Letter 02: The Book of Threads.

Dear You,

I wonder…do you remember The Book?  It was going to make us famous and make every other person on the planet envy us, but mostly it was going to celebrate the amazing thing we had produced through our friendship.

Long before we met, we talked.  And oh, what conversations we had!  Words and sentences and turns of phrases and one topic rolling into another with never-ending freshness.  We never ran out of something original to say or share.  And while I know full well that there must be thousands, if not millions, of people who think those exact same thoughts about their conversations, I do believe there was something about ours that made them stand out from the common majority.

Having witnessed or listened in on the conversations of others since then, I can honestly say we didn’t just have witty or interesting exchanges, we had intelligent ones.  It wasn’t simply about banter, but about creative and educational banter.  I think that’s why I enjoyed it so much.  I could finally explore all my nutty ideas, try out my random analogies, throw in the oddest trivia I had gathered over the years…and you would always be able to keep up, and pleasantly surpass me.

I loved the fact that sometimes we went out of our way to dig out the most obscure factoid and casually throw it into a conversation just to gauge the other person’s reaction – and how neither of us ever admitted to not having known or heard of that particular piece of information before.  Conversation with you required research, mental flexibility and always being on my toes – and I was totally ‘jazzed’ by that.  We didn’t just talk about funny stuff either, we talked about life and philosophies and morbid issues as well.  It’s just that we could find a way to share the most dull experience in words that made an adventure out of it.  It made every exchange a meaningful experience.

With time, as we understood each other better, I know I began to be able to almost predict what you would say next.  I could set up a climactic statement I wanted to make way in advance and play out what I would say and then what you would say and then what I would say….  It was like a complex game with so many unpredictable factors and yet the joy was in how everything always worked out so we were both winners.  Perhaps it was less a game and more a work of art, one that we created together, each contributing an essential aspect of what would be a unique masterpiece. 

But I think what I really treasured the most was how whenever a conversation would get to that point when another predictable move would have made it boring, one of us managed to throw in an unexpected sentence that suddenly made the other sit up and say “Where did that come from?”   I think we lived for those moments and each time we spoke, that need to be the one who would come up with the surprise would always be at the back of our minds. It was never planned for, it always happened naturally and we shared the ‘wins’ because the person being surprised was just as delighted as the one who sprung it.

As we wrote back and forth, each string of exchanged messages became a ‘thread’ in our own two-member discussion group and when one thread wasn’t enough to contain all our thoughts, we started new ones, delighting in what we called ‘multi-threading’ – keeping a number of simultaneous and yet completely different conversations going without losing track of what belonged where.  In fact, we tried to make them as different as possible, almost like worlds of their own so that if ever one of us slipped up the thought that didn’t belong would stick out like a purple Martian in a green field.  But neither of us ever slipped up, did we?

And finally when we sat back one day and looked at how much we had said in how short a time, we were flabbergasted by what we had produced, barely believing either of us had been capable of sharing so much.  We had written two full-length novels worth in the space of a few months. Thus the idea of The Book was born.

It was to be our gift to the world, a co-authored work that would let people get a glimpse of something they could never have but should be able to enjoy nevertheless.  And since it was to be a compilation of our threads of conversation, what better to call it than what it was?  The Book of Threads.

Every so often when I now realise that the book will never exist, that there will never be another thread or another conversation of that caliber, it makes me sad and echo-y inside.  I dunno, but perhaps these Letters are in a way my attempt to make a smaller version of the book of my own?  With just one side of the conversation – because it’s all I have? 

But there’s a huge difference between a monologue and a dialogue.  And these days when I sit to write anything remotely conversational, I’m always left with a feeling at the end that there’s something lacking my writing, that something is missing.  It seems to lack a certain je ne sais quoi and I’m inclined to think that that elusive element is your input…

——

Why all this talk of words and threads?  Because it seemed to me always that the Threads were what bound us togetherl; they wove a net around us. With each new one that allowed us to learn more about each other – and more importantly about each other’s minds – they created a firmer, more defined relationship.  I thought it was a pretty strong net too.  I’m not sure if you simply shook off the threads when you left and they snapped like fine spider-web silk, but I’d like to imagine you had to hack and slash your way to break free and that each cut was a painful one.  But that’s me being melodramatic.  And why would anyone hurt themselves that much anyway?

