“But if you are patient in adversity and conscious of Him- truly this is something upon which to set one’s heart.” (Qur’an 3:186)
“Seek help through steadfast patience and prayer…Indeed, Allah is with those who patiently persevere.” (Qur’an 2:153)
A conversation with my Arabic teacher recently has lead me to believe that the word “patience” in English has a distinctly different meaning than the word “sabr” in Arabic, which is usually translated as patience. Sabr is used many times in the Qur’an, and is often translated as “patience in adversity” or “steadfast patience.” The English word patience seems to imply waiting something out, waiting for circumstances to improve. But in Arabic, sabr implies that we are in a difficult situation that we have been put into for a reason. Our job is to transform the situation into something of personal value. Find the hidden lesson in it, find our way into the deeper meaning rather than simply waiting for an escape from it. We are asked to turn to Allah and trust in God’s greater purpose for us. Thus will we attain serenity without harming anyone. My personal belief is that the world suffering from a pandemic is an example of the Forces of Nature and Divinity trying to teach us how much harm we have done to our Mother Earth, how much injustice, selfishness, and greed have taken over our lives, and how destructive these forces are for everyone on earth. How will we respond, personally and collectively? This remains to be seen.
The Buddhists also treat patience in adversity as a blessing. A number of years ago I attended a weekend workshop offered by the Buddhist Nun Pema Chodrin based on the chapter entitled “Patience” from The Way of the Bodhisattva. This famous text was written over 1,300 years ago by an Indian Buddhist monk and scholar, Shantideva. Pema Chodrin spent the entire weekend going over this chapter in the book, verse by verse, explaining with stories and examples the deeper meaning of patience. In many of these verses, patience is presented as the opposite of anger. “No evil is there similar to anger, No austerity to be compared with patience. Steep yourself, therefore, in patience, In various ways, insistently.” (Verse 2) Chodrin gave many examples of how patience in adversity can be something which helps us carve our personality into one of compassionate serenity. Even from a simple criticism or insult someone flings at us, we can perhaps learn an important truth about ourselves. After all, why do some insults roll right off our backs, and others cause great pain? There is something important to be learned about ourselves from this distinction.
When we find ourselves in adversity, whether by natural or human causes, we must do our best to protect ourselves from harm, but do so with an open heart, and an acceptance that we may not be able to control the circumstances we are facing. “If there is a remedy when trouble strikes, what reason is there for dejection? And if there is no help for it, what use is there in being glum?” (Verse 10) This reminds me of the famous “Serenity Prayer” by Reinhold Niebuhr that my mother taught me: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”