The Young Man and the Elder Stranger
A 24-YEAR-OLD man lived in a small town where everyone knew everyone else. He had a reputation as someone who could not keep a job for long, who did just the necessary minimum to get by. He never hurt anyone or committed any crime but seemed to have no ambition or willingness to improve himself. He had told his mother many times the reason for his lack of desire to improve himself: Everyone he knew was so imperfect that he just didn’t see any point in trying to attain anything good. Some he saw as hypocritical. They might have reputations for being good and upstanding members of the community, but when they got into a dispute, they displayed mean-spirited character. Some would engage in arguments, shouting insults and condemnations at those who disagreed with their position. Others he saw as bending the rules of morality whenever it suited their purpose, or engaging in backbiting or lying and using some justification to excuse their wrongdoing.
Then an elderly man came to town one day and settled in at the town inn. He was very personable and enjoyed talking with the townspeople, drinking tea and eating bread pudding. One day the young man was sitting at the local coffee shop with two friends and the man came into the shop. They invited him to sit with them. They talked for a time about various topics and the elder man asked each of them many questions about their lives. He seemed genuinely interested in each one of them. They then started talking about education. The old man spoke about true education as a means to bring about “the flowering of goodness” in each student and from this, the complete transformation of society as each individual strove to be just and compassionate.
The young man wondered if the elder man was sincere. His words sounded beautiful, but words, he knew all too well, can deceive. So many appear humble yet hide hearts that betray goodness. The elder man then spoke about his experience as a boy in a small village when the villagers built a new school for the children.
I always remember the mules who carried the sand and other materials needed to build the school. They worked so hard, carrying heavy loads for hours each day and never complaining. I appreciated then, and still do, their hard work and contribution to providing the building where our children could be educated. And yet, it seemed to me that the others in my village took the mules for granted while I could feel their fatigue at the end of a hard day’s work.
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The young man was fascinated as he listened to the elder man expressing a thankful attitude for the work of these animals, with even the hint of tears in his eyes! He knew these words came from a sincere and humble man who strove to be just and compassionate. Inspired, the young man dedicated his life to educating children, wanting to emulate this elder of the sweet soul, a man who wanted nothing more than to bring about the flowering of goodness in the souls of children, and justice and compassion to all of God’s creatures.
The young man had spent years refusing to change, declaring his disenchantment with the human race. Yet, in one sitting he had found within himself the incentive and determination to change—simply upon an afternoon’s chat with the elder man.
What if Your Spouse Were Unwilling to Change?
What would you do if your spouse had a hot temper or a negative attitude about everything; or couldn’t keep a job; or, conversely, he was a workaholic who never spent time with the family?
Worse yet, what if your spouse refused to acknowledge that there was a problem, wouldn’t discuss the issues that you saw as serious and pressing, and refused to go with you to marriage counseling.
This situation is common, when only one spouse is open to growth and change and the other is in denial, closed off, stuck in his or her ways, and content to stay in an unhealthy relationship dynamic. Some people in that sort of marriage relationship give up, resign themselves to the misery. Some feel resentful, angry, frustrated. Some want to end the marriage.
Many feel that they have tried and tried again to get through to their spouses, talked until they were breathless, but the spouse just doesn’t get it.
In the story about the elder man who appreciated the mules, the lesson is relevant to the conundrum of a “stuck” spouse. The young man was fascinated as he listened to the elder man expressing a thankful attitude for the work of the mules, so moved by his old memory of their hard work that his eyes teared up!
The young man was himself moved by the elder’s sincerity. What if the elder man had talked with the young men and upon hearing their stories, what work they did, how they spent their time, had then addressed each one, telling them in what ways they were lacking, what they were doing wrong, how they should improve themselves and their situations?
What if he had told the young man that he needed to change his attitudes about people, get motivated, decide on a career and be responsible? What if he had tried to convince the young man of that?