That said, I’ve realised that no matter how much we invest in the relationships we weave into our lives, there is one relationship that surpasses all others and that we neglect the most.  And I have read these words below with fresh eyes in the recent months:

“First and foremost, my son, fear Allah. Be His obedient servant. Keep His thought always fresh in your mind. Be attached to and carefully guard the Rope that connects you with Him. Can any other connection be stronger, more durable and more lasting than this to command greater respect and consideration or to replace it?”

Can you believe that?  Here is a man who is soon to die.  A man who has lived a hard life, who has been in poverty and rejected by society as well as gained authority over a kingdom.  In his sixty or so years of experiences that few others have had in one lifetime, he picks this statement as his core message and most important advice: Fear God.  It just places the entire universe and all the confusion of life in perfect perspective if you can understand that one thing…that God Owns Everything and you only have Him to fear. 

But even that is not the really amazing thing.  There’s a hidden beauty in that concept.  Read the rest of the sentence again.

This God you are to fear is a God you are also connected to by Love. Always.  In Islam, the analogy of the Rope is very common and there is always an emphasis on not letting go of it, on holding on it, on clinging to it.  And that advice is always followed by a promise that this is the strongest Rope in existence that won’t break or let you ever fall.

In my mind, I see this Rope as having been being woven with threads of Love and Power, of Majesty and Mercy, of Might and Beauty, of Truth and Justice, each strand infinite in its completeness, in its strength, in its perfection.  Since something infinite can by its very nature never break or else it would become finite, the Rope is also infinitely Reliable.

——

If we were to look at life as a mountain we are supposed to scale, it would be this seemingly huge unsurmountable chunk of rock that has an unpredictable surface.  We can’t see its top and we don’t know what lie ahead, we only know what we have already conquered and what we need to conquer now.  But we do know there’s a view at the top that’s to die for (excuse the pun).

So everyday we climb a little; some days the going is easy and we make a lot of progress, other days finding foot- and hand-holds is a challenge and we need to inch our way up and yet other days we just give up for a bit and stop where we are, refusing to move until we realise that there’s only two ways from where we’re at: either keep going up or let go and fall to destruction.

We try to get friends to climb with to make the going easy, to help each other out and as we do this, we begin to create networks of our own making.  We offer to hold out safety lines for others and they do the same for us.  And just as with mountain climbing the more we trust someone, the more we’re willing to let go of some of our fears and take risks, relying on that person to be there should we slip.  But sometimes, those same people let us down. They get distracted, let go of the rope and go a different route or they cut off the rope on purpose.

Those are the most traumatic experiences we ever have.  Because for those first ‘moments’ of free fall, we believe that we are going to hit the bottom and be crushed into dust and we can’t believe how this person we trusted so much can watch as we do that.  It is that moment that God wants us to remember that His Rope runs by our side all the way to the bottom and all we need to is put out our hands and grab it to stop falling.

In fact, I believe that God doesn’t always wait for you to grab it, sometimes He just yanks you up anyway because He Knows you don’t really have the presence of heart or mind to do so.  Even if you do hit rock bottom and there’s nothing but darkness, if you just reach your hand out a little, I can guarantee you will feel it brush against your fingers and all you have to do is hold on it and tug, and He’ll pull you up.

The only condition is that you should have ‘guarded’ that Rope to the best of your ability while you were still safe. 

When we go climbing in real life, don’t we check the safety lines inch by inch for frays and cuts?  Where do we do that?  Halfway up the climb?  No.  We do it before we even begin climbing and we do it before every climb.  So why should the biggest challenge we will ever face be different?  The most important event – living our lives – also involves the biggest risk factors and the biggest losses if we fail.  Why don’t we then regularly check to see that we are connected to the only Rope that can save us when all others will fail?  Why don’t we look after it and keep it a strong hold on to it with constantly renewed faith and trust, with belief and obedience, with love and fear?

