“Little things which make a difference”
Anger; Letting go of it
“Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.” Mark Twain
Why do we become angry with others; friends, family, colleagues, and even strangers? Anger is a normal reaction, usually because we feel hurt in some way. It’s not always about our own personal hurt, as sometimes we feel anger over injustice and towards people who cause human suffering. Meanwhile, it would seem that the strongest anger we feel is often towards the people who are the closest to us, the people of whom we expect love and trust, when we believe that our love or trust has been betrayed. Whenever we feel anger, the most common reaction is to look for a guilty party to blame; someone we can hate for causing our hardship or pain.
For most of my life, I carried the heavy weight of anger against my father. To set the background for my story, the first years of my life were very happy; from my birth in 1960 until 1969, we lived in Montana, in a small town on the Blackfeet reservation just next to Glacier National Park at the feet of the Rocky Mountains. My father was a Methodist minister (pastor) and my mother was at home. My parents were very avant-garde in many ways, and very open. As far back as I can remember, we usually had a black student living with us. They came and went, always from the big city, namely Chicago. We used to have fun taunting them by bringing home garden snakes, frogs, or insects, and we would laugh to see how frightened they were of these harmless creatures. My grandfather came to visit us from Texas one summer and refused to stay in the house because there was a black man living with us; he went and stayed in a hotel. I’m happy that my parents were not racist and were very open minded, because this was part of my “formatting” which was positive. However, at the time I didn’t realize it, or the way it would shape who I am.
In 1969 we moved to the inner city black ghetto on the West side of Chicago “5th City”. We had sold all of our possessions, and my brothers and sisters and I were allowed to keep only one toy each. To put everything into context, this move was just one year after MLK’s assassination and the Chicago riots that had followed. My whole universe had been turned upside down. From wide open spaces and wonderful pristine nature, we were now in a place dirtied by every kind of pollution. From a quiet and calm environment, I now found myself surrounded by noise and aggression. No more running and playing in the fields and forests, we couldn’t even leave the security of our apartment most of the time. I was terrified to go to school, because every day the odds were good that I’d get beat up. This is where the anger against my father started, and it built over the years. He had robbed me of my childhood, I felt hurt. I carried this anger more than 40 years, and I can say that I hated my father during all of that time.
So, what freed me from the tremendous burden of anger against my father? There are surely several ways that people can come to realize the futility of anger, for me, it was finding Islam. When I embraced Islam I discovered two things:
Firstly that everything that happens to us has a reason and a purpose, everything is part of the ultimate plan, so how could I still be angry at my father? Sometimes, and even probably most often, the reasons for why things happen to us are not clear, we don’t understand why, but if we believe that everything is part of a greater plan, this takes away the need to blame anyone for any of the hardships we endure. I realized that all of my life experiences have made me the person I am today. Just as an example: I found an escape from the hard reality of my new life in Chicago by plunging into books, it was like a drug, and I became addicted to reading. This fact, in turn, gave me a strong literary background, to the point where I scored 70/70, 98%, in English Literature when I passed my High School exams at 17. Of course, I didn’t even realize the cause and effect at the time, it was only on hindsight, reflecting upon my life through this new perspective, that I was able to see this and many other things which were essential in shaping my mind, my character, and my beliefs. We learn from every experience, and particularly from our difficulties.
Secondly, even though we should take into account the actions of others when making decisions about how or whether to interact with them, we must always remember that there is only one final Judge. We will all be judged, and it is not for us to judge others.
When I came to believe these two things, the enormous weight of the anger which had been bottled up inside me for over 40 years suddenly faded away, leaving me lighthearted. However, there was still something I had to do to make this serenity complete. I called my father and made peace with him over the phone. We hadn’t spoken a word to each other in more than 10 years. We both cried, and I experienced a tremendous feeling of joy and relief. I was afraid what his reaction might be to discover that I had become a Muslim…but his open-mindedness came shining through…he told me he was happy that I had found faith in God, and that it didn’t matter how. He died 6 months later of cancer. Now I thank Allah for having given me the opportunity to make peace with my father before he died.
So, how can we free ourselves from anger against people who we feel have wronged us? There are two ways:
The fist way, and the most common, is revenge. It so happens that the part of the brain which handles revenge is the same part of the brain that deals with pleasure; we find pleasure in plotting and executing revenge. We want for the person who has wronged us to suffer like we have suffered. However, this is not the best way, especially because the anger persists as long as the revenge is not achieved, and as long as we harbor this anger, it is doing us harm. Furthermore, we are creating more pain and suffering around us instead of fostering healing. While the Qur’an teaches us that we have the right to take revenge up to the point that we’ve been harmed, it also teaches us that forgiveness is far better. This is the second and preferable way. It is only through forgiveness that we can let go of our anger, as revenge keeps us holding on to it. Even if it won’t change the harm that has been done (revenge won’t either) forgiveness allows us to cease dwelling on it. We are free to move on and look ahead to the future instead of being enchained to the past.
May you find the strength to forgive, even if you can’t forget, and may your anger fade away, ceding its place to gratitude for every life experience.
