Yesterday, I attended yet another graduation, one of many I’ve participated in as a high school teacher. But for the people crossing the stage, it is a once-in-a-lifetime event. I remember my own graduation from high school only because as valedictorian I was required to give a speech. I was so nervous my legs shook and I was sure everyone could see me shaking.
More people than I realized at the time were proud of me that day. The valedictorian at yesterday’s graduation also elicited pride from his parents, teachers and friends. However, crossing the stage were 315 additional people. Some of them overcame great difficulties just to graduate. Some of them have lived with severe disabilities or illness, some of them have been homeless, and some of them have suffered years of abuse. Although the valedictorian generally receives more recognition, is the accomplishment of being number one in the class a greater one than just making it to the stage for those other students?
How should we consider our accomplishments? In this society, we often take much more credit for what we do than we deserve. With every passing day, I realize more that we owe our successes to Allah swt. For example, while I studied to get the grades I did and chose to take the challenging classes that I did, I could have been made unable to understand the lessons, or unable to complete the assignments, or unable to see or hear the teachers, or too ill to attend school, or so many other things that would have barred me from achieving anything. Additional obstacles could have been placed in my way that might have stopped me – I could have been moving every 6 months in my childhood, I could have been caring for a dying parent instead of going to school, I could have been born some place where school was not available, I could have encountered a teacher determined to make me fail, and so on.
I was the first person in my family to go to college. My parents did not have the financial means to send me, so I knew I had to get a scholarship, and a full-ride one at that. I could not imagine a future for myself without college, but it certainly was not guaranteed. Most of the scholarships I applied for I didn’t get, but the one that really mattered – the full-ride, I did. Somehow I knew ahead of time that I would get it, but even as a teenager not yet aware of Islam, I realized that if I did it was due to Allah swt. There was no way I could really claim that I got the scholarship of my own merit independent of Allah swt. Anything I was capable of, Allah swt had made me capable of. The fact the application and interview were received well by the scholarship board was also something I could not take credit for, but that Allah swt had taken care of.
My first year in college, I met Muslims for the first time. Within a year, I decided that I believed in Islam. While there was certainly a lot of study, self-evaluation, and psychological challenge involved for me, I realized then and now that had Allah swt willed, I would never have met a Muslim, I would never have been inspired to investigate for truth, would never have recognized the truth, or, even worse, would have recognized it but chosen to remain with the religion of my parents because the change seemed to hard to manage. Every day that I wake up and still love the path I have chosen and desire to progress on it, I owe Allah swt for that love and desire.
The achievement of the lowest-ranked graduate may be as great or greater than the valedictorian. Later in life, few people will know or care about your class rank, and it won’t necessarily help you in life or in the Hereafter. What will matter is how you got there. Someone who passes through school with ease, never or rarely challenged, and facing few obstacles might not leave school as well-developed as a person who had to struggle more. Someone who has focused on the grades, maybe even cheating now and then to get them, has learned less and harmed himself severely compared to the one who focused on learning and developing good character and habits. The one who leaves school prepared to learn, to work hard, to persist despite difficulty, and to live an upright life leaves with something that can help them in life and in the Hereafter.
The success in life is in how you make the journey. We all are faced with unique circumstances and challenges that will make our journeys different, and some of these will make you appear to be more or less successful than someone else. But if we take pride in our apparent successes as if we have earned them, we have deserved them, or we have independently accomplished them, then we have misunderstood our dependence on Allah swt. Do you recall the parable of the man who took great pride in his orchard and then Allah swt wiped it out in a day? We could all make the same mistake as he.
So, how do we avoid this mistake? Perhaps the key is in gratitude. Yesterday I was thrilled when it rained here and some flowers in my yard bloomed. I remember a few years ago when we suffered drought here. Since then, I have never again complained about rain. I was blessed by the drought because it made me appreciate the rain and thank Allah swt for it, and the rain is a blessing in itself. Last week I felt like complaining about minor health issues, and then I learned about someone who suffered for a decade from obstetric fistula. She not only endured the suffering from the illness, but also suffered great humiliation, shame, and lack of sympathy for her condition and was forced to exist as an outcast in her society. Then I remembered more how I owe thanks to Allah swt for what I have.
As we mark the anniversary of the death of the great lady Bibi Fatima (as), we can remember the blessing of her tasbih. Reciting it consciously – Allahu Akbar 34 times, Alhumdooleluh 33 times, Subhanallah 33 times– can express a small measure of gratitude to our Creator and can revive in us even more gratitude. One of the wondrous natures of Allah swt’s blessings is that they often compound upon themselves – like the double blessing of the rain and gratitude for the rain, or the double blessing of reciting dhikr and being enlightened by the dhikr. Reciting her tasbih does not have to be limited to after the salat, but can be done anytime.
Congratulations to all the graduates; may Allah swt grant us all true success in this world and Hereafter and may we all find in ourselves ever-increasing gratitude to our Creator.