When we place our trust on another human being, we often forget to take into account their flaws, we forget that there is always a possibility they will let us down.  When we don’t place our trust in God, we forget to take into account that He is Perfect, that He will Never let us down.  That is the problem with our weaving skills and that is why the safety nets of our faith are often made up of uneven weaves, gaping holes and disconnected, sloppy patterns.

So yes, fear God.  But not with a negative fear of a vengeful, dictatorial Power.  Rather, do it with the awestruck fear of someone who has just realised how amazing the One they fell in love with is. 

It’s a feeling just like you might feel standing at the bottom of that mountain, when you look up and you can’t see the peak.  You know the view from the top will be the most beautiful, life-changing vision and you understand that without the mountain being that high, the view would never exist nor would you be able to reach it and yet you have a fear of the sheer incline, of that fact that there is no way to conquer the difference in the height of the mountain and your own tiny stature.  But this fear only makes you respect the mountain more, it doesn’t change the beauty of the view or your determination to reach it.

Life is the climb and the view is our reunion with God.  You have to fear His Justice because if He uses it in judging you, there is no way you can match up to its Perfection.  You have to be afraid that your lack of obedience or your sins will make you as undeserving of His Mercy as a person who is careless and reckless about safety procedures before a climb. 

And yet, you have to remember that despite all this, there is always The Rope. 

When you let go of our rope, I did think I was going to fall all the way to the bottom.  I was a little surprised when I didn’t and after I realised why, this letter began to take shape and I began to appreciate the threads that held us together for so long in a way I never had before.  So as the man I quoted above, this is my sincere desire for you: that you realise that it’s never too late to start tending your Rope and that there is nothing to be ashamed of in clinging like your life depends on it, because it does.

And if you ever fall – because we all do more than once in life – know that His Rope will always be out there for you to grab and alongside with it, if you want, will be the thinner, lighter but sincerely available one that I’ll always be holding out for you as well.

Always,
Me

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Letter 01: “You Can’t Switch Off Caring” – CBL.

Dear You,

I almost gave up this week and ended this before it had even started.  It’s been a week of missed deadlines, lethargy and a deep anger that the one person who promised to always be there for support has chosen not to be.  I woke up a couple of days ago asking myself why am I trying so hard to share something that might – and probably will – go unnoticed and unappreciated?

And then I remembered one of the best pieces of advice ever given to me: Pro-act, don’t re-act. 

My actions don’t have to be in response to yours, they need to be based only on what is true.  I have the choice to live by my principles, my promises, my beliefs, because at the end of it all, I will be the one who will have to account for my thoughts and actions to God and I need to make sure I have done the best  I possibly can by everyone. That includes you.

I may not know how you feel, but I do know that I care – nothing changes that status quo.  I can’t use you as an excuse for my behaviour any more than I can make excuses for your behaviour (no matter how much I may want to).

—-

Whenever you feel unmotivated, it’s a good idea to retrace your steps to the start and remember the ‘why’ of what you’re doing.  So, I went back to the beginning…

…The day I first met you; the day that almost didn’t happen. It was supposed to be an ordinary meeting, a chance for us to put faces and voices to the words we had exchanged.  I knew you to be a good conversationalist and wasn’t expecting more.  I thought you’d be like so many others I had met till then – people for whom life is about how cool you are, how witty or funny you can be, how many friends you have, what kind of a job you hold during the week and how well you can party on the weekend.

I had never been so wrong in my life.  In an era when obscenities are used in place of punctuation, you were actually careful about your language.  In a time when manners are old-fashioned and etiquette is a word people don’t even know how to spell, you opened doors and offered to carry things, you gave up seats, waited with infinite patience and spoke with a gentleness that made me feel the sound of my own voice was harsh.

