happiness. For many of us life is about working, consuming, being entertained, resting and starting all over again. It is a cycle in which we don’t pause to reflect on what is the real purpose of this life, and what do the various experiences and the ups and downs contribute to our life.
New Age Thinking and the Positivity Movement
The global culture that we live in values positivity and positive thinking over difficult emotions. So it is becoming increasingly difficult for people to talk about their struggles and problems in an honest, open way. We are told that our lives are what our thoughts make them. Whatever you are putting out in the universe is what you are receiving. We are made to think that if we are relentlessly positive, optimistic, and focused on our happiness, we will achieve personal success and can overcome all life challenges. So when we come across disappointments, uncertainty or life challenges like unemployment, divorce or illness, we are left thinking that maybe we were not positive enough to attract the desired outcomes.
Insulating Ourselves from our Deeper Feelings
We are not trained in handling difficult thoughts and emotions, so we bury them instead of dealing with them. Also, the socio-cultural environment may discourage a person from emotional expression. Boys and men are especially encouraged to appear stoic. Consequently, most of us insulate ourselves with protective layers and we end up with deep, intense feelings that we don’t allow ourselves to feel.
It is instructive to note that our Creator acknowledges the human condition and throughout the Quran we find multiple references to the varying emotional states of His Messengers, their followers and humankind in general. In Surah Najm we find: “And that it is He Who makes [one] laugh and weep” (53:43). When Rasulullah (sa) engaged with people he attended to the whole person and considered their emotional and mental states. Instead of our tendency of denying ourselves uncomfortable emotions, we need to enable ourselves and others to acknowledge the complete spectrum of our emotions, both the negative and positive, as being normal human responses to life.
Separating Joy and Pain
Some people let pain colour their life, while others suppress all forms of pain, focusing only on happiness. In this worldly life, unlike the next life, comfort and discomfort go hand in hand. The Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran wrote: Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.” But I say unto you, “they are inseparable.” Learning to live with both can be a most helpful skill.
Forgetting there is a Cost to a Meaningful Life
The life goals we seek, the human qualities we value, and the positive emotional states we desire all are attained with the willingness to sacrifice our comfort and endure some pain. Consider your own life. You couldn’t learn to ride a bicycle without falling a few times and scraping your knees. You can’t benefit from friendships if you can’t handle disappointments that come with maintaining them. You can’t practice gratitude, if you have not felt what it means to be deprived.
Dr Susan David, a psychologist on the faculty of Harvard Medical School and author of the book Emotional Agility points out in her TedTalk, “Only dead people never get stressed, never get broken hearts, never experience the disappointment that comes with failure. Tough emotions are part of our contract with life. You don’t get to have a meaningful career or raise a family or leave the world a better place without stress and discomfort. Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.”
Embracing Discomfort and Tough Emotions with Grace
As we begin to understand the role of discomfort and tough emotions in our life we too can learn to be comfortable with uncomfortable states in a graceful and productive way.
Parts of Life are Meant to Hurt
A positive mindset is a good thing, and is helpful as long as it helps you engage with life realistically. From a believer’s perspective, there is an acknowledgement that life is a test, for it is stated in the Quran, “The One Who created death and life, so that He may test you as to which of you is better in his deeds.” (Al-Mulk 67:2) Trials are inevitable and what we can control are our responses to life’s challenges not the outcomes. Our positivity comes from our Husn-e-Dhan (good opinion) about Allah (swt), having Tawakkal (trust/faith in Allah) that He will take care of our affairs, and that His Decree for us is just. With this worldview, we are prepared to deal with both the little inconveniences and major setbacks more realistically.
Appreciating Contrasting Colors
Our lived experience of this life is like a mosaic made up of pieces in both bright, cheerful colours and dark, dull ones. And like any picture, it is these shades and contrasts that lend the picture of our life its intensity, its beauty. Without the painful or uncomfortable moments we would never truly appreciate the beautiful, joy-filled, soul-nourishing moments. For instance, if we never experienced separation from our loved ones, we would never realize their value and blessing in our lives.
Challenges Bring New Opportunities
In Chinese, the word for crisis is made up of two symbols, one meaning danger and the other opportunity. How apt, because while we must acknowledge and face life’s difficulties, we must also train ourselves to see the opportunities they bring. Allah (swt) reminds us not once but twice in Surah Ash-Sharh that with every difficulty is ease. Develop a habit of looking for the ease and opportunities that come with the difficulties of life.
Letting Go of the Old and Exploring the New
Difficult circumstances teach us an important lesson in the impermanence of life. It introduces you to change and the idea that you must let go of some of the old to move forward.
