How to Reflect on Disappointments in Life

Sun-light-through-the-trees.jpgHave you been in situations where you are struggling with something that you care about and have put a lot of effort into?

This could be a goal related to your studies or work, or it could be something you’re working on in terms of your character, your personal life or your deen.

Or what about when you lose something that you value – it could be a material possession, a job, school/ uni grades, or the distancing of a friend?

We may wonder why this is happening.  We may question what went wrong, why couldn’t we get it right? – especially when we start comparing ourselves to others, this makes the feelings of disappointment even worse.

There is not always one single answer, and there are often multiple lessons to take away.  But the key thing to realise in the first instance is exactly that: that there are lessons to take away.

Very often, a person can be so caught up in the struggle or disappointment they are facing, that s/he is unable to pause and think about the possible lessons from the situation.  If they did reflect, this would in fact convert the disappointment into a blessing, an opportunity to improve on an aspect of character that they otherwise would have been unaware of.

You can take any example that relates to you – but for the sake of explanation let’s take the example of searching for a job:  There are many reasons why a person gets tested with rejections and lack of interviews, and it may be that Allah is saving an even greater success for you beyond your current situation – if you can just keep persevering, your prize is just around the corner…even though it is hard to carry on after multiple disappointments, and know that Allah appreciates this. Allah is, after all, Ash-Shakur, the Appreciative, and He is Al-Baseer, The All-Seeing.

However, it is possible there is another lesson we can draw from such a struggle: a lesson that tells us, perhaps we have placed too much value on this particular aspect of our life? By that I do not mean that we should not aim high, and that we should not keep going, and that we should not care about our studies and our jobs. The quality of a believer is to strive for Ihsan (excellence).

The point is, we might be thinking that a job is a determinant for our happiness and success in this life. We may have got into a mindset that attaches self-worth and social status with attainment in our careers.  We may be overlooking the value of other achievements and efforts outside of these categories – which is a short step towards pride and condescension (i.e. looking down on others).  It is easy to lose sight of who we are doing these things for in the first place, and if that happens then everything we do would be in vain – it might count for the short-term in this dunya, but would count for little in the next when it really matters.  As Allah reminds us in the Qur’an:

“Rivalry in worldly increase distracts you (from the remembrance of Allah),

till you come to the graves” (102: 1-2).

So when we face disappointments in any dunya-related goal, it could be a wake-up call to make us reflect: “have I become too attached and dependent on this to the point I have started to become neglectful of other responsibilities in my life – indeed other responsibilities in my faith?”

If that is the case, this disappointment becomes a blessed reminder that nothing in this life is permanent; and a reminder that our intentions, and indeed priorities, may have been mixed up. Allah wants us to realise this in this dunya, while we can make amends; rather than to let us carry on with everything going (supposedly) smoothly, only for us to have a shock in the next life.  Therefore the disappointment you might be facing is in fact a sign of Allah’s Mercy and Help at the perfect time.

But what about disappointments related to character and faith? There are many people out there who want to better themselves, alhamdulillah. Imagine a person is trying to change, to learn, to become stronger in their faith. And then s/he does something that is not good – perhaps they lost their temper; maybe they backbited about someone, or are holding a grudge; maybe they lied about an issue; perhaps they engaged in boastful and bragging behaviour, even if it was subtle; or maybe they felt envy towards a person…

There are many such negative traits that can affect a person, and everyone knows their own struggles from within. For the person who cares about being a better person (which in fact is most people!), such realisations can be upsetting. It can make a person feel great disappointment, knowing they still have such an uphill struggle.  And it can make them want to give up trying.

However, as mentioned before, there is actually a huge positive lesson to take from your ability to reflect and hold yourself to account. Alhamdulillah that you are recognising your faults, and not letting pride or neglect cover up your own failings. This requires honesty, and again it is the quality of the believer. As Umar ibn Al-Khattab famously said: ‘Hold yourselves to account before you are held to account [by Allah].’

This does not mean we should then belittle the bad character trait just because we’ve been honest about it. Also, we do not need to declare to everyone else what those failings are just for the sake of ‘honesty’ – when Allah conceals our faults, we are not supposed to disclose them; this reflects a lack of appreciation for the discretion of Allah. You are honest with yourself, this is the first important step. And being honest with Allah, when we seek forgiveness from Him, is the next and most crucial step. Unless we actually need to apologise to an individual(s) for something we did, these two levels of honesty – to oneself and to Allah – should be all that matters when we are trying to overcome our shortcomings.

Once again, the process of disappointment, this time with our own character, becomes an opportunity for us to wake up.

A good friend of mine once gave the example of a computer. Imagine it is an old computer, and you install some advanced software on it. Suddenly the computer starts to malfunction. You could blame the software – perhaps you take it back to the manufacturer and complain about it…or you could recognise that it wasn’t the latest software that was the problem, it’s the computer! It needs updating or repairing – installing the software merely helped to highlight the problems sooner.

So this is the same with disappointments and tests that we face. Don’t completely focus on the disappointment itself, but instead try to be aware of your reaction to it. “What weakness in my character has the ‘disappointment’ helped to expose to me? Does it reflect the fact I’ve become overly attached to something in this dunya? How do I go about addressing this issue? And last but definitely not least, thank you Allah for teaching me, and showing me that I need to fix this.” We are then able to seek forgiveness and make du’a that Allah helps us to overcome this weakness.

And in this way, a disappointment and failing in this dunya becomes an opportunity, a blessing, and can be turned into a success.  That is from the Mercy, Patience and Wisdom of Allah, Alhamdulillah. May Allah enable us all to succeed beyond any disappointments encountered, and to benefit from the lessons in this life and the next.

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