By Zaynab Dawood
Self-care and self-empowerment. Memes and lines of self-appraisal float in the continuous sea of social media and are stamped on people’s WhatsApp profiles and churned in their daily status and stories. This positivity is twofold: reassuring oneself of your worth, including anything that will work towards your well- being, and a caution to others that you have certain boundaries that will not be breached. This has helped many and I’ve personally reaped the healing power of positive affirmations but too much focus on the self can make us weaker and more self-driven.
Motivational Memes: self-care or self-indulgence?
Recently a meme riled me. It happened at the end of a few weeks of being agitated. Stuck in a constant monologue about the state of most children and teenagers; their inability to be reverent and respectful to adults and teachers; their absent sense of duty to their parents and their self-affirmation: “I matter, my feelings, my choices, me, me, me.” Of course, children’s and teenagers’ feelings matter but this selfish individualistic mantra is not helpful in rearing a generation of sound, solid and sensible young people, especially as most adults are trapped in the “it’s all about me” mindset. This “me, me, me” has become this age’s maxim, the only kite mark to espouse to, the only standard to validate one’s worth. Some motivational memes are inspiring but most do not induce ikhlas, sincerity in intentions, or ihsan, serving others with compassion.
There’s more than just “me”
As a Muslim woman I’m aware of the “Ihsan” (excellence in behaviour and action) I must demonstrate towards others, especially those entrusted in my care, not just students but my family and anyone whose life merges with mine. This ihsan is primarily for others although Allah is swift to reward all those that do good. Therefore, there is something for “me” in this Ihsan. So, who receives my ihsan? My relatives, the people I come into regular contact with, the old man and his dog as I have my morning walk and the woman who is gesticulating her impatience because I made a mistake on the road whilst driving. Anyone and everyone.
As a teacher I care for my students’ well-being and their learning. As a Muslim mum I’m acutely aware of my role in keeping my home functioning and sustaining its ethos as well as being a nurturing influence on my children. It is my sense of responsibility and commitment which enables me to absorb other people’s mistakes and shortcomings because life isn’t always smooth and people aren’t always nice. This need not entail being a doormat for others to tread upon nor becoming a person that anyone can abuse, or even misuse by regularly offloading one’s problems without reciprocating a lending ear. Of course, our kindness may not be returned but our ultimate aim is to please Allah and we know that He will return our kindnesses with something far better.
Shifting from me to Ihsan
What developing ihsan has taught me is that at times, perhaps several times during the day, I must set aside what I want and be accommodating and compassionate towards others. To recalibrate one’s mindset from “me, me, me,” to others. My growth is not stinted by my sacrifice, my hard work or the temporary suspension of working towards my goals. Rather, serving others, being selfless at times to facilitate others’ well-being and maintaining an awareness that frequent acts of kindness, however small, all contribute to the health of those around me and the communities we live in. It also gives me a deeper sense of satisfaction and self-worth.
We reap rewards and blessings from Allah which enable us work towards the goals we have set ourselves in a manner that is constructive and induced with gratitude. The opposite would be to be miserly with our efforts: our kindnesses would only be towards those that have incremental value in our own goals; our time would be only to serve our own desires; and we would have little or no emotional capacity to absorb the pain of others.
This duty towards others is the hallmark of this religion. The Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) taught us that we have not achieved true faith unless we aspire for others what we aspire for ourselves. There is no room for selfishness in this religion. Removing the “me” from our primary intentions and replacing it with “us” shifts our focus from a lowly singular objective “my happiness” to “our success.” Not just what “I” want now in this life but what “we” can enjoy and celebrate in this life and in the next.
Think of the sacrifice of the Companions of the Prophet (pbuh). Think of the Ansar. The early communities of Makkah and Madinah had so many challenges but their collective struggle, their collective mindset, enabled them to overcome the most terrible circumstances and we are here, now, reaping the rewards of their sacrifice.
Choosing the right words to empower us
The meme that riled me was: “It’s so empowering to say: ‘this isn’t serving me.’ And walk away in peace.” How do we reconcile this if we believe that every interaction we have with our family, friends, colleagues, is an opportunity for gaining reward? Perhaps by exercising affability, generosity, diplomacy, or perhaps being patient, or firm when gentleness won’t do, or even avoiding confrontation. To view every situation with only “what serves me” is not conducive to the spirit of the ummah. Walking away from hostile situations, imbroglios and gossip is wise but to turn away from situations where we can make a difference, even if it’s a reassuring smile, kind word, helpful advice, is dismissing the opportunity Allah has given us to help others at that moment and consequently, reap reward.
We best serve Allah by serving His Creation. This beautiful and noble maxim is preserved in the well-known Hadith Qudsi when Allah asks why we did not help Him when He needed it. Of course, He is beyond all need but Allah uses analogies and words to help us understand His expectations of us:
“Allah will say on the Day of Judgment, ‘Son of Adam, I was sick but you did not visit Me.’ ‘My Lord, How could I visit You when You are the Lord of the Worlds?’ ‘Did you not know that one of My servants was sick and you didn’t visit him? If you had visited him, you would have found Me there.’…”
Wise words enhance our shift of focus
We all know words are powerful. Words we use shape our character and enliven our will power to act in the ways that we do. The verse of Light, (24:35), is one verse that demonstrates how our internal faith can glow and shine outwardly. This externalising of our faith is a manifestation of how, as Muslims, we seek to find light for ourselves as individuals, but also as a beacon of light, faith and hope for others around us. This is the summit of shifting our focus from me to all of us. In this way we can balance the self-care we need to grow with the view of helping others and gaining Allah’s Pleasure.
About the author
I’m Zaynab Dawood from Lancashire, England. I’m a busy mum of four, a teacher and author. For me there are three delights in life: ibadah, spending time with family and friends, and reading good literature!