The languages that people speak translate human temporal experience into three essential tenses: past, present, and future.
This is how we perceive time. The question that we need to ask is how we should shape our lives with respect to these three aspects of time. How should we relate to the past, present, and future if we wish to be happy and successful? How should we frame our discourse when we address others about these matters?
First of all, we must not dwell too much on the past. We must especially learn to forget two things: the wrongs that other people have done to us, as the good things we have done for others. In this way, we will save ourselves from the painfully heavy burden of harboring grudges and resentment.
The Qur'an tells us how the right attitude to have regarding the good deeds that we do for others: “We feed you only for Allah's sake. We want neither reward nor thanks from you. ” [Sûrah al-Insân: 9]
As for the present, this is where we need to apply ourselves. We need to have a purpose and work hard for it. We need something that employs our minds, our hearts, and our time. Otherwise, our lives can become dreary, boring, and even meaningless.
Your full heart should be in your activity, however small it might be, whether its scale is on a personal, family, or social level. It is all the better if the project is one that is intellectually or culturally enriching, and one which can bring betterment to yourself and others. There are so many positive ways we can employ ourselves. There are as many possibilities as there are people in the earth, and indeed much more than that.
As for the future, we must look upon it with hope and optimism. We need to plan for it wisely. Our dreams should be bold but at the same time realistic and practical. Being practical means to think things out carefully and objectively before rushing off into action. At the same time, having bold dreams is what fires our imaginations and makes us go that extra length to achieve what we might never have believed possible.
If you want to find out what kind of attitude you presently have towards time, consider carefully the types of things that you say. Our speech reveals our attitudes. If we find ourselves always talking about our past sorrows, this means that we are keeping those sorrows alive in the present, and squandering our present energies in things gone by.
Likewise, if we find ourselves always talking about future uncertainties and all the negative possibilities our imaginations can conjure up, then we are succumbing to pessimism. This will demoralize us and frustrate our will to work in the present.
Negativity is damaging to our lives and leads to failure. We do an injustice to ourselves when we perpetuate a negative outlook. Our outlook makes us what we are, and negative expectations have a habit of becoming self-fulfilling.
The same can be said sometimes for the effect we can have on others. For instance, parents who always berate their children, telling them that they are lazy, worthless, and will never amount to anything. What kind of self-image are they cultivating in their children? What kind of affect are they having on their children's future?
This goes equally for those of us who engage in Islamic work. Some people have a tendency to preach about damnation and punishment and added trials in life. Whether they intend to or not, by focusing only on the negative, they are actually inviting to the very evils they are trying to warn against.
This is why Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: “Whoever declares to the people are ruined has brought the people to ruin.” [Sahîh Muslim]
The outlook and expectations we have are very important to the outcomes we attain. Therefore, it is best to be positive. Prophet Muhammad relates that Allah says: “I am as My servant thinks Me to be. So think of Me what you will.” [Musnad Ahmad and Sahîh Ibn Hibbân]
We should therefore call people to a positive discourse. We should preach a message of optimism, one that is full of love, hope, and vitality. We should realize that the tone of our discourse has a marked affect on our minds as well as others.
Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) was among the most positive of people. The Qur'an confirms this when it says: “And verily the Hereafter will be better for thee than the present.” [Sûrah al-Duhâ: 4] This means that his life in the world was already a good and happy one.
This is why life was something positive for him and why he would enjoy the wholesome things of world while focusing his hopes on the Hereafter. He did not shun the good of this world. At the same time, he was the most devoted of people to worship. He would stand in prayer so long that his feet would sometimes swell up. He would weather the greatest of hardships with prayer, patience, fortitude, and good works. This is the example set by the best of human beings, the strongest of us in faith.
He was the most optimistic of people. Since he thought positively, he spoke positively. When hearing someone's name, he would say something hopeful with respect to its meaning.
He spoke positively about the world around him. For instance, he said: “Mount Uhud is a mountain that loves us and that we love.”
He likewise expressed a positive attitude about life, like when he said: “If a believer's life is prolonged, it only brings about further good.”
During the darkest days of persecution, the Muslims came to Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and appealed to him to pray to Allah to grant them victory. He bade them to be patient by telling them about how the people of the past had suffered greater persecution for the sake of their faith. But then he also said: “I swear by Allah, the day will come when a rider will journey from San`a to Hadramawt fearing no one but Allah – or the wolves for the sake of his sheep. But you are impatient.” [Sahîh al-Bukhârî]
There is another lesson we can learn from the Prophet's response, besides the mere importance of optimism. The Prophet (peace be upon him) spoke to them about the future security and safety they would enjoy. But it is clear that this security does not come at the expense of freedom and liberty. The Prophet (peace be upon him) spoke specifically about the threat of the wolf to the traveler's flock. As for the man's life, wealth, dignity, and rights, these were clearly safe.
These were the things that the Muslims around Prophet Muhammad were concerned about while they were suffering persecution for their faith. These were the things that made them impatient for relief. The message of Islam is one of freedom, dignity, and human rights. This is why Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) did not respond to them by speaking about the end of unbelief and polytheism. Instead, he spoke to them about the end of fear and oppression.
We should make our present outlook one of hope and future promise. Hopelessness is akin to death, since a person without hope ceases to try. Hope is an aspect of faith, and despair is contrary to it.
Allah says: “Who despairs of his Lord's mercy except those who are astray?” [Sûrah al-Hijr: 56]
Allah also says: “never despair of Allah's mercy. Surely none despairs of Allah's mercy except the unbelieving people.” [Sûrah Yûsuf: 87]
We must call to hope in this world and to Allah's reward in the next. What can be better than hope in times of difficulty, and dreams that inspire us to work towards a better future?