The problems, hurdles, and challenges we face can be a transformational experience. When we played with blocks as children, we had to tear apart what we built to experiment with the blocks and build something new. Similarly, life experiences that break us down bring with them the opportunity to start something new. You may use all the old pieces in a new way, but usually it’s a mix of the old and the new. This is a good time to bring changes, small shifts, in the way you think, feel and act. For instance, failing at something can be an impetus for experimenting with new approaches and learning new skills that will eventually open up new avenues for you.
Emotions Carry Useful Information
Difficult emotions are not inherently bad. They carry useful data about our inner world and our relationship with the world outside. Instead of avoiding or suppressing emotions, process them by extracting information from them and then let them go. Even undesirable emotions like guilt and shame can be useful. For instance, if you feel uneasy after gossiping about a colleague, it could be that it violates your values and once you recognize this, you can be more mindful of your future conduct. Ustadh Nouman Ali Khan, Founder of Bayyinah Institute, once eloquently pointed out, “Guilt is a gift from Allah warning you that what you are doing is violating your soul.”
Acquire Self-Awareness and Emotional Strength
Difficulties will expose certain sides of you, both strengths and vulnerabilities, which are not revealed in any other way, giving you a glimpse into yourself. Also until you are challenged you don’t find out how true you are to your values, and how deep your roots are. This self-awareness is a valuable resource.
We have a natural impatience in our Nafs (lower self). Allah swt informs us, “and man is ever hasty.” (Al-Isra 17:11) This is why we feel an internal resistance whenever we are faced with situations we do not like. However, if we don’t flee from the discomfort that comes with challenges in work, relationships, studies and other domains of life and open ourselves to the experience, we can strengthen our muscle for emotional tolerance. This leads to emotional freedom and greater capacity to get things done in life.
Intentionally developing virtues is a great way to train the muscle of resisting inner impulses. Shaykh Mokhtar Maghroui, renowned scholar with Al-Madina Institute, reminds us, “Virtues are a challenge to the Nafs,” he then adds, “The Nafs generally does not want to be patient, forbearing, generous, humble, compassionate.” Cultivating such character traits naturally raises your capacity to endure discomfort.
Drawing Closer to Allah (swt)
Suffering plays an important role in our spiritual journey. The Prophet (sa) said: If Allah intends good for someone, He afflicts him with trials. (Bukhari) Trials teaches us humility, remind us of our reliance on Allah (swt), and so we turn to Him, falling back on His Mercy. This is mentioned in Surah Al-Anam, “and [We] put them to hardships and suffering, so that they may supplicate in humility.” (6:42)
Our discomfort at the hands of people and life events help us to detach from this life and draw closer to Allah (swt). Shaykh Mokhtar Maghraoui explains this concept beautifully: “Allah runs harm at [people’s] hands in order that you do not acquiesce to them. He intended that you are uncomfortable with everything so that nothing distracts you from Allah.” He adds that a spiritually mature person doesn’t complain to Allah (swt) but says about the trial, “Ya Rabbi, what are you intending to teach me.”
Remembering Allah’s Promises
We would have peace of heart and mind if we could remember that Allah’s Mercy encompasses all things. He is our Wali, close protecting friend. He is Dominant over our affairs, knows our condition and doesn’t leave us alone. He is so Merciful that He compensates a believer even for minor discomforts.
Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, co-founder of Zaytuna College, shares a story of a woman who was one of the Salihaat. One day, while walking, she stumbled and hurt her leg. Instead of showing her pain, she laughed, at which someone asked her if she was crazy. She responded that on falling she remembered the Hadeeth where the Prophet (sa) said a believer does not get a thorn in his foot except it removed sins. The sweetness of the thought that her sins were being removed overcame her pain.
Overcome Frustration with Patience, Gratitude, and Prayer
Frustration can keep you off track if not handled well. On its own, it doesn’t help you achieve anything, rather it disempowers you. Sabr (Patience), Shukr (gratitude) and Salah (prayer) can help you untangle yourself from its grip.
Sabr is more than mere patience. It includes contentment with Allah’s decree and perseverance. Showing gratitude in times of difficulty is the highest level of patience and will keep you spiritually protected from the whisperings of Shaitan who uses human vulnerability to instill fear, doubts and ingratitude. Allah (swt) says: “O you who have believed, seek help through patience and prayer. Indeed, Allah is with the patient.” (Al-Baqarah 2:153) This is a much more courageous and effective response to life’s disappointments than frustration.
The art of being comfortable with the uncomfortable asks of you to have the courage to stay open and pay attention to what Allah (swt) is sending your way. You have your own unique journey with your own set of gifts, passions, and strengths. But your path goes through challenges because a lesson learnt through struggle and pain is an enduring one and this journey is meant to transform you for the better. This is a journey towards Allah (swt) and your true human potential.