Encountering trials and tribulations is an inevitable reality for all human beings. The way we…
The atrocities against the family of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) did not end after the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (p) on the Day of Ashura. The despotic and merciless soldiers of Yazid’s army began to pillage the tents in which Imam Zayn al-Abidin (p), Lady Zaynab (p), Lady Umm Kulthum (p) and other family members were seeking shelter and from where, not long before, they had witnessed the brutal killing of their loved ones. As prisoners they were tied one to another and made to walk through the battlefield where their deceased brothers, husbands, and sons lay uncovered and desecrated. Their suffering continued as they were forced to march through the desert to Kufah and then to Damascus facing untold persecution and ridicule. To live through such a tragedy would seriously debilitate any human being, but this was the family of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh&hp) whose steadfastness and resiliency was critical to preserving God’s religion. Indeed, their lofty actions remind us that “do not be discouraged or grieved, you alone will have true dignity if you only are true believers.”[i]
What is Sadness?
It is a part of life to experience challenges and feel sadness and remorse, yet sometimes the tragedies that afflict us can cause setbacks to our emotional, psychological, physiological, and spiritual well-being. Sadness is an emotion that researchers define as “a complex psychological state that involves three distinct components: a subjective experience, a physiological reaction, and a behavioral or expressive response”[ii], and it is one of several basic emotions that humans feel. While all people experience each of these emotions, the subjective meaning of those feelings and their significance varies from person to person, and from one circumstance to another. So, one might ask whether all feelings of sadness are the same or whether a person can experience other emotions (e.g., anger) simultaneously. In addition, chemical signals in the brain cause the body to react to the feeling of sadness with internal changes like increases in heart rate and blood pressure. As such, people manifest idiosyncratic ways of regulating their emotions based on their past life experiences, perceptions, and current state. This results in a behavioral response that is unique to each person and indicates the level of emotional intelligence or ability to perceive, control, and evaluate both one’s own emotions and those of others.
While some researchers believe that emotional intelligence is inborn, others contend that it is learned and reinforced. In either case, researchers propose that emotional intelligence is comprised of four components: (1) perception or the ability to properly interpret feelings, (2) reasoning or the use of emotions to promote thinking and cognitive activity, and what we pay attention to, (3) understanding the meaning or cause of the emotion, and (4) management or the proper regulation of emotions so that the response is appropriate[iii]. Thus, the emotions we experience, the way we display them, and the underlying effect they have on us are a result of many factors. We are conscious of some of these factors, and others are subconscious and drive our behavior without us realizing it. Hence, the more a person understands their true basic nature and predilections the better they likely are at managing their emotions.
The Perspective of a Believer
Accordingly, human sentiment is determined and shaped by what we believe and value, as well as the totality of what we experience and its significance in our lives. In addition, the reason for our motivations and the gauge by which we feel fulfilled or not is often the achievement of a specific goal, the acquisition of some object, or reaching a particular end, all of which have an assigned value in our minds. As such, our perceived successes and failures along the way determine how we feel. When we do not accomplish our desired objective, or fail to acquire what we are seeking, we often experience sorrow or regret. The more valuable the objective or goal is to us, the greater the feeling of sorrow upon non-attainment. Given this human nature, a believer lives every moment fully understanding that they will not get everything they desire in life or achieve every worldly objective, and that tragedy and sorrow will afflict all of us at some point.
More importantly, the certainty that there is an everlasting reality and ultimate goal beyond this material world (i.e., the hereafter) for which we are striving keeps the believer grounded and reassured regardless of the circumstances of their life. We feel burdened by either fear of what is to come in our lives, particularly what we perceive may be hard to bear or is unknown, or we are sorrowful for what we have left behind, lost, or what is suddenly taken away from us. Indeed, God says, “We shall test you through fear, hunger, loss of property, life, and crops. (Muhammad), give glad news to the people who have patience”[iv]. Thus, the realization that this world and everything in it is transient puts the ups and downs of life into perspective for a believer and fosters inner strength and fortitude.
It is human nature to swing emotionally with the circumstances of life. Hence, people are often excessively joyous over worldly successes and material gains and very quickly plunge into despair at the first sign of difficulty. For this reason, the Holy Quran stresses the importance of emotional balance, avoidance of extremes, and mindfulness of the relative importance of things in our lives “so that you would not grieve over what you have lost nor become very happy about what [God] has granted to you. [God] does not love the arrogant boastful ones.”[v].
