The Perils of Misconduct
October 22, 2017
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman. I hope you get a chance to appreciate the Fall colors. Chicago is gorgeous in Fall and Spring, Alhamdulillah.
There are many reasons I keep repeating the importance of integrity in your work. You know the obvious reasons. It is an Islamic obligation. It is a normal human obligation. You would want people to conduct themselves with integrity with you. It is easy to speak in honesty; it is difficult to sustain a lie without telling other lies. If you commit a crime and you do not take ownership of your choices, you will tell lies to sustain your supposed innocence. The more lies you tell, the deeper you bury yourself, the harder and more humiliating the fall will be when you get exposed. Even worse: you may misuse the trust and loyalty of others to protect you from getting exposed.
Another reason, however, is that the sins of youth remain with you, decades later. The sins of youth chase after you like zombies: they are ugly remnants from a previous life, that haunt you and continue following you, even when you believe you escaped them. Most people spend the rest of their lives running from their inner zombies. Some of you will read this letter by pointing fingers at others; I am speaking to you about your history.
The most obvious way that the sins of youth chase you is in physiology. As you know (because you are SnapChat Warriors), I’ve weaned myself off of carbonated drinks, having replaced them with these giant bottles of Freshly Squeezed Orange Juice. I used to guzzle various soft drinks -- despite how harmful they were -- as if I was drinking water. Soon, I will shift to smaller doses of the juice, Insha Allah.
We are taught that if in Islamic law an action gets categorized as “Fard” or “Wajib,” it is not only mandatory to fulfill, but we can infer that it is beneficial for you and society in the next life as well as in this worldly life. Likewise, we are taught that if something is “Haram” (prohibited), we should infer that it is harmful, even in moderation. The list of the Fard actions and the list of the Haram actions are both short lists, and we should try to be firm in them.
The mistake we make when we are young is that we assume we will reform ourselves later. The first mistake, of course, is that we assume we will have time to transform. The second mistake is that such procrastination does not end. There are self-improvement efforts that I still delay, having delayed them week after week, for a few decades. My waistline is a monument to my procrastination.
The most painful way that the sins of youth chase you, however, is in your misconduct against other people. I have spoken many times about the demons I worked to resolve, starting with a destructive and self-destructive anger. My anger, for much of my life, was an irrational rage that caused pain to many people and ignited ways for me to hurt myself as well. Some of you have experienced me being upset at your choices; that is not the anger I am speaking about. That is the behavior of a mentor to an apprentice. There are a number of narrations of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, expressing anger. In each of those cases, he is conducting himself in the role of the guide. I am speaking of something irrational that feels like a tornado.
The first wave that started diffusing my anger was the births of my children. You know how much I obsess over my daughters; in my desire to give them everything I could, the most important aspect was in being a model for them. They have softened so many of my soft edges just by being them.
The second wave was in seeing my behaviors in other people. It is easy to see the problems in our actions when we see them in others. It is harder to recognize such hazards in ourselves.
The third wave is simply age: you reach a point in life where you no longer want to be miserable, and you finally have enough maturity to focus on internal repair. It is only now after decades of delays that I have started working on my physical health applying routines that will last, Insha Allah. I had a mentor who was an alcoholic for years. When asked his motivation for going through a 12-step program, he said it was because he no longer wanted to feel the way he would feel after a long night of binge drinking. I wanted to be freed from the toxic anguish of my anger.
The fourth wave was in active efforts to develop gratitude. Gratitude washes out anger the way water washes out fire. I have students who feel that they have nothing to be grateful for. Once you start developing gratitude, such sentiments from others seem jarring.
Still, the legacy of my anger still remains within me enough that I am sometimes consumed by remorse. I also see the way anger consumes others; they are not yet ready to take ownership for their own destructive choices.
There is another aspect of this remorse: people will remind you of your past. Some people with fleeting integrity will also use your past sins to condemn your present public self. There are quite a few people who cited my former anger matters to portray me as a present-day monster. There is not much that I can do to help such people, except to hope that they find their peace, as more important individuals were hit with more serious accusations. They will have remorse haunt them.
Not too many people survive a public onslaught of past misbehavior without further wounds. Most suffer at least from humiliation by way of the humiliation their children experience. Politicians may have to step down from their posts. Our incumbent in the White House has not only survived these outings but seems to have benefited from them.
The biggest remorse for misconduct, of course, will be on the other side. There seems to be debate among Islamic scholars on the question: would God forgive you if your victim does not forgive you? But there seems to be a consensus that if you pay for your crime in this world according to Islamic dictates, then you will not be held to account for them on the other side. So, it is in your best interest to repent, reform, and repair.
As a Muslim, you are obliged to do the best you can to keep your character upright. If you do not, it will not escape you no matter how much you try to escape from it. But, a reminder of the changing seasons is that you will have new opportunities to repent and reform; you will have more chances to rebuild your life no matter how much you may have damaged it: I am living proof. So, let us figure out what you need to take ownership of in your misconduct, and let us figure out how to fix things. Leaves will fall, but new leaves can sprout.
And Allah knows best.