My outstretched hand falls limply at my side. Eyebrows that were lifted in hope, just a moment ago, drop in dejection. I sink, deflate, almost compress into myself as belittlement takes on a literal meaning. In my reduced state, I feel too ashamed to lift my gaze to where it once was when my aspirations were high.
“I am not as smart as they are” I say, comparing my scrimpy, derisory intelligence to those who have attained high and honorable academic degrees. Their lofty education and complex verbiage that I struggle to comprehend, much less match, becomes fuel for my self-debasement.
“I am not as appreciated as they are” I say, witnessing the many thousands of followers those who are more successful than I have attained. I feel unworthy to even join the list of admirers, lest the person I esteem so much looks down to see me, in my abject state, amongst the many ranks of fans. My pride recoils at this, and I tell myself I want this person to see me for the first time when I am at eye level.
“I am not as beautiful as they are,” I say, tracing graceful lines in every physiognomy but my own. I study my face with the hateful gaze one would give to something vile, and find flaws in every feature.
“I am not as godly as they are,” I say, sighing wistfully at the many good deeds done in the name of religion and the displays of faith that make me feel negligent and shallow in comparison.
“They don’t seem to struggle as I do…”
The whispers of shaytan are rarely ever literal whispers. They come to us in the form of thoughts, in our own voices. They are not always encouraging vice in an immediately recognizable way. Sometimes thoughts come to us disguised as humility, and under that guise, succeed in putting us down and away from the Source of Light. Through jealousy, through comparisons, through assuming things about others’ lives, shaytan whispers, making us feel insignificant and without hope.
Humility is not about feeling inferior or insecure; it’s an acknowledgement of your place in the eyes of God. Since He has stated that the noblest of us is the most righteous, that gives us no liberty to administer the virtue on whomever we please, since He alone knows who is truly righteous and who is not. Humility is knowing that only He can bestow upon you nobility, and that, though you are undeserving, He is Munificent.
You may pray for others’ happiness with all your heart and wish them every good, but if you’re putting yourself down at the same time, you are committing a vice. The same love bestowed to others should be bestowed to you as well. You are a creation of The Beloved, too; debasing His vicegerent on this earth is an insult to Him and His Messenger. Loving yourself isn’t narcissistic and hating yourself isn’t humility. The distinguishing factor here is how much of the Divine Countenance you see in your person and in all of creation.
Know Your Heart
We see the smiles, but not the tears shed in solitude. We admire people’s plaques and certificates, but overlook the many sleepless nights they’ve spent in anguish, and how it took all their willpower to keep from giving up. We envy their success and blessings, but don’t know how hard they worked and how much they prayed. We see the facade and assume it is the whole. In our lowest state, we compare ourselves to people in their happiest days – or rather the image that they choose to display in their happiest days. All we see is the still photo that doesn’t include with it the heartache of the struggle and the chest-constricting fear of losing that moment.
Being inspired by others should bring happiness to our hearts. When we feel small in comparison, perhaps it’s because inspiration, which was the initial reaction, turned into jealousy. Inspecting and disciplining our nafs requires comparison, but not to people. The touchstone to hold yourself against is found in the holy personalities God sent for us as exemplars. If you must be superior, be superior to your former self. If you must be inferior, be inferior to what you will become. Self-betterment happens in the absence of confounding self-abasement.
God bestows certain privileges to some, but not to others. He grants health and wealth to some, but not to others. The way you suffer may not be the way others suffer, but no one is without suffering. The Omniscient measures your burden to an exactness and knows precisely the weight you can carry without collapsing. He Knows, also, how your circumstances constrict you and what is in your power to achieve. The scales He measures your deeds by are unique to you. Why then, do we measure ourselves with the same universal scale, striving to meet the ideals everyone else is told to meet, regardless of their life’s circumstances? What is it really, to be successful, admired? What raises our status, the admiration of people or the pleasure of God? Are the intentions for your aspirations ultimately for Him or them? Whose esteem do you seek more?
As commendable as outward achievements are, even the ones that invite people to God, they are not the greater jihad. The books we write, lectures we give, debates we win, will not benefit us on the day when only the state of our hearts will bear witness. The prestige we’ve won in this life will be shed from us like the dirt on our bodies when we rise from our graves. The heart, which is the single most hidden thing in the life of this world, will be the most apparent on the day we face our Lord; and what was most apparent here (our image) will be reduced to nothingness.
Perhaps next time you belittle yourself for not doing enough, ask yourself what the state of your heart is. Have you been fighting the greater jihad? Closeness to your Creator doesn’t come through reading books or attending conferences (though by all means those should be done). Even prescribed acts of worship will not benefit you if your heart is not trained in the process.
The tools we need, we have already, within ourselves. They just need to be used continually, repetitively, every day, in tireless labor that does not cease till our breath does. It’s a struggle, but that’s what jihad is. You may be in a good spiritual state in the morning, but by nightfall, you may find yourself in regression. Ceaseless, untiring cleansing of the soul keeps shaytan out of your head and heart. Ceaseless, untiring self-inspection is perhaps how our Lord defines righteousness.