She felt a knot in her stomach. Her husband was about to come home from the fajr (pre-dawn) prayer, and once again, there was no food. She was upset for him, considering how hard he worked and all the responsibilities he had, and upset at how helpless she was. But they had no food.
He came in, cheerful as always, and greeted his beloved wife. “Do we have anything to eat?” he asked, and she replied, “We have nothing.” And he said, “Well, in that case, I am fasting today!”
This conversation occurred between the Prophet ﷺ (peace be upon him) and his wife Aisha radi Allahu `anha —may God be pleased with her—(narrated in Muslim). Had the Prophet ﷺ focused on the fact that there was no food, he would have probably felt starved the whole day. But by taking a different attitude, he turned the situation around completely. His mind could now be occupied with something useful, something other than food.
Oftentimes, when we focus on a problem, we are not actually focusing on a solution. We are so fixated on the problem that, in addition to inflating it, we close the doors to any other alternative. But the Prophet ﷺ had this amazing skill: seeing the opportunity for growth in seemingly dire situations. And once you do that, you start seeing opportunities where others only see closed doors.
So what does this have to do with failure?
Failures, setbacks, broken hearts, the loss of a job—all this takes its toll on the human heart. What is the point of trying, when trying only leads to failure? Been there, done that. If you find yourself thinking like that, then you need to remember this verse in the Qur’an:
“So verily, with the hardship, there is relief, Verily, with the hardship, there is relief.” [(Qur'an, 94:5-6)]
Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) tells us that within one hardship, there are at least two reliefs (the verse talks about one definite hardship, “the” hardship, and mentions ease twice in indefinite terms). God (swt) is teaching you to look for the opportunities within your hardship. This skill, seeing the opportunity for growth, becomes invaluable during setbacks. While others are focusing on the failure, you are focusing on the opportunities.
There is now an abundance of psychological research on this. Shawn Achor talks about this in his book, The Happiness Advantage. He calls this particular principle ”Falling Up”. And he shows that setbacks can actually fuel creativity when we are in the right frame of mind, because we are forced to think in new ways. But that is only when we wire our brains to know that this difficulty can be overcome. Some people always bounce back, but others always seem to crash down. And research has shown that the difference between the two is the ability to see that a closed door somewhere means, at the very least, an open window somewhere else. Achor mentions that during the recession, the companies that made it out successfully were those that found creative ways to cope, and the managers then stated that they could not go back to the old way of doing things because the new way—born out of that calamity—was a much better way.
To help us with this, it is crucial to focus on what is within our control. We spend so much time freaking out about things that we cannot do anything about. But what can we do? When we realize that there are certain things that are within our power, we are liberated because we realize we are not so helpless after all.
Do you know the back-story of Al-Muthanna bin al-Haritha? Ask people who know about him, and they will say he was the first Muslim to defeat the Persians. But what made him do that? Al-Muthanna was from the tribe of Bani Shayban, who refused to support the Prophet ﷺ. When the Prophet ﷺ was seeking protection, Banu Shayban was the first tribe he went to, because they were powerful. But because of their special relationship with the Persian Empire, they told our beloved Prophet ﷺ that they would only protect him from the Arabs, not the Persians. They did not want to lose the privilege of being allied with the greatest empire at the time, even at the expense of the truth.
Fast forward to over a decade later: al-Muthanna bin al-Haritha, who was instrumental in this refusal to protect the Prophet ﷺ, accepted Islam a mere few months after the Prophet ﷺ passed away. He wept profusely. He missed out on supporting the Prophet ﷺ, because he wanted the privileges bestowed upon his tribe for being allied with the Persians. So was that the end for him? No. Islam empowered him. He wanted to make up for it. He knew that the Persian Empire was getting ready to attack the small but growing Muslim state. So he attacked them first. After winning some battles, he sent for reinforcements from Abu Bakr (ra), the Muslim Caliph at the time, but ‘Umar bin al-Khattab (the companion) did not even know who he was! ‘Umar advised Abu Bakr to send reinforcements, but with Khalid bin al-Walid, the greatest military commander.
