Don’t give excuses, get up and put yourself back together again, says Heba Shakeel –
Have you ever pondered, “Can I still become a better person?”. This question arises either because someone has told us that we have done too much wrong and there isn’t any scope for improvement or because someone has said that we’ve surpassed an age limit for personal growth. A lot of research in this domain indicates that after 30, individuals tend to undergo fewer changes in their patterns of thought and behaviour. While this perspective lacks motivation and hope for believing men and women, it is noteworthy to mention that some studies also propose a contrasting idea—that individuals can change at any stage of life if they are willing to change their mindset, surround themselves with positive influences, adjust plans for personal development and create a supportive environment. This resonates with Islamic teachings, which strongly emphasise seeking knowledge, keeping good company, and being mindful of surroundings.
One such study is that of NEUROPLASTICITY. Plasticity refers to the brain’s ability to change. Neuro relates to neurons, the nerve cells that are the brain’s and nervous system’s building blocks. Thus, neuroplasticity allows for reorganising nerve cells by forming new neural connections. It is a concept that supports the idea that individuals can continue to learn and improve throughout their lives.
In an authentic Hadith reported by Abu Sa’id al-Khudri, Allah’s Messenger (PBUH) said: “There was a man from a community before you who committed ninety-nine murders. He then sought guidance on repentance and was directed to a monk, asking him if there was any chance for his repentance to be accepted. The monk replied in the negative, and the man, in despair, killed the monk, completing one hundred murders.
He then sought out the most knowledgeable person, and this time, he was directed to a scholar. The man, remorseful and seeking redemption, informed the scholar of the grave sin that he had committed. He asked the scholar if there was any chance for his repentance to be accepted. The scholar replied positively and advised him that the current place was not favourable for his change, urging him to migrate to another land.
The man decided to follow the scholar’s advice and began his journey. However, death overtook him mid-journey. The angels of mercy and the angels of torment arrived to take his soul, disputing over who would take it. When this matter was presented before the Almighty, He ordered to measure the distance between both lands he had left and the one he was heading to. It was observed that the man had pushed himself slightly towards his destination (the path of righteousness) at the time of his death. Due to this, he crossed the central line and was on the side of mercy. It was then decided that the angels of mercy would take his soul.” [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
One of the critical lessons to learn from this story is our Creator’s immense mercy and forgiveness. Despite committing many sins, an individual’s sincere repentance and effort to change are recognised and rewarded. Another lesson we learned from here is that it’s always possible to realise our mistakes. Once we have discovered them, we must seek forgiveness and change our ways because the opportunity to seek repentance and mercy has been kept open until our last breath.
Then what stops us from becoming better versions of ourselves?
Two main reasons prevent us from changing:
FAILURE IN REALIZING OUR SINS
The first step towards becoming better is recognising our mistakes. Often, we get overly impressed with ourselves if we’re able to stay away from major sins such as gambling, drinking alcohol, and so on. Many people are good at avoiding such sins, but we’re not so good at protecting our tongues from backbiting, swearing, cursing, belittling people, etc. Nor are we good at protecting our hearts from jealousy, holding grudges, arrogance and pride.
It’s essential to remember that if Shaytan cannot lure us into committing sins, he will attempt to lead us astray by encouraging us to waste time, procrastinate, and delay good deeds such as seeking knowledge, reading and studying the Qur’an, and seeking forgiveness— deeds that benefit us in this life and the Hereafter. Moreover, he may deceive us into believing we lack time for such actions despite finding time for movies or outings with friends.
Once we have realised where we are going wrong, our objective should be to rid ourselves of these detrimental habits and behaviours while cultivating the finest character because a good character is the rarest and most exquisite gem anyone can possess. In an authentic Hadith narrated by Abdullah bin Amr, The Prophet (PBUH) used to say: “The best amongst you are those who have the best manners and character.” (Sahih al-Bukhari 3559).
To attain this, a well-thought-out plan involving introspection becomes essential. Each of us has an inner world; our feelings, thoughts, convictions, and spiritual values and experiences must be monitored promptly. The simplest way to do this is by spending time with yourself. If you check your mobile phone settings and screen time, you will see how much time you spend on TikTok, Instagram, WhatsApp and other apps. If only this could reflect how much time you spent with yourself, disconnected from the outside world, sitting alone with your inner universe, reflecting on your everyday actions. How often do we hurt others through lying, manipulating, ignoring personal boundaries, bullying, backbiting, etc., without realising its impact? Therefore, one must regularly monitor one’s actions and their effect on others.
