Helen Keller was an insightful woman. Having been the first deaf-blind to earn a Bachelors of Arts Degree, her experiences and struggles made her observations about life so poignant, that they are still quoted and pondered decades after her death. As an example of her uncanny reflections, she says: “When one door of happiness closes, another opens, but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.”
And it’s true. In studies of happy people, it is commonly found that they do not subscribe to “if only” fantasies. This means that they don’t find themselves wallowing in the sort of faulty thinking that often sounds something like this: “If only I had a million dollars, I would be happy,” or “if only I lost 30 pounds, I would be happy.” Putting conditions on your happiness can mean that you believe that you are not worthy of being happy – for even when you fulfil those conditions, you still do not measure up. How many have a million dollars and are still unhappy? How many have perfectly svelte bodies, but are still unhappy?
So then, what of those who find themselves unable to get past something that has happened to make them unhappy? What of those who’ve suffered a loss so great that, no matter how much they’d like to, they can’t believe that the day will come when they’ll be happy again? How can they move on and see that the train they’ve been forced on might actually be a better fit for them than the one they were forced to abandon?
Hasna (not her real name) is one of these people. Having been engaged for a long time to a man who was not psychologically or financially ready for marriage but one who she felt obliged to hold false hopes for, she found it difficult to fathom the idea that she might have a different life than the miserable one she believed was her destiny.
It was a lengthy process, but Hasna had to take back the reins, to take a stand and stand firm in order to change the direction of her life. Sure, she had to make hard decisions, take realistic steps to move on, but it was that first step, the decision to stop staring at the closed door of happiness, that would prove to be the most difficult.
Here are some thoughts that helped Hasna take that first step and that should help others struggling to get past unhappiness do the same:
1. Trust in Allah (SWT)
Trust that Allah knows best and that no matter how bad things get, “verily with hardship comes ease. Verily with hardship comes ease.” (Al Quran, 94:6).
Know that everything shall pass. It’s a real relief to be able to let your mind rest assured that Allah will take care of it – that He will see the situation to its end result without your fretting over it.
2. Set a deadline
Realise that you choose your reactions and that, consequently, feeling happy is within your reach. Realise that if you avert your eyes from the closed door, you can start seeing the open one in its place. We can’t control what situations or tests will come our way, but we can control how we react to them. If we feel like we need a mourning period, so be it, but the act of putting a deadline on it puts us back in control. In Hasna’s case, she had to give her fiancé and his family an ultimatum that had a fair timetable – “If he is still unable to marry by x date, then I’ll have to move on” – gave her a tangible day in which to get past that closed door.
3. Pamper yourself
In the time it takes to deal with the closed door of happiness, we can learn to view disappointment as an opportunity to lay back, to learn to love ourselves so that we learn to better deal with such situations. In the case of Hasna, she’d become so ridden with guilt and a sense of duty and obligation that she couldn’t fathom the fact that her fiancé was not her husband – that technically she didn’t owe him anything. When her father decided to step in and told her to break off the engagement, she actually disobeyed him for awhile. Islamically, her father had more rights upon her, but her inability to let go of mistreating herself didn’t let her see this. Allah (SWT) “wants ease for you and not hardship.” (Al Quran, 2:185)
When people realise this, they will learn that the act of pampering themselves can be a good thing. Buy yourself a gourmet coffee on occasion, sleep extra long on a Saturday morning, take a bubble bath. By treating ourselves well, we are better able to move past situations that can harm us.
4. Journal the positives
Getting into the habit of keeping a journal, or putting pen to paper as it pertains to problems in our lives, and learning how to uncover strategies for better living, can be a lifesaver. A journal title entry that looks something like “100 reasons why this unhappy situation is actually a happy one” can be great motivation to move past the closed door in your life. You have to put your mind to work, to look at the situation from another angle, to think of the positives. Then read and re-read your journal entries until they are ingrained in your psyche.
5. Learn something new
When you’re in a situation that makes you feel stuck, it’s imperative to learn to be flexible, to realise that curiosity is a pathway to a new normal. And who knows, your new knowledge might be the beginning of a much better normal. With Hasna, in the middle of her traumatic situation with her fiancé, she took up baking. She perfected her baklava recipe and her chiffon cakes. To avoid eating it all, she would contribute to sisterly gatherings or community fund- raisers. Her desserts didn’t have her opening a bakery, but they did pave the way for some great friendships. Maybe more importantly, she gained the confidence to know that, when push comes to shove, she can triumph by transforming herself, that she can choose to pour herself into something different, something sweet.
It’s that openness to sweetness, the sort of faith that deaf-blind Helen Keller talks about, that could enable us to walk through the open door of happiness that was there all along.
Heba Alshareef is the author of Release Your Inner Queen of Sheba- a self-help guide for Muslim Women. Visit her online at www.iamsheba.com.