Wisdom from a Plumber

“Too much material success, too many lawyers and psychiatrists, and too many service industries doing everything for everyone has America losing its edge, and essentially, its American-ness,” says US convert to Islam, Abdul-Lateef Abdullah.

These days, you never can tell where wisdom will come from. God is constantly humbling us by manifesting truth in all sorts of ways and from all types of people. A few days ago, I was on the phone with my teacher in New Jersey, and I was asking him what the mood was like in the U.S. (I am currently living in Malaysia, but am an American). He then proceeded to tell me that he had an interesting conversation with his plumber that day. The plumber? What bit of insight into world events could a plumber from New Jersey have, I thought. The plumber from small-town USA, driving his pick-up truck and proudly displaying the Stars and Stripes bandanna on his head, came up with an important observation about his country. He said, “the laws of this country (U.S.) have made us weak. Whenever we have a problem, our first reaction is to call our lawyer or someone else to take away our problems for us. This has made us weak. We have forgotten how to take care of our own business.” (May Allah and the plumber forgive me if I have misquoted him).

My teacher was in complete agreement with him. In fact, in his eleven years living in the U.S., he has frequently commented on this very same thing. For him, while growing up outside the U.S., everything about America was cowboys and Indians and rugged individualism. The U.S. represented strength, bravery and toughness. Now, through his experiences there, he sees a society of illness and weakness, buried under materialism, violence, and greed. With the tragedy of the September 11th attacks, there can be no denying that the illusion of immunity from external aggression was dealt a major blow to the collective conscious of America, and in effect, the psyche of the American public and the ability to cope with the reality of vulnerability.

The plumber’s statements alluded to a nation and people that once prided itself on its toughness, self-reliance, and pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps outlook on life driven by the Protestant work ethic. Too much material success, too many lawyers and psychiatrists, and too many service industries doing everything for everyone, however, has America losing its edge, and essentially, its “American-ness.”

If you carefully observe the way America once was, and where contemporary American culture is now heading, you can clearly see the signs. The nature, not just the statistics, of social ills in America today are pointing to problems that run deep, and stem from a loss of “soulfulness.” Go to your local bookstore or turn on Oprah, and almost daily you will see some show or read some article about social or psychological malaise affecting some man, woman, child or group. Emotionally, people are hurting, confused, and depressed and many are choosing to shun traditional remedies for “alternative” or more “eastern” approaches to their problems.

Essentially, America is drowning and is running out of ideas on how to save itself. Take schools and education for example. Now, in the U.S., children essentially run the schools. Teachers everywhere, particularly in the inner-city schools, are scared of their students. They find it nearly impossible to control them, let alone - God forbid - discipline them. Parents today are more prone to back their children in contentious teacher-student situations, no matter what the child does to earn the teacher’s displeasure, than to defend the teacher. No more are the days when parents and teachers formed a united front to teach and enforce respect and correct behavior of children. Now, the teachers are under attack and the students - children - are leading the assault. This is an example of the backwardness in societies that the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) warned us about as we approach the end of time.

The “weakening” of America - as put by the plumber - is also being facilitated by the never-ending lawsuits in which the society is literally drowning. (In)famous cases like the woman who won two million dollars from McDonald’s because she spilled hot coffee on herself while driving is just an example of how the extreme “litigiousness” of American society is manufacturing greed to the point where people become fixated on suing over every little thing in the hope of making a quick buck. (As a summer intern in the Superior Court of the State of Delaware a few years back, I can assure you, people in my country sue over just about anything!) Judges are frequently forced to throw cases out of court due to superfluous lawsuits brought about by people trying to capitalize on the slightest misfortune.

This mentality of whatever wrong is done to me, I am owed something - which in most cases, translates into large sums of money - has added a great deal to the psychological fragility of America. It is also another indicator of an increasingly atheistic worldview, one in which there is little belief that everything happens to us for a reason - even if that thing is as mundane as spilling hot coffee on ourselves. Such a mentality represents a major step backward for those who still believe in the importance of meeting responsibilities before being granted rights and privileges. American culture today, however, teaches the opposite - that we should demand our rights regardless as to whether or not we meet our responsibilities. We have the right to sue for huge sums of money if we act like fools and put scolding hot coffee between are legs, even though commonsense would teach us that we have a responsibility to ourselves not to do it because it is physically dangerous.

These developments, which have evolved primarily over the past half century, have been heavily influenced by Western psychology - a psychology that is atheistic, materialistic, and void of a soul or spirit. This is in great contrast to religion and the concept of spirituality, which views the human being as the complex meeting point of mental, physical and spiritual faculties. The Western psychological schools of thought and their ranks of foot soldiers have greatly influenced Western society through the systematic application of God-less psychology. With their widespread application and influence on mainstream culture, psychological schools such as Freud’s, admittedly do not address aspects of the human being such as the soul, because such concepts are outside of the measurable, positivist scientific scope. In fact, Freud and his followers have explained religion as nothing more than the “universal obsessional neurosis (Ahmed, 2001).”