When Khalid arrived with the troops and a message instructing al-Muthanna to take orders from Khalid, al-Muthanna stated that he was not looking for leadership, only to make up for lost time. When he saw Abu Bakr (ra) after winning six battles, he asked him, “Do you think now that the Prophet ﷺ would be pleased with me?” He died a martyr outside the gates of one of the major Persian cities, hoping it would intercede for him.
In his failure, al-Muthanna saw a unique opportunity. He knew he had exclusive knowledge of the Persian Empire, and he received the news firsthand of their plans to attack the Muslims. Had he been consumed in his sadness of failing the Prophet ﷺ, he would have never seen this opportunity. But he was looking for something to make up for his failings. Moreover, he focused on the things he could do, as opposed to the things he could not control. And he saw the opportunity for growth.
The more you train yourself in this skill, the more it will come naturally to you. This requires us to get acquainted with Allah, and know His attributes. When you know that He is the Most-Wise, that He appreciates even the smallest things that you do, and that within hardship there are opportunities, the more your brain automatically picks up on possibilities where others see none. And it requires us to become followers of His Prophet ﷺ by studying his journey, and how he ﷺ saw beauty in the most unlikely of places. It requires us to be conscious of the way our mind works when we are confronted with difficulties, and recognizing that our way is just one way of thinking. There are other options, and there are alternative ways of looking at the problem. Below are three steps you can take towards seeing things alternatively.
1—The long-term: Do not wait for a calamity to hit before you realize that you are not emotionally or mentally equipped. Build yourself and build the skills when times are good. The Prophet ﷺ tells us, “Remember Allah in times of ease, and He will remember you in times of difficulty.” (Musnad Ahmad)
Give yourself a daily task of writing down three things you are grateful for. Do it even when you have had a terrible day. You are training your mind to see beauty in adversity. Make it a mission to learn about how the Prophet ﷺ dealt with difficulties in his life. You will be inspired to grow in your desire to improve.
2—Focus on what is in your control: Stop worrying about the things that you have no control over. Allah (swt) makes a way out in ways you could not even imagine. If you have a difficult relationship with a family member, do not be consumed by their reactions or character. You may not be able to change them, but you can certainly change yourself. What usually happens is that people respond to your changes, even if slowly. And if they do not, their attitude ceases to bother you because you have already worked on yourself. You can take things in stride.
3—Look for the good: I was once on my way to the airport and, because I had so many suitcases (story of my life), I had booked a car to take me there. The driver asked me what I was studying, and then he told me he had studied the same subject. But then he said that when he graduated, that was when the financial crisis hit, and there were no jobs. So he started working as a driver in a private car-hire company. He learned the ins and outs, and finally started up his own airport transfer company. He did not lament the fact that there were no jobs, or the fact that he had a law degree but was forced to work as a driver. He was grateful to have a job. His eyes were open to opportunities. And now he owns his own company.
It is not to say that we will all become CEOs or millionaires, but that blessings are different for each individual. For example, some people who lose their jobs then start to spend more time with their families. Instead of simply falling into a deep pit of darkness, they saw that now they did not have an excuse not to be with their family more. And they realized what they were missing out on. In their quest to find a new job, they kept in mind that family was a priority. There is always something good if you want there to be.
I had a friend who could not bring up a certain topic with her parents. It simply petrified her. But she knew she had to. So she brought it up, and their reaction was as bad as she expected. She told me that she could choose to view what happened in two ways: that she failed, and that was that, good for her for trying, case closed; or she could think that now that she brought it up, at least her parents knew what she was thinking. Their reaction was so bad because, at least for them, her proposition was so unexpected. There is always resistance to new ideas. So instead of seeing it as a closed door, she saw it as a step forward. Now it is on the radar. And change will come, insha’Allah (God willing).
As we can see from the examples, you can apply this thinking to all things, big and small. But once you do, you will see yourself becoming more effective, creative and happy, insha’Allah. Because for you, all the doors are open.
This article is inspired by the principles in Shawn Achor’s The Happiness Advantage.