On most days, my three-year-old daughter doesn’t share her toys with her brother, she resists bed times, blows up when she doesn’t get her own way, refuses to say ‘please’, and has a problem with tidying up and putting her toys away. Many of our days consists of battling with her to get her to do what she doesn’t want to do. Most days I triumph but some days, I’m too tired to fight and I let her be.
However, she doesn’t weaken my resolve and every day is a new day to help, guide, nurture, and educate her.
I heard a scholar once say, that when children are young, their nafs (self/ego), is at its strongest. So, negative characteristics such as anger, pride, greed, envy and being egotistical is at its peak. This is why, one of the main roles of parents is to guide their children. To encourage good behaviour, lead by example, use positive reinforcement, and when appropriate, use gentle force to get them to be the best possible versions of themselves.
I seem to spend a lot of my time upsetting my child by not giving her what she wants. Making her do what she doesn’t want to do. And ignoring the tantrums that usually follow. All because she’s still a child and I’m her mother and as a mother, I know what is best for her.
However, I’ve realised that the same rules don’t seem to apply to me. I also have issues with my nafs. I feel greed when I frequent certain places, I feel arrogance at certain accomplishments, I feel laziness in worship at times, and I feel jealousy when I see those who are of similar age as myself but more accomplished than me.
There are many vices that I battle with, however I do not have my mother chasing after me correcting my faults. If anything, by being a ‘grown up’, living and managing my own home, raising two small children, living as an expat abroad for 8-plus years has given me a stronger ego.
I think I know it all. But I don’t. I think I’m in control of my nafs (ego/self). But I’m not.
If anything, its more important for me to work on my shortcomings than it is for my daughter. This is because, as a ‘grown up’ I should know better. Also, as one gets older the harder it becomes to rectify and correct the faults of the soul. I see around me, old men who haven’t called their brothers for years, because they feel they should call them first. Old women who didn’t invite blood relatives to family weddings, because they didn’t receive an invitation many years ago from them. Or families who don’t speak to one another because they are consumed with jealousy towards one another. Or those who don’t visit family members, because they are convinced that the problems in their life is due to the jealousy from others!
The journey of identifying the faults of our soul, learning about the consequences they have on our lives and seeking its cure, is a science that is not given as much importance as it should. The Holy Prophet said: “Truly I was sent as a Prophet for the purpose of perfecting human character.” This hadith defines a very important aspect of Islam: self-improvement through the purification of one’s personal qualities.
The struggle with the nafs is the idea that there is an internal conflict going on. This means that we have to struggle with ourselves. Part of struggling with ourselves is struggling with our passions which are of a bestial nature. Negative characteristics such as pride, jealousy, anger, ungratefulness, and resentment left to harbour and grow are all capable of destroying not just an individual and their family, but also the larger society.
Hamza Yusuf once said, that if we examine trials and tribulations, wars and other conflicts and acts of injustices all over the world, we will find that they are all rooted in the human heart – the nafs. Every criminal, miser, abuser and hateful person does what he or she does because of a diseased heart, and if we conquered our nafs and our hearts were sound, these actions would no longer be a reality.
Unfortunately, our current culture is fixated with likes, shares, and the hits we get on Youtube or the number of followers we have on Instagram. As a result, praise and popularity is so important to us and criticism is hard on the soul. This is counterproductive to the path of self improvement because our traditions should be based on getting rid of the ego and not fueling and inflating it.
I’ve realised that I expend a lot of energy managing the ever-changing emotions of my three-year-old daughter. Reminding her to share even with others who don’t share with her, teaching her to not blow up each time someone slights her and pointing out that its good to be the first one to say sorry even if you’re not in the wrong.
However, I too need reminding that part of being a ‘grown up’ is to manage your own vices. Controlling your own negative thoughts and behaviour. Being the bigger person. Overlooking and forgiving. Being good to those who have wronged you. Visiting those in need who didn’t visit you when you were in need. Picking up the phone and calling those who don’t call you. Celebrating the blessings of those who have what you don’t have. Responding with good words to those who put you down. And above all, doing all of the above without any sense of moral or religious superiority over others.
Being a ‘grown up’ also means that we should have honest dialogues with ourselves where we recognise our shortcomings. Admit to ourselves that it’s wrong to feel the way we do and then work hard to correct it. Ideally, for true correction of our nafs, we should have a religious mentor. However, because most of us have trouble accessing one, we should at least recognise that we have faults within us and work hard at correcting them ourselves.
Rumi said that “your worst enemy is hiding within you and that enemy is your nafs”. We can only fight the enemy that we know and recognise.
This self-correction may be in the form of timeouts for reflection, ignoring the tantrums when things don’t go our way, and refusing to self-indulge in every whim in order to appreciate what we already have. We may have to say sorry first even if were not in the wrong. Sometimes we may have to share with those who have never shared with us. We may have to upset ourselves when we don’t get what we want. Sometimes we may have to make ourselves do what we don’t want to do. We will have to remind ourselves not to blow up each time someone slights us. And we will have to ignore the internal tantrums that will follow.
If we did this, we would at least be on the path to self-improvement, as this is what being a ‘grown up’ truly means.