An example of this from my time spent at the Taqwa Gayong (Islamic) Academy in New Jersey is of one particular teenage Muslim boy. His parents, in response to their inability to control his behavior that included drug use, alcohol use, and free sex, decided to send him to a psychiatrist out of desperation. After “treating” the boy several times, the psychiatrist, however, far from helping the boy understand why he needed to be more obedient and respectful to his parents so as to help mend the family according to its correct structure, sided with the boy and told the parents that their requiring him to pray five times a day was borderline abusive and excessive, and that they should let him have more freedom to do what he wants. Although only an example, this is how people in America - children more than anyone else - are becoming stripped of their “humanness.” They are being spoon-fed the notion that they need to indulge every urge, want, and desire, otherwise, they will not be happy. Ironically enough, the opposite effect has taken hold and its proof is in the pudding. As of 1998, one in five American adults was considered to have suffered from some sort of diagnosable mental disorder. In addition, 4 of the 10 leading causes of disability in the U.S. and other developed countries are mental disorders—major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. (National Institute of Mental Health - http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/numbers.cfm  1998).

The psychic deterioration of America is thus being facilitated through the use of modern day psychology and exaggerated notions of mental illness to make people dependent on everything and everyone but God and themselves. This is not to say that modern psychology has not contributed anything positive toward understanding human behavior, but because of its atheistic roots and assumptions, it often works against religion and the critical role of spirituality in the development of man. Thus, it essentially goes against our very nature as human beings. As a result, religion has been reduced to an “extracurricular activity,” rather than a way of life. Christians, Jews, and Muslims alike who are avid practitioners of their faiths often get strange looks and clichéd labels such as “fundamentalists” if they speak publicly about religion or even use the word “god” in a professional context.

People the world over who are experiencing more Western culture in their daily lives have to guard against the dangers of “dependency culture.” This is one of the down sides to Western culture, in that it promotes a way of life that encourages the individual to do less for himself, to look away from himself, to complain when he does not get his way, to blame others for his problems, and to shy away from critiquing the “man in the mirror.” As a result, we start to believe that we are “owed” things, or that certain luxuries and status are due to us, regardless of whether or not we are meeting our responsibilities, are grateful to God for what we have, and are busy with the ongoing work of self-improvement and reflection.

Today, whether in Western countries or in other parts of the world, we are seeing larger numbers of Muslims who, although they may be religious insofar as their worship is concerned, are getting sucked into the traps of dependency culture. This is precisely how God is being replaced. This is how Western cultural elites have been able to systematic remove God and religion from everyday life with atheistic and materialist psychology - by making us dependent on things and people rather than God. On the contrary, however, as Muslims we must heed God in the Qur’an when he says: “Nay, seek (God’s) help with patient perseverance and prayer: It is indeed hard, except to those who bring a lowly spirit (2:45).” Furthermore, the Prophet (SAW) spoke on this matter when he said, “Wisdom and power follow endurance and patience.” (reported by Abu Sayeed al-Khodri).

Looking back at our history, we can see that in his life, Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) never asked anybody for anything. He always relied on God. He did not take positions in Mekkan society when they were offered to him, he did not take concessions from their rulers, he certainly did not demand his rights from anybody, and he never complained to any human being about his lot or situation. Even after being run out of the city of Taif by children who had bloodied and humiliated him, what did he do? He complained - To God - of his weakness, and the lack of support and humiliation he was made to receive (Salahi, 1995).

From my own personal perspective, the drive toward self-perfection can be quite a challenge at times. The idea that everything comes to us from God, and that we have to train and condition ourselves to understand this and be grateful for whatever God sends us, is truly a struggle to put into practice. Every moment we have to fight the urge to complain about this, complain about that, demand to know why this happened or why that happened, blame our misfortunes on others, and just lie down and give in to our lower selves. A believer, however, must differentiate him or herself through quiet determination and resignation to the fact that God is always in charge. Naturally, this includes improving the world around us, standing up to oppression and tyranny, and doing our best to correct falsehood because it is our duty to as vicegerents (khalifahs). It is part of our collective responsibility, and must be conducted correctly and according to Divine Law.

Ultimately, obeying God is about self-perfection and self-love. If we love ourselves, we will want to perfect ourselves and work to do so. If we hate ourselves, we will work to destroy ourselves by going against God commands, for as we already know, they exist for our benefit and success. Therefore, He has expressly forbidden those things that will destroy us, so that we can avoid them, love ourselves, and enjoy the ultimate success. Thus, the formula of looking to others - to do things for us and as the source of our problems - is one of self-destruction.

People everywhere today are being conditioned to look outside of themselves first to solve their problems, and as a result they are becoming more and more incapable of keeping their own houses in order. It is this formula that is creating societies replete with self-hatred and weakness, which is what the plumber from New Jersey so poignantly picked up on. The signs are there - social ills growing out of control. This is surely the path to self-destruction first, and societal destruction second. As Muslims who understand this, we must avoid making these same mistakes and help others by bringing them into the light of God grace and formula for ultimate success, as the results of not doing so could be disastrous for all of humanity.