“It’s all relative.”
WE HAVE ALL heard that one before somewhere. Only, now, it is not the dreaded physics class back in high school, but a battlefront between adults and adolescent youths.
Growing up, our friends play a great role in our lives. They understand us, are fun to be with and experience the same dilemmas as us. They are our equals. That is why, when our parents scold us, they usually reject our excuses by comparing us to our peers.
Enter, special relativity theory.
When the chastisement prolongs, we tend to deflect criticism by highlighting our own friend’s faults, saying: “Well, at least I don’t do this and that, like so-and-so; you should be thankful.” This serves a couple of purposes: first, we weaken our parent’s case, which translates to a victory in itself, and second, it makes us feel better that there are people out there doing even worse things and thereby, our own wrongdoing pales in comparison.
Then is one to whom the evil of his deed has been made attractive so he considers it good (like one rightly guided)? [Sûrat Fâṭir, 35:8]
I remember when I was younger and had pop quizzes at school. Sometimes, I would be caught off-guard and my grade would not exactly be impressive. Those days, I would come home, tell my mom about my day and test score in as subtle a manner as I could manage, and be sure to add: “You know, mom, no one else did good either. They all found it really hard. In fact, my friend got an even lower grade than I.” It would be true and it would make me feel better, but not for long, as I would inwardly wince at the small nod my mom would give, saying that it is alright to trip up once in a while, and she is positive I will bounce right back.
You see, comparing ourselves to others is not so much about gloating at the latter’s misdeeds, but rather a defense mechanism to placate our own selves. It is easy for the parent to dismiss it as typical teenaged rebelliousness, because their instant comeback is along the lines of “What about the good things they do?” or “Does it make you a better person because the other is doing even worse things?”
But it runs far deeper than that. The moment a teenager turns the tables on his own friend, he is aware it is a losing argument and it is merely a means to buy time. It is obvious that putting someone down will never improve one’s own image; it is just worth a try to get the parent to understand the struggles that youths face. It is a disguised cry of help that masks how lonely and lost they feel and it constitutes a prayer to Allah for forgiveness.
The disguise, though, is far too well-placed and, more often than not, the walls go up, the conversation turns uglier and everyone comes out of it embittered and exasperated at this repeated cycle.
Parents need to walk on eggshells when it comes to this. After all, they, being humans themselves, are often guilty of bringing the redefined relativity concept to life. An example: While not being one who dons a veil, yet she does not gossip, and her Hijab-clad neighbor does, so then, isn’t she better in faith, somehow? This thought has crept into many a woman’s mind. Many men, likewise, have even deemed themselves good Muslims by growing beards, yet doing their jobs dishonestly, whilst pointing the finger at their clean-shaven colleagues who are dutiful in their work. Only Allah is aware of every man’s piety. Weighing out people’s faith, which comes naturally to us, is certainly not our task.
Thus, if children resort to this, it should not be absolutely shocking. Parents need to talk it out with their kids and tackle the whole issue from the beginning. Start from what led them to the misdeed in question; discuss what they thought they would achieve by doing it. Share your own moments of weakness; let them know it never made you feel better to compare your bad deeds with others’ and how you instead dealt with it. Remind them that the other’s sins can never blemish their record of good deeds and neither can other’s acts of worship compensate for their own evil actions. Mention times they have made you proud by not going with the flow and asserting themselves as true Muslims. And if they must compare, then let it be to those superior to them in righteousness.
Most of all, tell them it is not about relativity, but individuality, on the Day of Judgment.
And all of them are coming to Him on the Day of Resurrection alone. [Sûrata Maryam,19:95]