It is impossible to achieve any reform without first developing our willpower.
If we want our youth to be able to keep their emotions in check, refrain from overindulgence, exhibit courage in times of hardship, and uphold justice in the face of oppression, then we must realize that all of our advice will be of no avail to them if they lack willpower. People need to develop their willpower before they can put their convictions into practice. It takes willpower for a person to do something arduous, even if he thinks it is for his own benefit. Likewise, it takes willpower for him to shun temptation, even when he knows that indulging such temptations will be harmful to him. You can advise him all day long if you like, but it will do no good if the one receiving your advice is weak-willed.
How, then, can we cultivate our willpower and strengthen it?
Consider a child who wants to learn to ride a bicycle. When he starts off, he cannot even keep the bike standing straight, let alone go forward on it. When he does get going, he weaves wildly to the left and to the right and ultimately ends up falling flat on the ground. With a lot of hard work and perseverance, he gets it in the end. He learns to ride smoothly and easily. He even learns to do a few stunts.
What happened? The bicycle definitely did not change – except for possibly a few dents. It is just as willing to obey its rider as it ever was. All the changes have taken place with the rider.
The same can be said for all of our goals in life. We have to get control of ourselves before we can tackle our environment. The first step in this is to develop our willpower.
A weak-willed person is as shaky when it comes to life’s problems as that child was when he first climbed onto his bicycle. If this person begins trying to strengthen his will, he will slowly but surely learn to move through life more steadily. And just like when our nascent cyclist first took to the road, the weak-willed person is going to need a lot of hard work and perseverance to get through his problems. However, as time goes on, facing his problems will become easier and smoother. This is why the Prophet (peace be upon him) said: “The time for patience is when misfortune first strikes.”
Strengthening our willpower is arduous at first, but once it is strengthened, life will become much easier.
A weak-willed person always resolves on something and then gives up. He goes through life like a weaver who constantly unravels his own yarn. However, once a person actually goes forth with determination until he reaches his goal, he will find that he can do so again with much less difficulty.
A pious man finds the performance of good deed as easy as a sinner finds indulging in vice. The difference between the two is that the pious man directed his willpower toward virtue while the other directed his towards sin.
Many young people get into bad habits without thinking. They just go with the flow, thoughtlessly aping their peers without thinking about the consequences. Many of our youth succumb simply because they are weak-willed.
Imagine a boy sitting with a couple of his friends. They start smoking and urge him to join them. He declines and they start to put pressure on him. They justify what they are doing by saying that it eases stress or by offering some other baseless claim. So he takes his first puff, but he finds it irritating and has no desire to smoke again. However, a few days later he finds himself in the same situation again. This time the irritation is not so bad. Now he joins in with them wholeheartedly. Another bad habit is born.
If this boy had been strong-willed to begin with, he would never have smoked. It takes willpower to resist peer pressure, whether the temptation at hand is smoking, drinking, or chasing girls.
Our youth have to learn to follow their reason instead of their desires. They need to have a strong sense of responsibility.
When a person stays in bed even though it is time for the Fajr prayer or time to go to work, he gives in to sloth and laziness and this weakens his willpower. However, if he has a strong sense of responsibility and obeys his intellect, he will be able to get himself out of bed and do what he has to do. The same thing goes for every other aspect of life. Whether a person gives in to sleep or to peer pressure, he dulls both his mind and his willpower and he becomes less responsible as a person.
The great people we read about in history were strong willed people who obeyed their minds and not their fancies. They built up their willpower by working hard and surmounting the obstacles that faced them. Great people take pleasure in resisting temptation and in the sense of power and self-control that doing so gives them. Our history testifies to a great number of such people.
Take Abû Bakr at the time when many of the Arabs turned their backs on Islam and refused to pay Zakâh. Many people advised Abû Bakr to be lenient on them. However, he rejected their advice and demanded that the Arabs accept Islam wholeheartedly without subtracting anything from it. We can see in this his determination, his strength of will, and his ability to stand up in the face of the most trying of circumstances.
Consider Ibn Taymiyah’s stance when the ruler wanted him to abandon the opinions that he had arrived at through careful study. When Ibn Taymiyah refused to do so, he was imprisoned and tortured but he still refused to recant. Instead, he spent his time in prison writing books wherein he explained and defended his principles and teachings. When they took away his pens and paper, he took up pieces of coal and began writing on the walls. His determination in the face of imprisonment and torture is a great example of the triumph of the human will over adversity and his writings are an enduring legacy of this triumph.
Willpower is one of the greatest secrets of success. By cultivating our willpower and strengthening it, we can stand up to the trials that face us. A strong-willed person is someone who can improve himself and someone who can benefit from the advice and guidance of others. By contrast, a weak-willed person cannot improve himself and will not be availed of the efforts of others to better him. Before anything else, he needs to strengthen himself. He needs to treat his weakness as if it were a disease and be patient during the healing process.