RATIONALISATION AS A DEFENSE MECHANISM
is the other reason that stops us from improving. Rationalisation, in simple terms, is an attempt to justify immoral or generally unacceptable behaviour logically. In his classic psychoanalytic theory, Sigmund Freud described rationalisation as a means for the ego to make a particular action acceptable to the superego—the part of a person demanding moral behaviour.
Here are a few examples in which people seek to justify their detrimental behaviour:
1. When questioned about their wrongdoings, they say, “It’s my nature, it’s how I have been wired”. However, this is a baseless justification for any action. In Surah Rum, verse 30, the Qur’an instructs us to adhere to the fitrah of Allah upon which He has created all people. Here, “fitrah” refers to the natural inborn inclination of man to worship his Creator before the corruption of his nature by external influences. It is, therefore, unimaginable that a God who warns against a particular nature would create individuals inherently possessing that nature. This means our Creator made all His creations have a sound Fitrah, and all of His creations are, by nature, upright. In the next verse (30:31), Allah (SWT) then informs us of three deeds that can be taken as signs of a pure fitrah & heart:
Returning to Allah in repentance,
Taqwa (God-consciousness), and
Maintaining one’s prayers
2. The second common justification people often give, “It is a common thing, everyone does it,” doesn’t justify adopting wrong practices. Unthinkingly following the crowd risks losing our unique identity and values, leading to a disconnect from our true selves. Saint Augustine wisely stated, ‘Right is right even if no one is doing it; wrong is wrong even if everyone is doing it.’ This aligns with an authentic hadith, where the Messenger of God (PBUH) emphasises the individual responsibility to rectify wrongs, stating, ‘Anyone of you who sees wrong, let him undo it with his hand; and if he cannot, then let him speak against it with his tongue, and if he cannot do this either, then (let him abhor it) with his heart, and this is the least of faith.’ [Sahih Muslim] This highlights the significance of personal integrity and standing against wrongdoing, irrespective of societal norms.
3. Another common justification people give is, “It is not my fault. I was forced into saying this/doing this.” They blame others for their shortcomings. In Surah Najm (53:38), the Qur’an states: “No bearer of burdens will bear the burden of another.” This verse emphasises individual responsibility, indicating that each person is accountable for their actions and cannot bear the burden of someone else’s faults or sins. It aligns with the idea that the justification “It is not my fault” doesn’t absolve one from personal responsibility in the sight of God. Just because someone attempted to offend us doesn’t mean we can behave irresponsibly.
The Qur’an specifies how we should interact with those who outwardly offend us. Allah states in Surah Al-Furqân (25:63): “(Among) the servants of the Most Merciful are those who walk gently on the earth, and when addressed by the ignorant ones, their only response is, ‘Peace be with you.’ So, next time when you deal with obnoxious people –people who are just ignorant and boil your blood in an argument, don’t lose your cool and don’t give the conversation a chance to flame. Respond with peace, and you will be considered very special in the sight of your Creator.
These justifications represent only a fraction of the many excuses people commonly use to rationalise their behaviour. We must actively safeguard ourselves from falling prey to such false justifications. Rather than surrendering to these groundless excuses, it is crucial to envision the person we aspire to become and work towards becoming that person.
Our life constantly goes through dynamic changes. When you move to a new city, or when you graduate from your college or university, or perhaps when you get married or even get your dream job. These changes provide us with a new environment, company and lifestyle. This proves that life constantly allows us to change our patterns of thought and behaviour. Each of us is one uniquely beautiful creation, but if we lack good character, all that “beauty” is nothing. So remember to be kind, stay mindful of your Creator and make your manners the most beautiful thing about yourself.
Ya Rabb, as You have beautified our external selves, beautify our character too. Make us amongst Your beloved servants, protect us from ignorance and arrogance, and grant us the capacity to speak only words of goodness. O Allah, help us perfect noble character and reflect the light of Your Messenger. Our Lord! Forgive our sins, absolve us of our misdeeds, and join us with the virtuous when we die.