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Don’t be Like a Dry Branch

My young son surprised me one day with a very difficult question. Out of nowhere, he asked:

“You are driving a car that can only carry the driver and one passenger. You pass by three people, all of whom need a ride. The first is an old woman who is in need of urgent emergency medical care. The second is an old friend who once saved your life. The third is a famous person whom you admire and would be honored to help. Who would you take with you?”

I hesitated to answer, and my son could see the confusion and puzzlement on my face. Finally I said: “I would get out of the car and give my keys to my old friend and tell him to take the old lady to the hospital and then go where he needs to go. Then I would wait for the bus along with the famous person.

We are confronted with so many choices. We should not fall into the trap of responding to them by making predictable and categorical choices, where it has to be either this way or that way.

When we were children, we learned that you could tell a tree was dead by how easy it was to break off its branches. The same can be said about our lives. We need to cultivate its fresh green branches and rid ourselves of those that are brittle and dry. This is why, as children, we heard adults saying:

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“Do not be dry and therefore easily broken, or too moist and be squeezed out like a lemon.” This was a way our elders told us to be moderate and balanced.

I also find in their words practical advice on how to be flexible in dealing with other people. Is it proper to be rigid and unyielding on everything? Or is it better to be able to adapt to changing circumstances and seek out new options and alternatives? Flexibility is a skill. It allows us to negotiate the middle ground between stubborn resolve on the one hand and indecision on the other. We should be neither obstinate nor wishy-washy.

Flexibility is not a slogan, approach, or personality trait. It is a learning process that a person goes through by facing repeated challenges. It is something that develops as we mature, like wisdom and composure.

change-ahead-signOver the course of many years, I learned to accept people as they are, even my closest relatives. I do not take them to task or nag them too much. I do not expect from others more than they can reasonably deliver.

Intellectual flexibility helps us realize our goals by allowing us to identify the opportunities that present themselves to us, and by enabling us to turn crises into opportunities. It means not being enthralled by one way of doing things so we can come up with a better alternative.

Do not put all your eggs in one basket. You must not simply follow someone else’s ideas. At the same time, you should not set yourself forever opposed to other people’s views. Flexibility means neither acquiescence nor resistance. It means an openness to new approaches.

It is easy to teach a person a new piece of information, but it is difficult to teach them a new way of thinking. At the same time, the human mind has tremendous creative potential, especially when it comes to problem solving.

Flexibility makes us more politically astute in our dealings with others. We are bound to fail if we categorize everyone as either a friend or foe. It is better to ally yourself with many different groups with whom you have overlapping interests in one area or another. By being inflexible, you can fail in your efforts and incur a heavy material and social cost for the actions you do manage to carry out.

Social flexibility means to be open to societies, regions, and nationalities that differ from your own in their approach to life and the way they express themselves. It means to adopt the good you find in their ways and to leave off what you find to be bad, regardless of how widespread it has become.

Likewise, a flexible body is one that can realize its full potential. It is critical for sports and developed through rigorous exercise.

A flexible mind is one that does not take rigid stances on open questions. This affords you the opportunity to engage in further research and fruitful discussions with others. It prevents you from becoming biased in favor of the first conclusions you arrive at.

When we become slaves to our habits and assumptions, they become uncompromising protocols. This situation creates a lot of anxiety, and indeed most people who are psychologically disturbed are also quite rigid in their thinking.

When you discuss things with those who hold opposing views, if you let yourself get angry, you can really become belligerent and verbally violent. On the other hand, if you are flexible in your own thinking, you can tell them: “There is some truth in what you say, and I respect your point of view.”

Emotional flexibility is important too. Ali ibn. Abi Talib summed this up in his famous statement:

“Be moderate in how you love someone, for they might become your enemy one day. Likewise, be moderate in how you hate someone, for they might become beloved to you one day.”

There is an old Arabic saying that goes:

“Do not let your love get overbearing, and do not let your hatred get destructive.”

The world is not just black and white. There are all shades – and colors – in between. In childhood stories, villains and heroes are painted as simplistic caricatures representing good and bad in the starkest, most simplistic terms. Some of us never grow out of this way of seeing the world and continue to sort everything into binary categories. Reality is quite different. It is much broader and more nuanced, so it is not always a good approach to assign everything to discrete categories.

Flexibility adds happiness and enjoyment to life. A person who is flexible can sleep at any time and any place that is convenient, like an airplane, a train, or a couch. They can eat foods they are unaccustomed to and develop new tastes. They can adjust to various climates, both cold and hot. They can get along with all kinds of people. It is easier for them to travel and enjoy it. they can deal with their friends’ varying moods. They can encounter new and beneficial things, and do so with grace.


About Salman al-Ouda
Muslim scholar. Al-Ouda is a member of the International Union for Muslim Scholars and on its Board of Trustees. He is a director of the Arabic edition of the website Islam Today and appears on a number of TV shows and authors newspaper articles.