I learned one of the most valuable life lessons several years ago when I joined a Muslim American delegation heading for the holy land to fulfill the fifth pillar of Islam, a ritual completed by millions this week. As I walked in the footsteps of Abraham and his family, completing the rites of Hajj, I came to understand a truth that those working to improve personal or global relations must remember: Failure is the building material of success, not its opposite.
Many describe Hajj, a four-day ritual requiring great endurance and discipline, as life changing and for me it was just that. The faithful leave behind the comforts of home and take a vow of peace, committing to avoid conflict and harm to any living thing, from argument to hurting a fly.
Pilgrims shed remnants of their old life, dressing in simple cloth stripped of symbols of status. In this humbled state, rich and poor, men and women, black and white and every other color, shuffle in crowds of millions from one rite to the next commemorating great acts of commitment to God.
Eid al Adha, the biggest holiday of the Muslim year celebrating Abraham's strength of faith and willingness to sacrifice, marks the completion of this memorial to monotheism. Seekers of God come carrying a lifetime of sins and leave hajj reborn--a second chance at a righteous life.
This profound concept of second chances was what I came to understand as I ran from Safa to Marwa, the two hills in the Meccan desert. This essential requirement of Hajj retraces the footsteps of Hajjar as she sprinted seven times between the mounds, a distance about the length of a football field. Each time she would stand on one hill and believe she saw water at the opposite side, and then would run to it only to find a mirage.
I realized as I performed the "Sa'ay" or 'striving with determination' as this portion of the Hajj is called, that her experience was far more difficult than enduring six failed attempts.
These were six false hopes. These are the times we believe we've solved the problem, when we breathe sighs of relief, and tell ourselves it's finally time for some well-deserved rest--only to be let down. After discovering each false hope, she could have given up, cried, panicked, or at least slowed down in her next attempt. Yet, she did not. The seventh lap was as determined and as hopeful as the first.
It was only after this seventh attempt that water erupted from the dessert sand, the spring of Zam zam, the lifeblood of Mecca. God had chosen this mother to establish the holiest place on earth. Her perseverance was a demonstration of her merit. Her false starts were the necessary ingredients of, not the obstacles to, her eventual triumph.
This year at Eid Al Adha, a celebration of second chances and forgiveness, we must remember this lesson as we continue to witness new beginnings that seem promising but fade with time. Whether we are working on building better relations between struggling couples or global communities, our seventh attempt at finding the solution must be as earnest as our first.
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