Purity of Heart Is What Inspires
The elder man didn’t criticize or evaluate the young men. He didn’t try to persuade them of anything, at least not directly. What was so persuasive was his sincerity and humbleness, his genuine interest in the young men, his heartfelt expression of appreciation and gratitude toward even the most humble beasts of burden. The character of the elder man is what moved the young man to overcome his cynicism and hopelessness. The purity of the elder man’s heart inspired the young man to become a teacher.
The Companion Anas reported:
A man once begged from the Prophet ﷺ, [who thereupon] gave him enough sheep to fill a valley. He returned to his people and said: “Enter Islam, for by God, Muhammad gives with no fear of poverty!” People would go to the Prophet ﷺ wanting only worldly goods, and would find before the day was done that their religion had become dearer and more precious to them than the whole world. (Muslim)
We see in this account how people were moved and inspired by Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. It was his character and personality infused with a spiritual refinement and depth that moved those people who went with a self-serving motivation, “wanting only worldly goods,” but who ended up experiencing a spiritual surrender “dearer and more precious to them than the whole world.”
Some husbands or wives say that their spouse’s impatience, stinginess, temper, habit of being late, stubbornness, laziness, negativity, procrastination, shyness, perfectionism, messiness, obsessive neatness, competitiveness, need to control, or any other negative trait is just too hard to deal with.
They feel that they were tolerant and forgiving of the spouse so many times—and it just did no good. And they sometimes justify their own inappropriate reaction to the spouse’s dysfunction by claiming they “were simply at their wit’s end” or “up to their ears with frustration.”
Yet it is at times of challenge, frustration, feeling emotionally wounded or wronged that we have the opportunity to wrest from the situation one greater iota of spiritual mettle; namely, our choice either to come from the heart and demonstrate spiritual fortitude, or to feel self-righteous and resentful when dealing with our spouse’s shortcomings—as if in some way their behavior has ruined our mood, our day, offset our emotional balance, our life.
Even if your spouse is harming you with his or her behavior (we are talking here about any manner of harm that does not rise to the level of actual abuse), you can take the steep path (al-ʿaqabah, Sûrat Al-Balad, 90:11-12)— rather than feeling victimized, slighted, resentful, rejected, cheated, or emotionally wounded. Consider the ḥadîth of Prophet Muhammad ﷺ:
Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is oppressed. The Prophet ﷺ was asked: “It is right to help him if he is oppressed, but how shall we help him if he is an oppressor?” He replied: “By preventing him from oppressing others.” (Bukhârî)
Notice that the Prophet ﷺ says: “Help your brother, whether he is an oppressor or he is oppressed.” The oppressor is still being called “brother.” Those who are engaging in harmful or even oppressive behavior may be your brothers or sisters by blood relation, religious faith, or marriage. This is the human condition. We are not perfect, and we are often involved in relationships with people who are mentally, emotionally, or spiritually disturbed.
Return What Is Better
The proper response of the Muslim to troubled people who we are in relationships with is to return to them “what is better.” The principle of returning good for evil (patience for impatience, tolerance in the face of weakness or shortcoming, understanding when confronted by one who is confused or complicated in their personal interactions, and so forth) is captured perfectly in a description of good character by Imâm Al-Bay ḥaqî in The Seventy-Seven Branches of Faith. Good Character is
the inclination of the soul towards gentle and praiseworthy acts….This he (the believer) does with a contented heart, and without feeling any resentment or hardship. When he deals with other people, he is tolerant when claiming what is his right, and does not ask for anything which is not; but he discharges all the duties which he has towards others.
When he falls ill or returns from a trip and no one visits him, or he gives a greeting which is not returned…or he does a good turn for which he is not thanked, or joins a group of people who do not make room for him to sit, or speaks and is not listened to…and in all similar cases, he does not grow angry, seek to punish people, or feel within himself that he has been snubbed, or ignored; neither does he try to retaliate with the same treatment when able to do so, but instead… responds to each one of them with something which is better, and closer to goodness and piety, and is more praiseworthy and pleasing….He makes ‘what is better’ the imâm (leader) of his soul, and obeys it completely. (trns. Abdal-Hakim Murad)
So when the spouse’s attitudes, words, or behaviors harm us, we must make sure to refrain from anything that produces harm in return. The Prophet ﷺ, said: “There should be neither harming nor reciprocating harm” (Ibn Mâjah).
