The Heart in Despair

Perspective on pain and despair, from Islam and the Destiny of Man by Gai Eaton:

“The fact that I am sad does not mean that the world is out of kilter, the fact that I have been hurt does not mean that God is unjust, and the fact that my personal life may have been darkened by tragedy does not mean that no sun shines upon creation. It is when emotion is transposed to a different dimension that we have a ‘problem of suffering’ and this, precisely, is what has happened in our time.

When misfortune strikes profane people they suffer on two levels and their pain is doubled. On the one hand there is the misfortune as such and the pain they feel; on the other, there is the belief that it should never have happened and that its happening proves something very bitter and very ugly about the nature of the world (and if they bring God into it, then about the nature of God). They suffer because ‘something is wrong’; and then they suffer again because ‘everything is wrong’. At the end of this particular road is the abyss which we call despair, a grave ‘sin’ for the Muslim, as it is for the Catholic Christian, for now a wound which may initially have been clean and simple has suppurated and poisoned the bloodstream.

Since no-one can live or function in constant pain which feeds upon itself, and in an empty universe without mercy and without meaning, a third evil – the greatest of all – joins itself to the other two and this is hardening of the heart. The pious Muslim endures, as does the pious Christian, because he is assured that a stream of light flows deep beneath the dark land he now inhabits, even if he can neither see it nor sense it. But there is little virtue – indeed, there is much vice – in an endurance based upon the desensitizing of all those faculties through which we respond to God, to nature and to our fellows. Anything is preferable to this, even the most abject breakdown, since there can be no hope for those who are spiritually dead, slain by their own hand. An endurance unaccompanied by hardening of the heart can only exist on a religious basis, because it can exist only where there is a sense of proportion, which amounts to saying that suffering is bearable only when it is understood, even if this understanding is obscure and unformulated.

The Muslim says ‘Yes’ to everything that comes to him – or tries to say ‘yes’; which is enough, since, according to a hadith ‘acts are judged by their intentions’ – because he knows whence it comes. At the same time, he knows that it is better to be purified here than hereafter.

[…] If we wish to grow and to mature – and this must be the Muslim’s ambition, since he believes that his life is only a preparation for what comes after – then, however much misfortune is disliked, it cannot be seen as merely negative, which is precisely the way the profane person sees it. The Muslim, because he believes in Paradise, does not expect this world to be a paradise, and he is thereby saved from much bitterness and from the doubling or trebling of grief.


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