“Know that the life of this world is only play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children, as the likeness of vegetation after rain, thereof the growth is pleasing to the tiller ; afterwards it dries up and you see it turning yellow ; then it becomes straw.”
“Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me”, opened F. Scott Fitzgerald in one of his short stories, to which his friend and fellow writer Ernest Hemingway responded in a letter , “Yes, they have more money”.
F.Scott Fitzgerald’s novels such as the Great Gatsby idealized the lives of the rich and famous, and enjoyed enormous success only after his death. Fitzgerald died brokenhearted ; with some of his writings alluding to his disenchantment.
Hemingway later lamented of his friend, “He thought [ the rich ] were a special glamorous race and when he found out they weren’t it wrecked him as any other thing that wrecked him.”
We all want things. That’s no surprise. And it’s not wrong either. We all want certain events to take place in our lives, we all hope things will be in a certain way. We want our projects to succeed. The problem is having ceaseless, ardent desires. For Fitzgerald, it was living rich. For you, it may be something different.
We’re all entitled to our own dreams of californication — ideas of what the happy, fulfilled life means to us. It’s our daydreams of the moment when life finally feels like a movie, except that it isn’t and never will be.
Some of us think we’ll finally be happy when we get our degree, or straight-As, or a high-paying job, some of us want to live like how they do on TV. For some of you, maybe it’s when a slick-haired pretty boy from your faculty finally acknowledges your existence. These things are what we tie our happiness, and in fact, our sanity to.
Some of us can’t wait until we’re this or that age because that’s when we plan to get married and everything will magically turn out better. Until then, we’re staring at walls and hoping that somehow these years will go by quickly.
But deep in the back of our heads, you and I both know those dreams aren’t really going to change anything. Life is pretty much going to be the same. A lot of those things aren’t in our control —we can work day and night and keep our fingers crossed, but it’s not in our power to decide when, or if our hard work pays off. Anything can happen.
And remember this always.
When we do have those things, and when all those flowery feelings are gone, when our excitement has faded, we will just want something different. We will just want more.
There will always be worries, anxieties due to the want of things — we simply change our reasons for them. And the same cycle repeats itself until the end of our lives.
See Things As They Are
“So I have never believed that there was any genuine good in the things which everyone prays for ; what is more, I have found them empty and daubed with showy and deceptive colors, with nothing inside to match their appearance.”
Marcus Aurelius was the emperor of Rome, and the last of the good ones, actually. Despite having such immense power, he didn’t let it get to his head.
He was the kind of ruler who liked to remind himself that Alexander the Great was buried in the same ground as his mule driver, that we are “born unequal and die equal”.
There was also a strange exercise in which he reminded himself that the wonderful, expensive meal he was having was afterall, a “dead fish” or “a dead bird”. The purple robe he was wearing was just “sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood” (only the royal class was allowed to wear purple), and that sex was just “the rubbing of private parts, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid”.
He wasn’t totally denying himself of those pleasures, he just didn’t want to get caught up in them. He understood their temporary nature, and that death can easily render them insignificant.
At first, it does seem a little depressing, and harsh. It’s okay. No one’s asking you to live alone in a cave. But it’s necessary for you to realize that nothing in this world is absolute. Everything’s flawed in some way. There will never come a day in your life when you get to say, “I’m happy now, I have everything I want”. In fact, the key to happiness and fulfilment is to see those things as they really are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them, not letting your excitement and your emotions color your perception.
That promotion you’ve been dreaming of could mean having less time for yourself and for your family. Driving that car can cost a fortune just for its maintenance. The dreamy getaway place you often see in pictures is probably really hot and full of mosquitoes. The love of your life will inevitably disappoint you and hurt your feelings. Getting married does mean having truckloads of work and responsibility on your shoulders, without a time off.
And that’s when you start coveting for something else.
In the Qur’an, Allah SWT describes the believers as ones who return to him with qalbun saleem — hearts that are healthy and undamaged.
It’s so that you don’t crave for those things you don’t control, because it’s a recipe for getting your heart broken. Instead, you are humbled by the magnitude of responsibility that it comes with and determined to see it through nevertheless. It’s so that you focus on the things that really matter in the long run rather than simply aiming to satisfy yourself in the short term, it’s so that you carry out your duties as a human being, and carry them out well.
It doesn’t mean that you should turn away from those pleasures. But it’s that you treat those things as a means, not as an end. As tools, if you will, to please Him.
“You’re not your job, you’re not how much money you have in the bank. You’re not the car you drive. You’re not the contents of your wallet. You’re not your khakis.”
External things can’t fix internal issues. The desolation you feel inside you is only gone when you decide to have something changed in your thinking. It’s not a ticket to paradise island that does it for you.
The things that you have or want to have do not define who you are. They’re outside of you. They are not in your control. They can be yours now and in a split-second they can be taken away. You don’t even have control of your own body when it gets ill, or your hair as it grows long. Even when it comes to devoting yourself to a noble cause, the outcome is not something you can actually determine, whether it succeeds or flops.
You can give your best effort and still fail. A doctor has to call time of death at some point whether she wants to or not. She just has to.
That’s why tawakkal isn’t an easy thing to do. It means giving up your illusion of control; acknowledging that the world doesn’t revolve around you, that you’re not the center of it all, it means leaving Allah to take care of things you don’t control, and believing that He knows what’s best for each and every one of us.
So what defines you? — your character, your actions, and your thoughts. These things, you control. You choose your thoughts. You can choose to be angered, to be annoyed, to be offended or to maintain a cool head and not take things too seriously.
You can spend all your life complaining about what you have no control over —you’d might as well put your car window down and yell at a traffic light for turning red. Same thing goes to other people’s behaviors, the jerk who loves giving you a hard time, the weather, and traffic jams.
Or you can choose to make the most of what you actually control, you can work on improving yourself, you can be grateful for what you have now. And Allah will give you more. Secret formula.
It’s that story in Surah Al-Qasas where Nabi Musa a.s accidentally committed murder and practically the whole town of Egypt was going to kill him if they had found him. He made his way to Madyan and he didn’t even ask Allah for things.
In his duaa he told Allah that whatever He has given him, he desperately needed it. He sought shelter under a tree — he couldn’t have lasted in the scorching desert on the way there. He now had water to drink — he could’ve died of thirst.
As the story unfolds, because he was grateful, Allah rewarded him with a stable life, a good job, a nice home, and a good woman to marry. That’s really cool, isn’t it?
In a hadith, Rasulullah SAW said,
“Whoever among you wakes up in the morning and is safe in his home, in good health and has enough provision for the day, it is as if he has all the good things in the world.”
(Narrated by Imam Tirmidhi)
As we wrap up, give it a thought. Your actual needs are small. All the other things you wish for are just additional. While they aren’t necessarily bad, and they’re nice to have, it’s insane to treat them as if you really need them.
Always be ready to ask yourself, years from now, would you still want that something or are you just caught in the heat of the moment? And ask yourself, is it in your control?
If it isn’t, leave it alone. There’s no point getting worried about it. Because you’re exhausting yourself in a battle you simply can’t win. The less attached you are to outcomes, and the more you care about just doing the right things — the better. In the end, it’s effort that Allah counts.