Remorse and Arrogance
September 25, 2016
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health and Iman.
In the Islamic narrative of Adam and Eve, peace be upon them, Allah invites them to eat of whatever they wanted in the Garden. They were free to go wherever, except for one tree. The devil made them both slip, and they both went to the tree. They both felt remorse, were taught how to seek forgiveness, were granted forgiveness, and were then sent to earth.
In a parallel story, Allah tells the angels to bow before Adam, may peace be upon him. Angels do not have the capability to disobey Allah; thus, they bowed down. Among them was Iblis, a jinn, who refused to bow, became arrogant, and became among the rejectors of God. When asked why he didn’t bow, he claimed superiority, proclaiming to God, “I am better than him. You created me from fire; You created him from clay.” He gets banished to Hell, and makes a request, seeking that the entry into Hell gets delayed until the Day of Judgment. Granted. He makes another request, vowing to lead humanity astray. He’s given permission to try, but told that he won’t be able to get to Allah’s true servants.
Contrasting the two stories we find one fundamental difference. Adam and Eve felt remorse, were taught how to seek forgiveness, sought it, and were granted it. Iblis felt no remorse, did not seek forgiveness, yet behaved with arrogance, still made requests of Allah, and even vowed revenge.
Depending upon the purity of our condition, if we do something very wrong that is outside of the norm of our behavior, we experience a burst of internal emotion that we may then transform into remorse or into its opposite -- in this case -- arrogance. That internal sentiment is a feeling of self-debasement. Either we embrace it, or instead of self-debasement, we turn it upside down into a sense of greatness: arrogance. In other words, you do something wrong that you do not normally do, like slander someone, then you have this burst of emotion that either gets confirmed as remorse, or gets inverted into arrogance.
Then the sentiment gets followed by further action: if I feel remorse, then I confess, and I seek pardon. If I feel arrogance, then I will justify my actions. If I steal something from someone and feel remorse, I will confess and return what I stole. If I steal something and feel arrogance, then I will justify stealing, and might blame the victim for my choice to steal.
In other words, remorse is part of the process of owning our choices. Arrogance is a choice to avoid our responsibility. The more severe the action, the greater the sentiment, making either the remorse or arrogance greater. Remorse can be of such force that it becomes a type of depression. Arrogance can be of such force that it becomes a type of rage.
Take a moment to note the power of these sentiments. If we choose arrogance, we start constructing a full world view around it to justify the arrogance. Once we embrace that worldview, it is very hard to get out of it, unless something else later on debases us. I have seen many cases where someone committed a wrong against someone else, blamed the victim, and continued to justify it.
I think back to those horrendous wrongs I’ve done. In some cases, starting a charade, continuing it, making it more complicated and worse, causing difficulties in someone else’s life. The process of confession is a process of cleaning our slate, but also of seeking relief.
Then, there is another aspect to the wrongs: the collateral damage. Of the interpretations of the Adam and Eve story, one is that the experience of with the tree was a training exercise for their forthcoming responsibilities as God’s deputies on the Earth, to show them that they will make mistakes and to show how to fix them (by turning back to God). Another interpretation -- which has some commonalities with some Biblical readings -- is that they were sent to Earth because of the episode with the tree. It is this latter reading that I would like us to think about because it opens us to this issue of collateral damage.
If the first pair of responses -- remorse or arrogance -- were responses to our actions, we have a second set of responses related to the consequences of our actions. The difference here is that these responses are long lasting. Adam and Eve, according to the second reading above, went to the Tree, were forgiven, but because they launched a chain of events, they were still expelled from the Garden into the Earth. In other words, sometimes we do wrongs, and may be forgiven or pardoned for them, but the effects and consequences of our actions remain. Imagine if you hurt someone, and were forgiven for it, yet their pain remains. If you break something that belongs to someone else, that person might forgive you, yet the object remains broken. We have a lesser-cited teaching that on the Day of Judgment when humans are scurrying around in fear waiting for judgment, Adam will have some sadness, thinking that he is the one who unleashed this whole process for them.
Consider the places in your history where you took ownership for your wrongs. Though it’s a much more difficult task and might require someone else to inform us, consider those places in your history where you did not.
And Allah knows best.