The little things that no one seems to remember anymore were such a natural part of you that at first, I refused to believe you existed. I waited for the illusion to disappear, for the bubble to burst, for the persona to drop. And I kept waiting. You didn’t change in all the time I knew you – which is why I find it so sad that I no longer can tell if that person is still in there somewhere or not. 

When I first heard you use a foul word, I felt sick in the pit of my stomach and when I saw you speak casually – even flagrantly – about matters you would have considered indelicate to even refer to before, I began to wonder what you were doing to yourself and why.  Sure, I have the option to think that this is who you have always been and what I saw was an excellently executed act.  I could put everything down to bad judgement on my part, but that would be the easy way out. And to be impartial, I’d have to also stop believing in the goodness of all the people I see and meet.  I’d have to suspect a hidden dark side in everyone.

Instead, I choose to believe that just like in every person in this world, you were born with the potential to be amazing.  And that I saw exactly how powerful that potential is in you. I choose also to believe that, sadly, you have decided to ignore that aspect of your self and instead are content to be around those don’t consider it important or even notice it’s there. But I did notice and I think it’s hugely important, that’s why I’m doing this.

I was listening to a documentary about a new collection of Nelson Mandela’s personal writings.  The compiler mentioned how the book was about the ‘real human being’ behind the iconic figure.  He said that Madiba felt the burden of being a role model weighed heavily on him and sometimes wished he could just be himself, flaws and all.  The book is supposed to reveal that self and thus make him a more ‘accessible’ figure to people.

I respect all that Mandela has achieved in his lifetime. but I had issues with what this compiler said.  It seemed to me that he was parroting ideas we have been taught to accept – that iconic figures can be admired but not emulated, that human beings are flawed by nature and that role models are only accessible if they have negative traits.  However, if a man has to pretend to be something he isn’t for his following, is that not in a sense a lie to the public?  Does it not point to a subtle hypocrisy?

That is why I find the man I chose as my foundation for these writings so magnificent.  He is not just some one you can look up to, but someone you can try to be like.  His advice is practical in that he followed it himself and you can too – and see the difference in your life when you do.  He had only one ‘face’ and it was the same in private and in public.  He never pretended to be something he wasn’t and what he was is nothing short of astounding.  He shouldered responsibilities, made hard choices, suffered for making them and still stuck by the Truth.  He never compromised on his principles and never let anything – not even his personal needs – stand in the way of doing what was Right.  He wanted neither fame nor authority; his only aim was to be the best human being possible.

I thought that was the kind of person you were capable of being, that you could be different and a cut above the rest if you chose. And maybe his writing will help you reach there.

He begins by saying that he is leaving behind advice for his “…son, who is young, who has a desire to lead the world to sober ways of thinking and better ways of life, a desire that is difficult to be achieved; a son who is mortal and bound by nature to follow the steps of all mortals…

I think that we have lost this need to help each other and the world become better.  Probably because the intention is feel-good, but the actual practice is fraught with rude responses, ridicule and rejection.  We all want to leave behind a legacy, but how many are willing to actually build it first?  I haven’t the ability to build a legacy, so instead I want to try to be a conduit between what I have access to and what you don’t. 

There used to be something about you that made people pause and think “I’d like to be like that”,  which is why amongst the billions who are sleep-walking through life, I hope you will be one of the few who choose to wake up.  Perhaps, some day you may become a means for someone else to learn these lessons.

—-

In the letter, this father says he writes from “neither selfishness nor self-esteem, nor any mental luxury of giving away pieces of advice, but instead the sincere desire to have you see the world as I found it, to look at the realities of life as I looked at them, and do the right thing at the right time and right place as it should be done…You will not find here anything but truth and realities.

How many times have I written words because I wanted to (selfishness) or because I thought I had managed to get down the perfect phrasing (self-esteem) or simply because I enjoy putting ideas and opinions out there (mental luxury)?  Too many.  By using the words of another, infinitely wiser individual, I hope to give you something that has less chance of being skewed by my own bias.

