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The negative and positive aspects of regret

O mankind! Verily, the Promise of Allah is true. So let not this present life deceive you, and let not the chief deceiver (Satan) deceive you about Allah. [Surah Fatir 35:5]

In hardships and calamities, like our current challenges of health, loss, restriction and uncertainty, it is easy to get swept away by the affliction of the moment. During such trials of faith, unless we are careful, Shaytan can inject fear and plant doubts in our hearts and minds.

One of the common traps Shaytan emphasises is that of regret. Regret can seriously damage your mental health. Regret can be all-consuming, and it can destroy lives. We can see it all around us, whether it is someone who cannot forgive themself for a sin they have done. Or regret about a relationship we are in or missed out on. The big regret we are hearing echoed in media is currently about how governments have handled the pandemic and also, in America, regrets about how Capitol Hill was handled and what was said and intended.

Regret makes us feel we cannot move on and sucks all the joy and fulfilment from our days, so we’re always looking backwards and unable to move forward in our lives. And when we do need to make decisions, the fear of repeating previous mistakes can be paralysing so we miss out on meaningful relationships. There is a tendency with regret to see the pathway you didn’t take as so much better than the pathway you did. It may well be that this other pathway would indeed have worked out better – but the point is that we cannot know for sure. This is unhealthy regret.

Not long ago, three friends came to Birmingham. They decided to stay in a big hotel during the visit. It so happened that their room ended up being on the 60th floor. The policy of the hotel was that every night after midnight, the elevators are shut down for security reasons.

So on the next day, the three friends rented a car and went out to explore the city. They enjoyed the best restaurants, saw sights and movies throughout the whole day. They got so carried away late into the night and remembered just before just before midnight they had to get back so they could use the lift to their 60th floor room. They rushed back but when they arrived, it was too late and the elevators were shut down. There was no other way to get back to their room but to take the stairs all the way to the 60th floor.

They were very tired but one of them came up with bright idea. He said “For the first 20 floors, I will tell jokes to keep us going. Then another one of us could say wise stories for the next 20 floors. Finally, we will cover the other 20 floors with sad stories.”

So, one of the friends started with the jokes. With laughs and joy, they reached the 20th floor. Now, the other friend started saying stories that are full of wisdom. So, they learned a lot while reaching the 40th floor. Now, it was time for the sad stories. So, the third friend started thus, “My first sad story is that I left the key for the room in the car.”

Now, what is the point of this story? This story resembles our life cycle. For the first major part of our life, we spend time in joking and enjoying whatever is out there. Then, after we reach a certain age we go into our jobs, get married, have kids and this is the time when we use our wisdom. Then, if we reach 40, we finally see the white hairs and begin to think that my life is coming to an end and the sadness begins. We start regretting all the things that we should or shouldn’t have done in our youth.

Healthy regret

There is also healthy regret, where we learn from our failings, accept the lesson and rather than beating ourselves up, commit to being better next time. In fact, one of my favourite definitions of an expert, is the one who makes the most mistakes, because you learn more through that experience than something who has never tried.

We live in a culture where innovation and entrepreneurship are celebrated and built on the practise of failing fast. Learning can be painful, especially when failure is involved. It’s hard not to take it personally and berate yourself for falling short of the mark. But, what if we view failure as an opportunity? Failure informs us, giving us the intelligence to optimise—to reenter the game with a better product, a stronger strategy, and a clearer sense of where we need to go and what we need to get there. Failure cultivates humility, builds resiliency, and breeds fearlessness. These moments that challenge us yield the greatest opportunities for growth—as individuals and as organisations.

Failure is only the opportunity to more intelligently begin again. You don’t learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing and falling over. And its said, that neither success is final, nor failure is fatal, rather it’s the courage to continue that counts.

In fact, one of the most positive emotions is remorse, or nadm, in Arabic. Deep guilt for a mistake wrong committed where we accept responsibility, trace our intention and make amends. We carry the lesson and the raw emotion so we can be thankful for the lesson. Remorse reminds us to grieve the things that were lost to us along the way. Scholars have explained that nadm is sorrow for having committed the sin because it is a sin, and for no other reason.

Abdullah ibn Mas’ud reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Regret is part of repentance.” [Sunan Ibn Mājah 4252]

Look at the Mercy of Allah(SWT) upon us. Abu Umamah reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Verily, the angel on the left side will raise his pen over the error or sin of a Muslim servant for six hours. If he sincerely regrets it and seeks forgiveness from Allah, the angel will throw it aside. Otherwise, he will record it as one sin.” [al-Mu’jam al-Kabīr 7765]

Sometimes, however, one may become ashamed of himself as he cannot keep his word with Allah and returns to the state of sinning after declaring his repentance. To understand this, let us go through the following conversation as quoted by Ibn Rajab Al-Hanbali:

It was said to Al-Hassan, the Prophet’s grandson, “Isn’t the servant [of Allah] ashamed of sinning and then repenting, and then sinning again and then again repenting?”

