In the short story, “The Greatest Gift” (the basis for the film "It's a Wonderful Life"), the main character George sacrifices his dreams to help others, taking on the burdens of responsibility while others live more free, exciting lives. This leaves him regretful, and in a moment of crisis he becomes depressed, wishing that he’d never been born—a wish that is granted. As he sees how life is like without him, to his horror he now finds his loved ones suffering and his entire society corrupt. He finally realizes that his life, as unfulfilling as he thought it to be, was in fact critical to the uprightness of the world.
Many of us can have regrets, frustrated that we haven't met our goals, especially in terms of Islamic knowledge and spiritual practice, because we feel burdened by the daily grind. The cyclical barrage of family, work, social engagements, and even volunteer duties leave us so busy working on their immediate logistical needs that we feel we never get a chance to improve ourselves spiritually. It's that feeling of just barely treading water, fighting for each breath as the waves of life's responsibilities constantly crash down on us. That constant sense of fighting can breed resentment and frustration.
What’s the common denominator in all of this frustration? I can't do what I want to do. Overcoming that sentiment is in realizing that Allah, in His infinite wisdom, has put each of us in our current state for a reason. That doesn't mean we need to give up our long-term dreams, but it does mean that we have to learn to work within the limitations of our current condition for our goals, rather than always pining to be magically transported out of it. Life is not about always choosing the path that we think is the best, but about accepting the wisdom of the path Allah has put us on.
Our frustration in our "unfulfilled" state is only because we fail to see what Allah knows—that our current state fulfills a unique role in benefiting the world. It's the sacrifices we make, and the lives we affect (knowingly or unknowingly) in the midst of our menial work, that can have a profound effect on the entire society. Remembering several key points can help us make that effect positive.
1. Don’t belittle the “little” things
So whoever does an atom’s weight of good will see it (Surah Zalzalah, 99:7). When Aisha (may Allah be pleased with her) once gave a single grape in charity, others laughed at this. She reminded them of its worth, saying, "How many atoms' weights do you see in this grape?"1 As the Prophetﷺ said, “Do not underrate any good act, even if it is offering drinking water from your bucket to the thirsty, or meeting your brother with a cheerful face.”2
The smallest things can be the most important. A small act of kindness, a smile, a brief supplication you made for someone you saw in the corner of your eye as you went about your busy day—that could be worth more than all those “big” acts you aspire for.
2. It’s not drudgery, it’s dhikr
Our daily lives only become dull or dispiriting when we devalue or disregard the lessons and benefits Allah has put in them for us. When Ali and Fatimah (may Allah be pleased with them) asked the Prophet for a servant to help in the house, the Prophetﷺ instead instructed them to say a litany of dhikr (remembrance and invocation of God) at night, saying it was better than what they had asked for.3
One of the lessons from this is that the Prophetﷺ was teaching them and us that we need to spiritually anchor ourselves in everything we do. The physical struggle, when coupled with a spiritual presence in it, with reliance on God, may refine ourselves more than the act of worship alone.
There’s a story of one righteous worshiper of the past who once told her husband, “Eat! For with every morsel of food I have prepared, in it there is the glorification of God.” She was in constant dhikr (remembrance of God) as she cooked, and recognized there was blessing in it for herself, and her family.
Everything can be worship if it is elevated with the dhikr of the tongue and heart. Maintain that God-consciousness throughout, and if you forget, use the cues of any frustration or stress that you feel as a reminder to return to the remembrance of God.
3. Have a good opinion about God
In the well-known Hadith Qudsi, Allah says, “I am as My servant thinks of Me”.4 Amongst many other meanings, this teaches us that our emotional and spiritual well-being is tied to how we really think how Allah is. If we truly believe He is the Merciful and the Wise, we cannot have anything but a positive outlook on our life. To think otherwise would only show a lack of trust in God and that we don’t believe God is putting us in the best place for our specific spiritual and psychosocial situation. Ibn al-Qayyim warned of this when he said:
Most people –in fact, all of them except those protected by Allah – assume other than the truth and assume the worst. Most people believe that they are deprived of their rights, have bad luck, deserve more than what Allah gave them, and it is as if they are saying: My Lord has wronged me and deprived me of what I deserve,’
It’s important for us to constantly remind ourselves that God truly wants what is best for us. When we have a good opinion of Him, our lives will never disappoint us because He will never disappoint us.
4. It’s all for you, to show you it’s all for Him
One of the miracles of our lives is that everything around us is specifically orchestrated for each one of us to take benefit from. For example, when we see a disabled vehicle on the road, even though we are not physically affected by it, just observing it teaches us many things. For one driver, it may remind them that they need to slow down. For the other, that they need to finally make those delayed repairs on their own car. For another, it’s gratitude for the blessings they have.
All of these are different lessons, from the same incident, for different people, all with their own benefit. Our lives are interconnected—everything is done for a reason. In all of the events that we observe, Allah is challenging us to look beyond the creation and see the Creator.
Those who remember Allah standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and think deeply about the creation of the heavens and the earth, (saying): "Our Lord! You have not created this without purpose, glory to You! Give us salvation from the torment of the Fire.” (Al-Imran, 3:192)
Allah has created everything in this world purposefully for each of us, to show us that all of it is for Him. Throughout our stress and success, we recognize the Divine in every moment that makes up the rich tapestry of the world. Our current position may be in worship, seeking knowledge, contemplation, serving others and the religion (khidmah), or the station of patience when we can do nothing else. Each uniquely enriches our soul, and the world, to truly foster a wonderful life.
1. Yahya related that Malik said, "I heard that a beggar asked for food from 'A'isha, Umm al-Muminin, while she had some grapes. She told someone to take him one grape. He began to look in amazement. 'A'isha said, "Are you amazed? How many atoms' weights do you see in this grape?" (Reported in al-Muwatta of Imam Malik)
2. Reported in Muslim.
3. Ali told Fatimah, "Go to your father, he has many servants so go and obtain one." Then they went together and she asked, "O Messenger of Allah, I grind until my hands become fatigued. Allah has sent you the capacity so serve us." He said, "I swear by Allah I cannot whilst the stomachs of people of the platform (ahl-us-suffah) are bent double with hunger." Then he said, "Shall I not inform you of what is better than what you ask of me?" They said, "Yes." He replied, "These are words that Jibril taught me: when you retire to your beds recite the Verse of the Throne, say Subhanallah thirty three times, Alhamdulillah thirty three times and Allahu Akbar thirty four times." (Reported by Imam Ahmad in Al-Musnad)
4. Allah the Most High said, ‘I am as My servant thinks (expects) I am. I am with him when he mentions Me. If he mentions Me to himself, I mention him to Myself; and if he mentions Me in an assembly, I mention him in an assembly greater than it. If he draws near to Me a hand’s length, I draw near to him an arm’s length. And if he comes to Me walking, I go to him at speed.’” (Reported in Bukhari)