We all have problems with doing what’s right.  In almost every choice there is a dilemma of some degree. That is why we need principles to guide our choices.  One of your principles used to be to think of the feelings of others before you acted.  You were the kind of person who would politely put up with the questions of an irritating busybody because you didn’t want to hurt her. The day you told me I was your Best Friend, I felt not only honoured, but safe.  I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to match up to your standard of loyalty and respect and yet secure that even if I didn’t, you’d never hold that against me.

I believe in appreciating, but not in flattery, so I will now go on and say that your greatest mistake has been in abandoning those principles in the choices that mattered most.  I don’t say this for the effect those choices had on me, but for the effect they had on you.  They felled all the things you said you upheld – loyalty, stability, honesty, transparency, trustworthiness, empathy, reliability, sincerity – in one swoop.

But there will always be one more choice.  A choice to turn back, to go down a different path, to reclaim your destiny, to fulfill your potential.  It’s hard to take a new path, even harder to retrace your steps from the one you’re on. You have to be mighty brave to do it and if it means anything, I thought I saw the potential for that courage in you as well.

I don’t claim that I never wronged you, I must have done so more times than I can remember.  However, I can claim that I never consciously did wrong by you.  And whenever I realised I had said or done something that may have hurt you, your complete acceptance of my flaws gave me the courage to apologize and make amends.

It was one of the greatest lessons I learnt: that mistakes are inevitable but it is possible to correct them and that if an error is irreversible, then the right thing to do is feel true remorse, apologize and change so that you don’t repeat it.  A mistake doesn’t have to be the end, it can simply be a lesson on how to continue. The only condition is that you have to be true to yourself and others. That’s what we had agreed on from Day One, right? “Say what you mean and mean what you say”. 

I still wonder how you managed to forget that first basic rule so completely.

I’ve had people tell me to “forget about what happened” because “that’s the way life is”.  For a while I was tempted to believe that and take the easy way out.  It gave me a range of ready-made excuses to pick from.  I could choose to run away from the hurt and the sorrow and the feeling – just like you did, because forgetting makes everything difficult disappear – including the truth.

Then I realised that I don’t want to live my life based on carbon-copy reactions.  I’m not a coward.  Never have been and I don’t intend to start now.  Sure, I’ve been scared – terrified even – of making decisions and venturing down new paths.  But once I know I’m doing what’s right and have taken the first steps, I don’t back away from walking the rest of the way. Every time I’m tempted to chicken out, I remind myself why I took that first step. 

I made the choice to be your friend and to trust you. This next passage made me realise exactly how much I invested in that friendship.  It’s made me understand that any kind of true relationship needs a blurring of lines between ‘you’ and ‘me’ otherwise you only have a superficial connection.

My dear son! You are part of my body and soul and whenever I look at you I feel as if I am looking at myself. If any calamities befalls you, I feel as if it has befallen me. Your death will make me feel as if it was my own death. Your affairs are to me like my own affairs. Therefore, I committed these pieces of advice to paper. I want you to take care of them, to pay attention to them and to guard them well. I may remain longer in your life or I may not, but I want these pieces of advice to remain with you always.

I always considered you an extension of myself, the flip side to my coin.  When you smiled, I was happy and when you were sad, I felt pain.  When you were hungry, I couldn’t find it in myself to eat and when I watched you eat, it was my belly that felt full.  When others hurt you, I felt betrayed.  When you succeeded in something, I felt a sense of achievement and when you didn’t, I tried to be the strength with which you could pick yourself up and move on. 

I could empathise with how you felt not because of some magical connection, but because despite all our differences, there was something essential that was the same in us. It allowed us to understand each other.  Isn’t that what the world needs more of? Understanding, because it leads to empathy, dialogue, acceptance and ultimately, to the willingness on individual parts to sacrifice and change for the betterment of the whole.

Once, when we had disagreed on something and parted on uncomfortable terms, I remember asking why you were still concerned about what was happening to me and you said: “Because you can’t switch off caring”.  I took that as my litmus test for all relationships.  If you truly care, you have to totally immerse yourself so that you can’t simply flip a switch inside and stop feeling.  If you can, there’s obviously a problem somewhere.

