Asalaamu alaykum, dear sister,
Thank you for sending us this question, as it is a real struggle that many or even most people have.
How can we show gratitude to Allah in the midst of so much pain and hardship?
How can we find joy and peace and purpose on the days when it seems the clouds will never part?
Joy is the Root of Sorrow
To begin with, what brings us sorrow? What causes us hardship and pain?
At the bottom of our sorrow, if we are willing to reflect, we will find that sorrow comes to us when that which gave us joy is taken from us, or when we fear it will be.
Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
I can relate to so much in this beautiful poem.
The best advice I can give you, my dear sister, comes from my personal experience of intentionally cultivating joy in the midst of sorrow.
My Personal Experience Finding Joy in Sorrow
I found the path toward joy in the midst of struggle during four years of life in a small village in Egypt, far from my home and my people.
How can I explain the longing I have for the struggle of those days?
Being a foreign, single mom after my divorce in rural Egypt, I remember just how hard it was to cook a simple meal.
I reflect on the time it took to clean the rice, rinse the rice, rinse the rice, rinse the rice, soak the rice, cook the rice, check the rice, keep cooking the rice.
I remember using my semi-automatic washing machine, and the hard work and time it took to wash, rinse, hang, and fold everything in a dusty valley.
Alone in a strange place with four small kids, I was so scared, so unsure of what the future held, so worried I had made a mistake that would cripple my kids for life.
But I was so resolute, so sure, deep inside, that somehow, someway it would all turn out.
I was so brave in the face of a thousand-year-old culture that said, “Stay put. Be patient. Let him hurt you. Seek reward in the hereafter.”
For years before I finally obtained by divorce, I worked hard to find joy in any and all crannies and crevices.
Because I felt totally sure I could never escape my situation, I worked day and night, ceaselessly, to find a way to adapt myself to my situation.
I looked for joy like someone searches for a penny in the corners of the couch when they’ve not eaten in days.
I found any and every glimmer of beauty and love in every kindness of a stranger, in every sunset.
Then Vs. Now
Now. Back in my own country. Or what I thought was still my country before Trump and the rise of Alt-right.
Easy access to junk food. Two minutes in the microwave on high. Time cook: 1:30: Start. Ding Ding Ding Ding.
How can I explain why I long for the stark, bleak, simple life I had there?
Why I want a propane stove, no dishwasher, to hang the clothes on the line like I did back then?
Why I long to clean the rice with that mesh-screen-cleaner, shake, shake, shaking until all the bits of dirt, rock, and insect are flushed out, only starch and dust needing to be washed off?
I feel like a warrior who long ago put her weapons away and let them rust. No longer does a regular tahajjud practice relieve my sorrow.
When you are stripped of everything extra, and then stripped of what you view to be essential to the deepest you, and all you have to cling to is tears in the night, crying out to God or someone to help, help, help, save you from that situation, you see the ultimate truth:
There is healing in the desperation. You’re never hungry when you have food, and the hunger is what changes you.
Remember, Neither Joy Nor Sorrow Are Forever
We tell ourselves that there will soon come a day when our sorrow will leave us and we will live in perpetual joy.
This is a dangerous belief, and it’s not founded in reality.
There will never be a day that you are free of sorrow or promised eternal joy, not until you enter Paradise, inshaallah, and may Allah grant us all guidance.
Gibran continued in “The Prophet”:
Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed…”
This life is a rollercoaster of ease and hardship, but Allah gives us comfort:
Have We not expanded for you your breast? And We removed from you your burden, which weighed down your back? And We exalted for you your reputation? Then, surely with hardship comes ease. Surely, with hardship comes ease. So when you have finished (with your immediate task), still strive hard, (then toil). And to your Lord turn (all) your attention. (Quran 94)
Find comfort in the knowledge that just as the night does not overextend the day, neither does the hardship of this life overpower the joy.
And as Gibran said,
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
Don’t get so comfortable in your ease that you imagine no hardship or sorrow is coming.
And don’t become so heart-broken that you forget the joy and ease are coming.