We’ve grown up in a time and society that has taught us to escape the human conditions of sorrow and anxiety, and as we build our house of cards, we are in tears of frustration when someone we don’t know, hundreds or thousands of miles away, blows it down. So we rebuild it only to find that we seem to be trapped in a cycle of rebuilding and wreckage.
I think our greatest struggle, really, is our inability to embrace sorrow and anxiety as part of the human experience. Naturally we run from pain to pleasure, whether through religion or addiction we seek an escape from them, but we need to be liberated by accepting that these are conditions we are meant to experience. We don’t seem to realize that our frustration isn’t from the feelings themselves but from our trying, impossibly, to stave off something that cannot be staved off, like trying to hold back a landslide.
“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.” (2:155)
The Arabic word for fear here denotes apprehension, anxiety and unease; our Lord saying He will test us with something of this state. The word for loss could be more accurately translated as the diminishing (not an absolute loss) of wealth, of our very selves, and of the fruits of our labors (the Arabic word for fruit here referring to the product of any endeavor undertaken that one hoped would have yielded a positive result). How beautiful the Qur’an is! Captured within this is not just the loss of life juxtaposing death, but also the loss of self, the confusion of the nafs in trying times, feeling helpless, dispirited and at a loss for what to feel or do, depressed or afraid. It is in confronting trials that many people are overwhelmed by their own selves, the emotions and sensations stemming from the nafs, and faith becomes a candle in the dark or a difficult thing to hold on to. Captured within this ayah is the reminder that when we work to contribute positively, we may be tested by not seeing the fruits of our labors as we had anticipated; we may feel our efforts are wasted.
This ayah is completed though with the clause for success in these times, it mentions the ones who will receive help from their Lord.
“They Who, when a trial meant especially for them strikes them, say, “Indeed we belong to Allah , and indeed to Him we will return.” (2:156)
The word for trial here reminds us that whatever befalls us, whether on a personal or communal scale, is a trial that was meant especially for us. It was sent by Allah to us like an arrow hitting a bullseye. We take consolation in knowing that we were meant for this test and it is from Allah, something delivered from Master to Slave.
The best human beings, Moses, Jesus, Job, Muhammad, all experienced fear and sorrow and all had a commonalities in dealing with it. They grieved, they prayed, but they accepted a greater wisdom in their trials. They did not become angry or despondent, they did not try to escape it or wait, crouching for it to blow over. They rose up and they worked, while cradling anxiety and sorrow within. In fact,the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, noticeably grieved for a year for his departed wife and uncle, but this did not stop his da’wah. Great figures of religion and history also did not view feeling anxiety and sorrow as weak. Indeed, embracing God’s design and the turbulence it causes is perhaps the height of strength.
Sorrow and anxiety, for the most part, are debilitating emotions. Many of us feel the innate urge to curl up in the fetal position and wait for the storm to pass. Yet the storms around us seem to be getting longer and more violent. Our lives seem to be rearranged by them with more frequency and intensity than we would like, our internal realities become darker and bleaker. We keep looking toward the horizon for the light to break, yet all we see are shards of light amidst more black, rolling clouds. We begin to wonder how long we can hold on before, finally, we are swept away.
Rather than allowing the conditions of sorrow and anxiety to spontaneously and haphazardly rearrange our lives, we need to learn to make an arrangement for sorrow and anxiety to be a part of our experience. We need to learn to anticipate their arrival and have an itinerary prepared for them instead of allowing them arrive without warning, having an itinerary for us.
However, allowing sorrow and anxiety a space in our lives is not the same thing us giving them free reign. In fact, allowing them a space is just that; drawing boundaries and not allowing them to run rampant. The boundaries of this space are defined by our faith, our values and our perspective. We gain faith by connecting with God in the good times, by seeing the world through a Divine lens; we know that He created good and bad and His Will is beyond the scope of our wisdom, and what seems like a terrible tragedy or painful injustice has threads into a greater pattern, threads that reach forward and outward to touch good things, beautiful things that we cannot perceive from our pinpoint in time.
We know our values when they are tested by a state of sorrow or anxiety. Who we are is fleshed out. In a romantic representation this is seen as people reaching out and holding hands, building a better world together, showing love and support and compassion. But this is the end result and belongs only to those people who truly value these things. This process of discovering one’s values often starts in an uglier fashion, with latent panic, lashing out at those nearest us in the midst of our anxiety or retreating into our sorrow. We look toward one another with muted trepidation. Slowly we come out of this flight-or-fright state and choose something better. When confronted with sorrow and anxiety, we choose our values, we confirm them, we build them stronger within ourselves and our communities.
We gain perspective by looking to the world around us, by closing those rapid-fire arsenals of mainstream media that stoke anxiety and sorrow out of its space. We decide what we will consume, and we find that the world is in fact well-populated with people and circumstances beyond what we are presented with. We open books of history and see the nature of war has changed yet the game is still the same, and humanity has been buffeted by the these forces since its inception, and we need not panic at the state of our affairs. Between revelation and history we cannot ask for better answers to our current state. When looking to the world around us we temper anxiety and sorrow with happiness provided by the good, and gratefulness provided by bad that belongs to a different time and place.
Sorrow and anxiety are part of the human experience. They come with momentum, sometimes a terrible momentum, but one which can be harnessed and bridled and ridden, and it is the human who chooses the direction in which to ride it.