I go get Sally and bring her to the lot. I just take my clothes and toiletries. The room that they give me is on the ground floor, and opens on to the central area of the riad, where there are tables and chairs, and a small pool in a semi-circle against one of the walls. My room is small and cozy, and the double bed takes up most of the space. As well as a cupboard, there’s a small table and chair which will do nicely for the laptop, and next to it, an old vintage Zenith Stereo Phonograph with an AM- FM Tuner. It’s just there for decoration, but I check it out, it has 45 and 33 rpm settings and there’s a needle, not a diamond head, but at least it’s got one. I plug it in, and it works. I think of my 33 rpm collector’s re-edition record of Henri Salvadore, “Chansons douces”; I hadn’t even known why I had kept it, and at present, it’s next to worthless. No one here in this country could ever be interested in it. Why not bring it to my room and try it on the player?
There’s a small shower room adjoining with clean towels and brass taps and sink. Bliss. I’m in a wonderful hot shower for the first time since January. After my shower I’m thinking it will be difficult to paint here, but the comfort is great. I couldn’t play my guitar at the Berber Village because there wasn’t enough electricity. I bring the record and my guitar to the riad and I ask if it’s OK that I play, they say, yes, just not too loud.
There’s a mosque nearby; and I decide to start doing my prayers there. I’ve never prayed in a mosque before. I’ve been doing my prayers at home, and also at work. One of my colleagues, a webmaster, showed me the basic moves. The boss was really surprised to see me praying. I told her that I had embraced Islam and changed my name to Ali. She didn’t care, she said, as long as it didn’t affect my work. In fact, I’m sure that this had had a positive effect. Now, when I present myself since the 12th of May, I do so as Ali Bell. The prospects are naturally curious about an American who lives in the Red City and who has embraced Islam, it’s a good ice-breaker.
During my first prayer in a Mosque that evening, I feel very peaceful. I don’t understand any of the words, but the sound of the recital is like music. I read in the Qur’an before going to bed early, I look for a chapter I’ve read before and find it:
“Have We not opened your breast for you? And removed from you your burden. Which weighed down your back? And have We not raised high your fame? Verily, along with every hardship is relief, Verily, along with every hardship is relief, So when you have finished, devote yourself for Allah's worship. And to your Lord turn all your intentions and hopes.” Chapter 94, Ash-Sharh - The Consolation
I sleep in comfort and comforted. Indeed, after every hardship is relief.
It’s Saturday morning, just after going to the Morning Prayer, which is always before daybreak, and I’m just about to have breakfast in the central area of the riad. It’s perfectly calm and quiet, everyone is still sleeping, because it’s about 6:30 and the day is just breaking. I notice a small rat swimming in the pool, he’s very young, and about the size of a mouse. I’m thinking to myself that he’s taking a morning swim. Looking closer, I realize that he’s completely exhausted, and on the point of drowning. He can’t pull himself out of the pool, and he’s been swimming too long. Just to keep his head above water is a task at this point. I’m thinking, I want to help him, but if I try to catch him he’ll probably bite me. I go quietly to the common kitchen and find a small saucepan. I use it to gently lift him out of the water and I empty it, with him, on the tiled floor just next to the pool. I’m sitting on the edge of the pool and he’s just next to my right foot. He sits upright on his hind legs for a moment, catching his breath. Meanwhile I caress his head with my fingers and he lets me, sitting calmly. After catching his breath, he climbs onto my right foot, looks up at me, and makes a little squeaky sound. He’s thanking me. I gently pick him up, in the palm of my hand this time, and take him to my room, where I put him in the bottom of a wastepaper basket lined with a towel. He stays there to sleep just the time he needs, then he jumps out suddenly and runs away. Of course, if anyone else had found that rat, especially the manager of the riad, he was dead on the spot. Obviously, I can’t say a word about my wonder-filled encounter to anyone here.
At noon, I go to the nearby mosque again and try to follow the prayer as best as I can. When the prayer is finished, a man comes and sits beside me. “You’re new to Islam?” (It’s not a question) “I’d like to help you. Are you free?” – “I have the weekend free, until work on Monday.” – “May I invite you to my house?” – “Yes, thank you, I could use some help.” His name’s Omar, he’s young, not yet 30, he teaches classical Arabic in a public school and he also teaches the Qur’an, which he has completely memorized. As per the custom, we have tea, and he invites me to eat with him, his wife and their two children. I spend all afternoon with him. He shows me the correct way to do all of the positions of the prayer. He teaches me many things. I tell him about my encounter with the drowning rat this morning, and he tells me a story from a Hadith: "A man felt very thirsty while he was on the way, there he came across a well. He went down the well, quenched his thirst and came out. Meanwhile he saw a dog panting and licking mud because of excessive thirst. He said to himself, ‘This dog is suffering from thirst as I did.’ So, he went down the well again and filled his shoe with water and watered it. Allah thanked him for that deed and forgave him. The people said, ‘O Allah's Apostle! Is there a reward for us in serving the animals?’ He replied: ‘Yes, there is a reward for serving any living being.’” A simple act of kindness to save an animal can be rewarded with Heaven. I tell him about the Imam who told me that dogs have to be killed, and he tells me where the man went wrong, there is a Hadith which says “Five kinds of animals are harmful and could be killed in the Haram (Sanctuary). These are: the crow, the kite, the scorpion, the mouse and the rabid dog." The dogs which should be killed are rabid dogs, and here again, it is only mentioned “could”, and not should. Omar and me agree, as is logical, all of the creatures on Earth were put here for a reason, they all have their place, and they are all part of His creation. I’m thinking, finally I’ve found someone who can answer my questions.
That night, I put some bread and water under my bed, and in the middle of the night I hear my little friend come to eat and drink.
P.S. “Sally” is my van, which we discover in the first chapter of the book.