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Controlling your self control

July 19, 2015

May I start this article today by wishing all my Muslim brothers, sisters and friends from all over the world Eid Mubarak. May the genuine prayers and supplications you have offered to Allah during your fast be answered and made manifest in your lives and those of your families.

Speaking of fasting, I took some time to do a little research to find out what Ramadhan is all about. As I was talking to various Muslim friends I have and also scouring the net for information, the one thing that came out very clearly is that the whole purpose of Ramadhan is among other things a means of achieving self-control.

Here’s an extract taken from one of my sources, “To develop and strengthen our powers of self-control, so that we can resist wrongful desires and bad habits, and therefore “guard against evil”. In fasting, by refraining from the natural human urges to satisfy one’s appetite, we are exercising our ability of self-restraint, so that we can then apply it to our everyday life to bring about self-improvement”. Of course this is not the only reason for Ramadhan but I choose to speak about this element only because it really did touch my heart deeply.

When we talk about self-control, what does that really mean? Does it mean being able to control your bladder and not peeing all over the place when the call of nature comes knocking on your door? Does it mean holding that gas in your bowels while you are in public and wait till you are in the right place to pollute the air? Does it mean knowing when not to eat any more food after you’ve already eaten 3 platefuls of pilau aka “wali mchafu”? Well, it could be but as far as I am concerned, all these scenarios I have created here above can be taken care of by something known as common sense.

Unfortunately, it has come to light in the recent years that common sense is no longer common. It is becoming a rare character trait in a lot of people nowadays. No wonder someone boldly came up with a quote that says, “common sense is the most limited of all natural resources”. Maybe we should blame this latest trend on global warming since it seems everything that goes wrong today is as a result of global warming. What caused global warming in the first place? Is it not selfish interests that could have been controlled by people applying not just common sense, but also a lot of self-control?

According to one dictionary translation, the words self-control mean, “the ability to control oneself, in particular one's emotions and desires or the expression of them in one's behavior, especially in difficult situations”. In short, it is how you carry yourself when your feelings, desires and emotions hit you, especially those that are not so positive. How do you behave when a fellow worker does something to you that you do not like? How do you behave when your spouse hurts your feelings? How do you behave when a daladala driver cuts you in traffic? How do you treat that person who is on a lower level than you in society?

If you notice, all these questions are about how you behave. It’s all about what YOU do when situations are not favorable to you. Like someone said, the problem is not what happens to us. The problem is how we react to what happens to us. Do we apply self-control?

To paint a clear picture of how lack of self-control can ruin a life, I will take us to a story that you may have read over and over again but no matter how many times you may have read it, the lessons from that story will never die. Here goes….

There once was a little boy who had a bad temper. His father gave him a bag of nails and told him that every time he lost his temper, he must hammer a nail into the back of the fence.

The first day the boy had driven 37 nails into the fence. Over the next few weeks, as he learned to control his anger, the number of nails hammered daily gradually dwindled down. He discovered it was easier to hold his temper than to drive those nails into the fence.

Finally the day came when the boy didn’t lose his temper at all. He told his father about it and the father suggested that the boy now pull out one nail for each day that he was able to hold his temper. A number of days passed and the young boy was finally able to tell his father that all the nails were gone.

The father took his son by the hand and led him to the fence. He said, “You have done well, my son, but look at the holes in the fence. The fence will never be the same. When you say things in anger, they leave a scar just like this one. You can put a knife in a man and draw it out. It won’t matter how many times you say I’m sorry, the wound is still there.”

The little boy then understood how powerful his words were. He looked up at his father and said, “I hope you can forgive me father for the holes I put in you.”

“Of course I can,” said the father.

I think the lesson the young man in this story learns is such an important one. Unfortunately many of us learn this much later in life.  When we are young, saying or doing mean or hurtful things out of anger or frustration to the ones we love (or even strangers for that matter) seems pretty easily remedied.  As children we are confident that the adults and people in our lives are more than capable of forgiving and forgetting our offenses no matter what we say or do.  It’s not until we reach adulthood that we realize the long term damage our words and actions can have on one another.  Suddenly as adults we look back on our own lives at the times when someone hurt us with their cruel words or actions and although we were able to forgive them, there are some things we discover we are never able to truly forget.

The fact is, there are some things that we may say or do that ultimately can never be taken back no matter how many times we apologize to the ones we hurt.  Unfortunately we tend to realize the level of irreversible damage we caused only in hindsight and even more, the ones we tend to hurt the worst are the people we usually love the most.  As the saying goes, “To err is human, to forgive divine,” which is true, we are human, we make mistakes, and sometimes we say or do things we don’t mean out of anger in times of great frustration or sadness.  Yet, every time we are in a dispute with a friend, disagreement with a loved one, or even just having a bad day, it is so important to remember to pause and take a moment to think about the possible permanent repercussions our actions and words could have on others. 

It is only natural that we will have times in the future where we will lose our tempers or be pushed to our personal limits.  However, when we find ourselves in those times of great frustration or anger, we must be sure that whatever we say or do in those moments will not, like the nails hammered in the fence, end up leaving permanent holes in the ones we love or generally, people we come into contact with.

As we join our Muslim brothers and sisters in celebrating a successful time of prayer and fasting, let us also take time to look inward and asses ourselves to see where we have failed to apply self-control.

My prayer for each one of us is that Self-Control shall be one of the greatest character traits each one of us has going forward.

Once again, Eid Mubarak to y’all.

PS: Article originally published in Tanzania's Guardian on Sunday on the 19th July, 2015, under my weekly column "Thoughts in Words"

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