Al-Hassan said: “This is what Satan exactly wants! Never stop making repentance.”

In fact, what is the way to find Allah(SWT)?

Whoever acts evil or wrongs himself, then seeks forgiveness from Allah, shall find Allah Most-Forgiving, Very-Merciful. [Surah Nisa 4:110]

And Nuh(AS)’s words are preserved until the Day of Judgment, “So I said, ‘Pray to your Lord for your forgiveness,- Indeed He is the Perpetual Forgiver” [Surah Nuh 71: 10]

A man came to the Prophet(SAW) and said “O Messenger of Allah, I have done a wrong”. The Prophet(SAW) said “Seek forgiveness.”

The man went and returned another day saying “O Messenger of Allah, I have done a wrong” and the Prophet(SAW) said “Seek forgiveness.”

Then a third time, the same man returned saying “O Messenger of Allah, I have done a wrong”. The Prophet(SAW) said “Seek forgiveness.” The man said – ilaa mataa – “Until when?”

The Prophet(SAW) responded with such beautiful advice, saying InnAllaha laa yamil hattaa tamillo. “Allah doesn’t get bored, until you get bored”

Do not feel helpless

Even when all doors appear to have been closed, as true believers we should never let feelings of helplessness succumb us. Consider the following Hadith of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and ibn Al-Qayyim’s commentary on that Hadith:

It was narrated from Abu Hurayrah (may Allah be pleased with him) that the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) said: “The strong believer is better and more beloved to Allah than the weak believer, although both are good. Strive to do that which will benefit you and seek the help of Allah, and do not feel helpless. If anything befalls you, do not say ‘If only I had done (such and such), the such and such would have happened,’ rather say: ‘Allah has decreed and what He wills He does,’ for ‘if only’ opens the door to the work of the shaitan.” (Muslim, 2664)

Ibn al-Qayyim (may Allah have mercy on him) said: This Hadith includes several important principles of faith, including the following: “Do not feel helpless”: Feeling helpless is contrary to striving for that which will benefit him, and it is contrary to seeking the help of Allah.

The one who strives for that which will benefit him and seeks the help of Allah is the opposite of the one who feels helpless, so this is telling him, before what has been decreed happens, of that which is one of the greatest means of attaining it, which is striving for it whilst seeking the help of the One in Whose hand is control of all things, from Whom they come and to Whom they will return.

The Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) forbade us to open the door to his works in this manner, and told us to adopt the second option, which is trusting in the divine decree and bearing it in mind, for if it was decreed for him it would never have missed him and no one could have prevented him from attaining it. Hence this hadeeth is one which a person can never do without. (Shifa Al-Aleel, 37-38)

Ask for Allah’s Mercy and Grace in tough situations

As believers we should recognize that only Allah’s Grace and Mercy can deliver us from challenging situations. Failure is a bend in the road, not the end of the road. Learn from failure and keep moving forward. Allah (SWT) tells us in the Quran:

Whoever fears Allah, He brings forth a way out for him, and provides him (with what he needs) from where he does not even imagine. And whoever places his trust in Allah, He is sufficient for him. Surely Allah is to accomplish His purpose. Allah has set a measure for every thing. [Surah At-Talaq 65:2-3]

Stay patient in hard times and remember Allah(SWT) in times of ease. In the story of Yusuf(AS), we see a child who is torn away from his beloved father. Bullied, tormented, betrayed and sold into slavery. Kidnapped and a refugee with no way of returning or knowing where his family were. Placed in a foreign home – the house of the Finance Minister, al-Azeez, as a slave . Tempted by the wife, the most powerful of all women in the most developed of all countries. Opting to go to prison in humiliation despite being totally innocent. Forgotten for many years, some say, 40 years. And only after this lengthy ordeal, to be recognised as innocent and offered a position in the court of the king. At this point, he said he was the best to look after the treasury, and rightly – he had been mentored by the previous Finance Minister. He had insight and wisdom and could rule fairly. As a result of his planning and management, millions and millions were saved from starvation, with people, including his own family, travelling to Egypt to be gifted by his hands. This was not possible without his difficulties – his time in the well, in slavery and in the prison. Know that your difficulties are similar, Allah(SWT) is preparing each and every one of us, and if we trust Him and follow His guidance, we too can achieve real success.


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