Do you know what sincerity feels like? Have you seen it, have you felt it, have you lived or experienced it? I think many of us say we are trying to live sincere and honest lives. And I don’t doubt that many of us sincerely believe that we are being sincere and truthful with ourselves. But I also believe that on a day-to-day basis and maybe even in the larger scheme of life that we don’t always live up to our own ideas of sincerity.
Nearly five years ago, in the summer of 2007, I attended a workshop entitled “Master Your Emotions” in Ottawa led by Muhammad Alshareef. Reflecting back now, a few moments of enormous benefit continue to stand out for me. Through various activities, we were able to elicit for ourselves the underlying questions or beliefs that shape our outlook and behavior. These thoughts, sometimes negative, lurk just beneath surface in our minds and loop continuously.
A hallmark of these looping thoughts is that they are often triggered by an early and sometimes painful formative experience. One reason we hold onto these emotions is because we have yet to learn the lessons from that experience to prevent us from continuing to fall into it. When we are able to learn and internalize the necessary lessons, those negative emotions begin to lose their power.
From an early age, I loved to imitate my parents in reading the newspaper. Even though I had not yet learned to read I would look at the pictures and pour over the colorful Sunday comic insert. After I learned to read, I would always get so annoyed if someone did not put the newspaper back in order. The A section had to be before the B section and everything neatly folded. During the workshop, Alshareef asked for a volunteer and I raised my hand. We mapped out on big sheets of easel paper this issue and how disempowering it was to allow others to disturb my equilibrium simply by not putting an item, not just the newspaper, back in the order I preferred.
For me the issue among other things was one of respect, courtesy, and consideration. I believe I show consideration for the people around me by putting, for example, the newspaper sections back in the order they arrived in so that I don’t cause unnecessary hardship to the next person who may want to read it. But I realize that I cannot control the actions of others so I must content myself with what I can do and not let what others do or don’t do unbalance me.
One of the most powerful sessions during that weekend workshop, which continues to resonate with me and propel me forward to action was a test of our sincerity. Each participant was asked to select one goal that he or she ardently wanted to achieve and to share this goal with a small group of strangers. So one at a time, we each took turns standing before a group of about five of our peers. Our task was to tell this group standing before us the goal we wanted achieve and when they believed we were truthful and sincere, they would raise their hands. The trick was that everyone in the group had to raise their hand to testify to their belief in your sincerity about your expressed goal.
Sounds easy enough, right? But the reality of standing there before this group of strangers who aren’t going to let you off the hook because they know you as a friend or feel bad for you as you tell them this goal you’ve worked hard to come up with by sorting through your emotions and that you think you sincerely want to accomplish is incredibly intense.
You begin confidently enough thinking that if you just say your goal once or twice everyone will quickly raise their hands. But then the first shock comes, no one raises their hand and you begin to have an internal conversation, why aren’t they raising hands, don’t they believe me, why don’t they believe me, who are they, they don’t know me, what can I say to convince them, what can I say to really convince myself, am I sure I want this, do I even want to continue with this exercise? So you try again and nobody raises their hand, back to your internal conversation, so you try again to come from a different angle and to word it just right, but still no one raises their hand.
You keep trying and doubting and questioning yourself and at some point you forget about those people standing in front of you not raising their hands and you turn inward, maybe even asking God to help you. And in that internal space is the search for your own sincerity. Externally, some of us began to perspire, cried or tried to put on a brave face and laugh it off, or bargain with our group but those masks of insincerity and false demotivating beliefs are precisely the stumbling blocks, which will keep you from reaching your goal no matter how well you lie to yourself or others. And the pressure continues to build…
Relief comes with an with an expression of sincerity. I remember my goal and the intensity of the experience. I think I cried, I’m not one prone to the tears rolling down the face kind of crying in public but my eyes were moist and I felt an immense sense of relief when each person in the group raised their hand. I don’t know what I said at that moment, which was different from what I had said earlier but it certainly felt different. And that they raised their hands came not only as a welcome relief but also a humbling surprise, and I thought to myself, so that’s what sincerity feels like? I returned home and by the time the six month followup letter arrived I was on my way to taking the necessary steps to complete my goal. I’ve continued to remain focused and dedicated to that goal, which should soon be completed, insha’Allah.
When you are sincere, you will know it, others around you will feel it, and it will propel you towards meaningful action to reach your goal. Most of our words and our actions despite our claims are not done with full sincerity. If you have ever felt a moment of sincerity you can tell the difference between that experience and how we live most of our lives. I ask Allah to grant us sincerity in all of our actions and to forgive us for so often falling short of that goal.