We go through life with a set of expectations, often derived from our own cultural and familial upbringings. A path is laid before us from which we are intended to uncover our worth and ultimate life purpose. When this path deviates or completely unravels, people often feel a profound sense of failure, confusion, and disappointment. All the “correct” steps were taken, but the place marker denoting our success was never reached — and thus our peace of mind was never achieved.
In my single-parent household, college, and, immediately following, the dream job (complete with a living wage) were the greatest signifiers of success. I built my self-worth and identity entirely around this goal; assuming that once I achieved it, my life would hold meaning and be worthy of others’ respect.
I juggled jobs and internships alongside late-night studying just to make the perfect grades. Networking, straight A’s, and job prospects so often filled my mind that developing meaningful social connections seemed like wasted time.
Four years came and went, and with my degree in hand, I continued working at the part-time, temporary position I held during college. Apparently, the economy was not aware of how it was all supposed to work out. The public sector jobs I sought were few and far between, leaving me anxiously in limbo — would they recognize my success, or see my stationary prospects and perceive them as a failure?
Next, I did what many in my position felt was the responsible path — go to graduate school. This involved two more years of intense sacrifice as I, eventually, did land a full-time job (minus the living wage) but still felt pressured to fill my resume — extra credit projects, networking, professional memberships, and another part-time job. Upon graduating with the perfect GPA and a grotesquely impressive resume to boot, neither satisfaction nor personal success greeted me with that diploma. Instead, burnout, frustration, loneliness, and a deep sense of betrayal that the capitalist American dream was not everything that was advertised to this first-generation college graduate.
My duas, thoughts, and frantic journal entries longed for the Divine to step in and sort this out. Hadn’t I done everything right? Nearly ten years of a life devoted to these capitalist daydreams of success and fulfillment left me spiritually and emotionally empty. All that time spent networking but not connecting, now left me wondering who this was all really for?
Perhaps the answer to my istikharah was shining in the void I felt at my intense loss of self-worth and community connection. Could it be that we were never meant to define ourselves in terms of production, outcome, supply-and-demand, profits, and earnings?
During this time, I married, left everything to move abroad, and, within two years, returned with my husband to the U.S. unemployed and with the greatest gift from Allah — a daughter.
Once again, I felt that pressure to return to that unsatisfying degree to prove my worth and my value. Although it had been two years since I held a job, I still had that glowing resume teeming with accolades and endless experience. I applied for countless positions in my field and received two promising interview prospects. I shined in my phone interviews and was invited as a top candidate each time for group in-person interviews.
Each time, I called upon Allah to guide me, grant me what was best, and remove anything harmful to me from my path. I left each interview feeling I fulfilled my purpose — to give the correct responses, share the right experiences, to shine the right light on who I was. I had sold myself to these potential employers and colleagues in the best way I could.
However, I found I didn’t really want these opportunities to work out. These roles and positions I worked years for did not fulfill or excite me. Perhaps this was why the doors remained closed to me everywhere I turned. I gave a great interview, and was a top candidate, they’d love to consider me again in the future, but this time they went with someone else.
People close to me began asking the inevitable question: why was I wasting my time at home when I had these degrees? My societal value is inextricably linked to this sheet of paper proclaiming competence in matters that seemed utterly uninspiring to me.
That urge to tie self-worth to job prospects and income reared its ugly head again. I took a part-time job doing child care and another part-time nanny position, so I could not only be the ideal stay-at-home mom (which a new section of society was pressuring me to be) but also the productive, income-generating girl boss that appeared to perfectly juggle it all — that I felt was required of me given my upbringing and degree.
Ya Allah, what am I intended to be? Society is pulling me apart so I cannot find the real me-please shine light on what You deem best for me.
Years spent trying to fulfill others’ dreams, aspirations, and ideals left me anxiety-ridden, utterly overwhelmed, and entirely unsure of myself and my abilities.
Anger crept inside of me — why would Allah deny me this success? However, success was not being denied me, but a door to fulfillment, joy, and self-discovery was being opened. If only my perspective could shift and my eyes could be open to the infinite wisdom my Creator was guiding me towards.
“Indeed, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves” (Quran, 13:11).
Our self-worth, purpose, and peace of mind are not obtained through worldly achievements and accolades. It’s not the job, the car, the six-figure paycheck, the networking connections, and material possessions which value and devalue us in the sight of our Lord. It’s the love we share with others, the community we build and support around us, and the seemingly mundane blessings which surround us each day that marks our true success in this temporary life.
The material and capitalistic achievements represent impermanent and unreliable companions, whereas the gifts of love, natural beauty, and spiritual connection are constant and eternal comforts to carry us through all weather.
Allah had not denied me success or ignored my duas; I just wasn’t ready to receive and understand the gifts being presented to me.