By Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu, New Age Islam
30 July, 2015
It is really futile to compare ourselves with others—be it in our success or in our failures. How could we ever compare ourselves with others? They are not us and we are not them! Our paths of life are totally different from each other. We cannot even judge another person until we are truly able to see the experiences he or she went through in life. How could we ever envy the success of another when we have not seen the struggles, the hurts and the pains that the person went through before he or she reaches that particular level of success in his or her life? Are we willing to go through what the other went through—all those blood, sweat, fatigue, stress, hurts, pains and tears that one has expended in his life that made him or her reach the goal?
In their philosophical treatises, existentialists always emphasize on what they termed “human situatedness” as part and parcel of our existence as persons. We are all unique, the existentialists say, because in our birth, we are simply “thrown” into the world without our permission. This is why we all have different and unique circumstances; and our experiences in a particular time-and-space situations within a particular culture, and our coping mechanisms in the midst of our “thrown-ness” made us all unique, unrepeatable and irreducible individuals. As humans, we are endowed with individual freedom to be able to cope-up with our various situatedness: yet it is precisely this individual freedom to act in the midst of the varied challenges in our life’s circumstances that made us incommensurably and irreplaceably unique as individuated persons.
Our experiences with the daily struggles in this world leave indelible imprints in our soul that would make us uniquely different from another soul. We arrived in this world “thrown” into a particular set of circumstances, cultures, creeds, ethos, families and life situations. Moment by moment, we cope-up with Life in a variety of ways, for Life comes to treat us in different ways just as well. Some are treated nicely by Life; but for others, Life can be downright cruel at worst. Each experience we have brings us precious lessons in life… And Life is an expert teacher, for all her lessons are individualized—different lessons for different souls, and no lessons are ever the same for everyone. So in this case, can we truly, really, and honestly judge someone or his/her life? Can we ever bring ourselves to compare with others? “Judge ye not; so that ye be not judged”, thundered the voice of the Holy Prophet Jesus the Messiah, in the Gospel. (St. Matthew 7:1).
As of this juncture, I remember fondly an ancient Turkish prayer attributed to Hazrat Yunus Emre, an 11th century Sufi minstrel, which I learned back in my elementary days: “Lord, teach me not to judge anyone if I have not walked a day or two in their sandals. Lord, teach me to withhold my tongue in criticizing someone if I have not walked a day’s journey with him”. (Cited in Mehmet Fayzi, Yunus Emre Hazretleri Sohbet ve Nasihat [Conversations with and Advices of Hazrat Yunus Emre], p.19) Take this very clearly: we must not even compare our pains with the pains of another for they are totally different. Let us stop living our lives in the fallacy of “Non-Sequitur” (it does not follow)! My life is my life and the other has his/her own life and it does not follow that I compare myself with him/her. When we envy another person for what he or she has achieved in life, when we become covetous of what one has that we do not have, we are in truth saying that our life has no worth and that our existence is a nothing—we are in effect saying that the other’s existence is worth more than ours! But we are all valuable, and we have intrinsic worth: that is why Almighty God gives us this time and opportunity to exist, in order to experience and learn from the School of Life. If we always look at our own sadness, and covet the happiness of others, thereby allowing envy to consume and burn us from within, we are living a life of misery, a life of a lie, an illusory, deceptive and pathetic existence. Come to think of it: try as we may, we will never be the other person and the other person will never be us!
What spiritual relevance does this present reflection on the uniqueness of one’s existence bring us? The realization that we need to tolerate others and the need to accept the differences we have as individual human existents. But above all, we also learn the profound truth that my life is mine alone and I cannot live the life of another. Envying another’s life is illogical and coveting the success of others is idiotic. There is a very beautiful saying of the Holy Prophet Hazrat Muhammad: “Each person is given the measure of failure and success, pain and joy according to his capacity to bear them. The cycle of pain and happiness in life are lessons for us to contemplate upon, so that we will remember that this present life is not the real goal, but God is the true Goal of one’s existence” (cited in At-Tarjum al-Bayhaqi fi Sahih-Ain [Commentary of Imam Al-Bayhaqi on Sahih Bukhari and Muslim], xx:9; p.147).
I like very much the above mentioned prophetic quotation (Hadith) from the wisdom of the Holy Prophet of Islam. For the present readers of my article who are more of a secular bent or of a philosophical temperament; let me translate what the Holy Prophet Muhammad, in effect, said from an existentialist perspective. The Holy Prophet is saying that all our experiences are provided by Life to us so that by reflecting upon the alternating of pain and joy, suffering and happiness, we will be able to know who we truly are—and through the varied circumstances in our life (be they painful or joyful), we will discover the deep truth of ourselves and of others. It is only through sufferings and difficulties that one can attain mastery in life, and can hone one to be a person of genuine character and self-authenticity. This was also what Hazrat Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi, the famous 12th century Turkish mystic, meant when he says that one should be grateful of our own life’s experiences instead of hankering and coveting the success of another. To quote from Hazrat Maulana Rumi: “God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches you by means of opposites, so that you will have two wings to fly—and not just one.” (Mathnawi Selections, Islamabad, Pakistan: Ruhaniyyat Press, 1985; p 76)
For Maulana Rumi, life is characterized by the alternating movements of opposites: conflict and peace, peace and conflict, happiness and sufferings, sufferings and happiness, joy and pain, pain and joy… so on and so forth. God designs this alternating psycho-spiritual dynamics in the inward soul for the moral, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual development of each human existent. All human beings have their own sets of joys and sadness, happiness and sufferings, success and failures so that it is indeed futile to covet another’s life without being able to experience the other’s difficulties and failures. From the point of view of Islamic spirituality known as Sufism, our experiences of suffering make us more resolute, spiritually mature and holy, since the experiences of pain and suffering will prod us to place our reliance solely on the All-Benevolent God (Ar-Rahman) Who allows us to experience difficulties for the good of our souls: in order to mature us and to make us truly unique, individuated, self-actualized and God-conscious persons.
Therefore, the next time we begin scratching this itch of comparing ourselves with others and of competing with their achievements, let’s recall the undeniable truth that we cannot be the other person—we can only be ourselves. Covetousness is a grave sin, and the Torah of Prophet Moses sternly warns us: “Thou shalt not covet!” (Exodus 20:17). Competition should only be with ourselves—that is, how we can better our own selves. Let us learn to see ourselves as having intrinsic worth because our eternal value does not come from what we have accomplished or will ever achieve in the future, but from who we really are in the goodness of our heart and in the purity of our intentions. So how about it? Something worth pondering upon in our present existence.
Prof. Henry Francis B. Espiritu is Associate Professor-VI of Philosophy and Asian Studies at the University of the Philippines (UP), Cebu City. He was former Academic Coordinator of the Political Science Program at UP Cebu from 2011-2014. He is presently the Coordinator of Gender and Development (GAD) Office at UP Cebu. His research interests include Islamic Studies particularly Sunni jurisprudence, Islamic feminist discourses, Islam in interfaith dialogue initiatives, Islamic environmentalism, the writings of Imam Al-Ghazali on pluralism and tolerance, Turkish Sufism, Muslim-Christian dialogue, Middle Eastern affairs, Peace Studies and Public Theology.