This is because the fluctuations of life are a test of how firmly we believe in the real outcome, much like a student must remain steadfast during the challenges of school until they fully realize their goal. A student is very likely to stumble if they become too overjoyed by an excellent grade and react with overconfidence and even carelessness about subsequent exams. On the other hand, if a student falls into deep doubt and despair because of a poor grade, they will not have the self-assurance to continue striving and not give up. Imam Ali (p) wrote to Ibn Abbas, “Let it be known to you that sometimes a man gets pleased at securing a thing which he was not going to miss at all and gets displeased at missing a thing which he would not in any case get. Your pleasure should be about what you secure in respect of your next life and your grief should be for what you miss in respect thereof. Do not be much pleased on what you secure from this world, nor get extremely grieved over what you miss out of it. Your worry should be about what is to come after death.”[vi]
Feelings of sadness are natural and normal, particularly when a person has lost a loved one or faced a significant setback. However, a believer addresses any feelings of despair or loss of hope by seeking certainty and recourse in God, and by recognizing and adhering to the objectives that He has laid out for us. By repeatedly doing this, a believer develops the emotional intelligence to properly perceive, understand, manage and regulate any situation. Even after losing his beloved son Joseph (p), Prophet Jacob (p) reminded his other sons to “go and search for Joseph and his brother” and “not despair of receiving comfort from [God]; only the unbelievers despair of receiving comfort from Him.”[vii] It is the certainty of receiving comfort that propels a person forward in the face of pain and adversity, yet with the realization that relief comes only in the measure and at the time God ordains. This is the very core of belief, that one trusts in the most generous, the most wise, and the most merciful God, both implicitly and explicitly, while consciously pushing on and seeking a solution. When the sons of Jacob (p) said to him “you are always remembering Joseph. By God, it will either make you sick or you will die”, he replied to them “I complain of my sorrow and grief only to [God]. I know about [God] what you do not know.”[viii] Therefore, a believer’s objective is to balance the struggle onward and the pursuit of improvement while simultaneously submitting to the will of God and depending on Him. There is great freedom in this way of living, not to mention a sense of reassurance, and indeed a certain type of relief.
Patience is the Best Means of Achieving Success
It is with this strength that Lady Zaynab (p) persevered, despite witnessing the most harrowing of losses, and not only became the voice of Imam Hussain’s struggle but safeguarded all the family members in the face of constant threats. To say that she possessed great patience is an understatement. The inner strength that allowed her to remain focused and undeterred was the true description of patience, which in its most basic sense is a complete control of one’s self or nafs such that nothing can cause it to become unnerved or shaken and stray from God’s path. That self or nafs in human form is both mental, physical, and emotional. Thus, when a person feels sad and despairs, they experience a visceral phenomenon that affects not only their psyche but also their physical body.
Emotions are governed by our view of life and the preconceived notions that develop as we mature and age. Thus, if a person firmly believes that there is no recourse in life, nor any salvation when they die, then their outlook will spontaneously be pessimistic. The impact of this negativity is profound, because it alters the perceived cost and benefit of everything they want to do. For example, when facing a challenge or trial, such a person might become prone to thinking “why should I even try if I know that I am going to fail?”. Yet, the success of overcoming difficulty in the face of sorrow is not necessarily the withdrawal of the difficulty, but rather the constant striving of the afflicted to clutch, grab, and climb their way out of the pit of despair. To realize this as a believer is so critical because sadness can physically change how and what we see (i.e., our perception)[ix], making life very dark and desperate. For this reason, God reminds us that “The friends of [God] will certainly have nothing to fear, nor will they be grieved.”[x]
Thriving through Life’s Lessons
Life for a believer is a test. The Holy Quran states, “Do people think they will not be tested because they say, ‘We have faith?’”[xi]. It was the greatest test for Imam Hussain (p), Lady Zaynab (p) and those with them, and in its response, we see the pinnacle of human dignity, strength, and fortitude. So, how can we emulate these lofty acts of patience and overcome sorrow and lack of hope?
First, we would begin by broadening our awareness and becoming conscious of the world we live in, and with that, curtailing our egocentric nature. Rather than focusing solely on our own pain, if we realize that there are others around us and throughout the world who are hurting, some even more than us, and moreover that we have a responsibility to them, it will deflect our negative feelings and foster positivity (i.e., from helping others).
Second, although often difficult, we must try to see the silver lining and determine what God is trying to teach us, or simply realize that maybe He wants to hear our supplicating voices more often. Imam al-Baqir (p) says, “If God Almighty wills it to honor a [deserving] servant who has [unintentional] sins recorded against him, He tests him with sickness, and if not [with sickness] then with [unfulfilled basic] need”[xii].
Third, we should consider that the trial is a means by which we can grow, emotionally and spiritually, towards greater faith and resilience. Imam al-Sadiq (p) reminds us that “the servant has a position near God which they will not reach except through one of two [circumstances]: either through the loss of wealth (i.e., property) or a difficulty (i.e., pain) in the body”[xiii].
Finally, when feeling sadness or grief over a difficulty, we must ask whether the affliction is a result of our own negative actions or purely a test from God. A believer always addresses the circumstance with introspection and a drive to reform themselves. This was the message of Lady Zaynab (p), who awakened the hearts of those who were blind or unaware of themselves and the religion of God. She showed that the impact of a person’s resilience is not only felt in their life, but flourishes in generations to come. More importantly, strength of mind, emotion, body, and certainty in God can move mountains and change landscapes.
[i] The Holy Quran 3:139. All citations of the Holy Quran for this article are from the translation by Muhammad Sarwar.
[ii] D. H. Hockenbury and S. E. Hockenbury, Discovering Psychology, Worth Publishers, New York, 2007.
[iii] P. Salovey and J.D. Mayer, Emotional Intelligence, Baywood Pub. Co 1990.
[iv] The Holy Quran 2:155.
[v] The Holy Quran: Chapter 57, Verse 23
[vi] Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib (p), Nahj al-balagha, Letter 22.
[vii] The Holy Quran 12:87.
[viii] The Holy Quran12:85-86.
[ix] J.R. Zadra and G.L. Clore,, “Emotion and Perception: The Role of Affective Information,” Wiley Interdiscip. Rev. Cogn. Sci., 2(6), Nov-Dec 2011, 676–685.
[x] The Holy Quran 10:62.
[xi] The Holy Quran 29:2.
[xii] Alam al-deen fi sifat al-muminin, 433.
[xiii] Al-kafi, Book 3, p. 644.