We cannot control any other human being. What we can control is our resolve to avoid harming another person and our commitment to avoid reciprocating harm when we feel harmed by another.
Returning “what is better” is exemplified in the lives of the Prophet ﷺ, and his Companions.
A Bedouin once urinated in the masjid. The people rushed to punish him, but the Prophet ﷺ, ordered them: “Leave him alone until he finishes and then pour a bucket of water (over the place where he had urinated.) Your mission is to make things easy and not to make them difficult.” Then the Prophet ﷺ called the man over and explained to him that the masjid is a pure place, a place of worship, and that urination there was inappropriate. (Bukhârî)
The good-intentioned impulse of the people who “rushed to punish him” was corrected by the Prophet ﷺ. This was an opportunity to teach the ignorant man some manners and respect for a place intended for reverence. Yet, it was done in the most patient, tolerant, and understanding way. Give note that the Prophet ﷺ did not take the man’s offense as a personal one toward himself. He did not attach some personal emotional significance to the act. His response was simply a beautiful illustration of for the sake of Allah.
There was no ego involved in how he perceived or experienced the ignorant act of the Bedouin man. This is illustrated in the celebrated story of ʿAlî on the battlefield. ʿAlî had engaged man-to-man with a combatant and had him down on the ground. At the moment he was about to kill him, the man spit in ʿAlî’s face.
ʿAlî stopped with sword in midair, drew back, and released the man. The man asked him why he hadn’t killed him, especially since he had spit in his face. ʿAlî told him that when he spat in his face, it angered him, and if he had killed him then, it would have been out of anger and ego rather than for the sake of Allah. This story illustrates a purity of intention demonstrated exquisitely by ʿAlî’s self-awareness and self-control.
When the spouse offends or wrongs us, shall we take it personally? Get the ego involved? Or should we demonstrate self-awareness, self-control and practice patience, tolerance, and understanding? We can choose to avoid taking any personal offense when confronted with an offensive act. We can practice rejecting any attachment of personal emotional significance to the wrongful act of our spouse.
Be the One Who Brings Succor
Our response to affront from our spouse can be a simple and beautiful illustration of for the sake of Allah. But this requires us to be the party who brings succor to the miserable soul of the other, rather than focusing on how that discontented soul with whom we interact makes us feel hurt or wretched or inconvenienced.
There is a great story in the book, Action is Desire and Ability, by Jawdât Saʿîd, which illustrates how we can choose to be the one who takes responsibility, takes action, and provides succor to the disabled one.
A sage set out in the desert to worship Allah, and to spend time in contemplation. On the way, he saw a bird with a broken wing. He wondered how the bird got his sustenance in that barren place with such a disability. Then he saw another bird swoop down and give the bird food. The man said to himself: Why bother to travel and work. Allah will give me sustenance as He provided this bird.
So he went into a nearby cave to pray and contemplate and stayed there for a number of days. Meanwhile, a wise man heard about this sage and went and found him in the cave. The sage told him with excitement about the disabled bird and his insight that Allah would provide whatever he needed.
The wise man said: “Woe to you! Why did you choose to be like the disabled bird? Why didn’t you choose to be like the strong healthy bird that brought the food to the one in need?”
The sage instantly recognized his distorted thinking and thanked the wise man. When we commit to the lifelong challenge to purify our own hearts, we choose to be the strong healthy bird that brought the food to the one in need.
We can choose to be the mature spouse, the one striving for greater imân, faith, God consciousness and piety (taqwa)—the willing journeyer on the steep path (al-ʿaqabah, Sûrat Al-Balad, 90:11-12). There is only one suitable way to respond to a spouse whose attitudes, words, or behaviors tend to poison the relationship dynamic—to become a leader on the journey up that steep path.