By Dr. Hoda Khalil
I am writing this closer to the end of Ramadan not specifically to celebrate the month, but rather to reflect on how one’s culture, upbringing, and overall lifestyle may affect their professional life. In Ramadan, Muslims stop eating and drinking from sunrise to sunset. Although recommended throughout the year, more charity work, donations, good deeds, prayers, and general spiritual activities are encouraged during this month in particular. If these activities, especially fasting, is done with mindfulness and true intentions, I can easily feel and see the change in my behavior and the polishing of a few skills by the end of Ramadan. I am reflecting on four of these skills: self-control, time management, empathy, and calmness. I include empathy and calmness as skills because although they may be classified as inherent traits, they can be learned from a young age and gained by practice and knowledge.
It is not a surprise that we practice discipline and self-control by preventing ourselves from any form of eating or drinking during the day throughout Ramadan. However, believe it or not, this is not the hardest part of the self-control aspect of Ramadan for many. Muslims are specifically cautious of backbiting, saying a bad word, getting angry at people, or being mean to anyone. This is a condition for having a fast accepted. Fasting is also not an excuse to lay down and not do one’s job to the best of one’s ability. On the contrary, we are still required to be honest and disciplined in all aspects of our lives while fasting. In other words, it is time to train oneself again to behave and toughen up even under the hardest condition. That said, sick people, pregnant women, travelers, or anyone who has a legitimate excuse is encouraged not to fast and make up for the missing days after Ramadan If unable, the person is required to feed the poor (something that is encouraged anyway) instead of fasting. Imagine how this could reflect on one’s professional life if these practices are thoroughly followed.
Ideally, this kind of discipline and self-control should be there all year long, but in reality, one needs to, and I’ll borrow here Stephen Covey’s expression, sharpen the saw. This is how I feel at the end of Ramadan; that my sense of discipline, responsibility, and self-control are sharpened and shining again. It is a boost and a reminder for the rest of the year.
Another skill that is interrelated with self-control is time management. In my family, each Ramadan we usually come up with a calendar of 30 new creative good deeds to do each day. This way the younger kids learn to do good and contribute positively to society while having fun and not feeling burdened. Good deeds range from calling a relative to arranging a park cleanup with friends or handcrafting greeting cards for elders in senior homes. Moreover, we spend more time in spiritual activities and we wake up before sunrise to have a meal (suhoor) that would help us endure the fast throughout the day. Simultaneously, we keep up with all the usual activities that we do daily. This means that the introduced activities have to be inserted into an already full schedule. This resembles a one-month Bootcamp of time management and self-discipline. If done properly, this could definitely improve one’s work ethics and professional attitude.
Many of the good deeds, we try to pursue stimulate empathy towards others. One learns to care more for elders, disadvantaged people, or anyone who needs support. Fasting simply teaches how to put oneself in another person’s shoes to feel the suffering of others. Imagining the experience can never be as impactful as personally going throughout it even for a short period. Although fasting in Ramadan is not the complete experience that some individuals go through, combining it with charity work and behavioral comportments makes it more effective. Through communicating with people in need in charity activities and social interactions while fasting, one gets a glimpse of the sufferings of others. The empathy that this system builds stays there after Ramadan for a while. Yet, the need for another round of polishing on empathy rises again close to next year’s Ramadan.
With all these commitments, the last skill I mention, calmness, can get a bit tricky. When the body undergoes harsh conditions (e.g., change in food habits and lack of sleep), it is hard to maintain inner peace and calmness. Nevertheless, when the main theme of the whole process is spiritual wellbeing, forgiveness, and restoring faith it becomes a little easier. The Forgiver is one of the most mentioned names of Allah in the Muslims’ holy book, the Quran, and hence one learns to be forgiving with others and with oneself. Without the trust that Allah will forgive and that no one is obliged to do more than what they could practically achieve, a Muslim’s faith is incomplete. With this, the system is less harsh and more forgiving. Personally, I come out of the month with a lot more positive energy, calmness, and peace than when I start. When the month is over, I pray to live to go through the same experience next year.
That said, I do not look forward to Ramadan to just polish my soft skills. Ramadan and fasting for me is neither another self-improvement course nor do I fast to brush on my soft skills. I fast because it is part of a complete belief system that I adopt and believe in. However, another part of this belief system is thinking, reflecting, and contemplating the wisdom behind things. That is what I am trying to do out loud and share with you!