January 4, 2013

A Different Approach to Personal Development

Himmet Özcan

20th Century was the heyday of exalting the ego with an overemphasis on individual potential and self-development. The roots of this go back to 19th Century positivism and continue in our modern times as well. Acknowledging that this had positive spillovers in strengthening the rights granted to masses in political and economic terms by placing the humankind at the center of the picture, it nevertheless also led to inflated egos. From a creation point of view that means forgetting the reason for man’s existence on the earth by indulging in materialism.

In an increasingly secularized world, the spiritual void in ever popular materialistic Weltanschauung has been filled with pampering one’s self within the framework of so called “personal development”. In modern societies where happiness is strongly associated with success, what is actually a short-term fix for the needs of soul has been dramatically popular with the masses by way of books and visual media. It is not an overstatement to say that sustainability of our modern civilization depends on questioning egoism. Otherwise wars and conflicts, like that of the Second World War, will bring down the fruits of hundreds of years of progress.

On the face of it, personal development encourages setting goals for life, keeping yourself motivated and competing, managing time well and being success oriented. These are all fine targets, whose cores are also in the Islam.

Fethullah Gulen
Fethullah Gulen
Except that the belief that the path to happiness goes through success in material life is very misleading. Satisfying the needs of the soul is something totally different. For example the highest rate of suicide is among the rich nations like Japan and Scandinavian countries. Fethullah Gulen points out to devastation due to exaggeration of personal development goals on the individual by criticizing egoism. He goes to argue that a person puts himself at the center of everything by basing all his actions on his self only. According to Gulen overconfident and ego centered individuals, whose success feeds his ego further, will not be able to get up easily once fallen since they lose all the hope easily. Scholars like Gulen sees the goal of creation as knowing ones self by knowing God first. The point here is that success is not everything and God determines end result of everything although one’s hard work and will power is also important.

According to teachings of Gulen, to achieve something a person has to satisfy all the required conditions of that goal while leaving the end result to God. The thought that “Do your duty and the rest will be Allah’s decision” is actually a very empowering way of approaching life in Gulen’s thinking. It is empowering because this way failures will not be cause of hopelessness as long as a person does what is required of him. A great example for this from the history is Jalal-ad Din Khwarazmshah, the last ruler of Khwarezmian Empire. In his fight against the Moguls, he was once told that he would win the battle with all his preparation and abilities as a great commander to which he said, “Giving success is God’s job and mine is to prepare”. There is no defeating this type of thinking because these kinds of people will never give up. Success is seen as not coming from within but granted by God and man’s duty is to strive. People who live on this principle do not see the worldly results of success such as money, fame and power as their own but given from God. As a result they will not be unhappy when those things are taken away.

As mentioned above, the source of all the shortcomings of man is the pampering of ego. According to Gulen’s school of thought, ego is given by God to man as a measure to understand the God Almighty better. In that sense Said Nursi sees ego like the conjectural lines of geometry that are drawn to prove a point after which they are deleted. The purpose of the ego is to draw conclusions from ones self that lead to God. For example having will power as human beings is also an indication of God’s infinite will power, so and so forth.

In conclusion, setting the target of personal development as achieving material success while inflating one’s ego to motivate towards this kind goal will not bring real happiness while failing to satisfy the spiritual needs of the humankind. This has been the dead end of 20th and 21st Centuries’ approach to the human existence.

Published on fethullah-gulen.org, 25 December 2012, Tuesday
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