Yet, after establishing the above you did switch off, and so completely that I was wary about sending these letters to you personally because they may have been deleted unread and lost forever. That is why I am putting them up here, so that they will be always be accessible to you, whenever you do decide to read them.  In doing so, I may sometimes alienate the other you’s reading this (I’m sorry), but if you can look past the specifics, I hope the general message is something anyone can take away.

—-

In the past few days, as I turned this issue inside-out in my head, trying to look at it from different angles – emotional, rational, intellectual, spiritual – one of the conclusions I came to was that giving up is never an option.  I have made many, many mistakes and every time I find myself coming back to God feeling lost and ashamed for messing things up yet again, I find the same consistent message: Don’t despair of My Love or My Forgiveness, because it is Infinite

God doesn’t give up on me, this is my security.  The path leading back Home is never barricaded, the door never locked.  There is always one more chance.  In order to deserve it, I feel I must in turn show the same generosity to others. Because my God is your God too.  If He doesn’t give up on you, who am I to do otherwise?  Doesn’t a true servant actively promote the policy of his or her Master?  If people can be confident of His acceptance and forgiveness, then I must inspire the same confidence too. That is why I won’t give up. 

You gave up and knowing how it feels to be at the receiving end, I would never wish it on another person – least of all you.  Because I’ve discovered – with relief – that I don’t have the ability to switch off caring.

Always,
Me

The Beginning: Why You Have Been Tagged.

Dear You

If you are reading this, you should know that I have struggled long and hard in making the decision to set what follows in motion. And chances are I am still struggling with the decision.  However, once I post this online there will be no turning back.

I have written many thousands of words in my life.  Some have been read by hundreds of people, some by just a few, some by only one and some will never see the light of day.  But in every case, I have held something back.  I have shared, but always from behind a veil.  I have spoken, but always with care.  Even my most emotional outbursts have been ‘edited’ to preserve the rawest of feelings and hold them back from public view.

I’m not saying that I will suddenly start sharing those hidden words or that I am going to change my approach in blogging.  But this particular series of ‘letters’ will perhaps be the most open of all my writing – in terms of what I truly want to share with you.

People leave behind many things in life: legacies of wealth and service, memories of love and influence, inheritances of a material or inspirational nature. And when I think of all this, I realise that I don’t know what it is that I will leave behind for the world to remember me by – even if it is for a mere few days or weeks.  I used to think my legacy would involve something of a literary or artistic nature, but with the years passing by on swift wings, I’m not sure if that will ever materialize.

Besides, as you grow older you begin to realise that you have little that is ‘new’ to tell the world.  Life is life.  Everyone goes through it and it involves pretty much the same experiences for every person, only in different ways and intensities.  So I have no sage advice to leave behind for you.  Instead, I have chosen to share something that has changed – and continues to change – me every single time I go back to it. 

It is a Will and whenever I find myself wondering what else life has to fling at me or trying to figure out ‘what next?’, I open the pages of this essay from the pen of a dying man and find endless wisdom in his advice and his words.  Some of you know him, other’s may not – it doesn’t matter.  What matters is that what he says applies universally to all human beings.  His words cross all boundaries of faith, race or age and give direction to anyone who wishes to seek out some kind of purpose in this life.

I could copy and paste the entire document here and be done with it, but I won’t.  Because this isn’t just about sharing information, it’s about sharing what that information means to me.  I want you to know what is important to me and to understand why I want you to have it as well.  You know how when something exciting happens in your life, you want to rush and share it with someone special?  Someone who will understand and feel what you feel? Someone who will enrich what is already an amazing experience.  That’s what I want to do.  I want to share the most precious thing I have ever come across with you.  Because you are special to me.

But who are you?

This first letter is to re-introduce myself to you and you to me.  There are many levels of people to whom I am addressing this and it’s up to you to decide which one you fall in.

(a) There is You. 
You know yourself and a very few others know you as well.  You are used to my endless words, but I would like for these not to become part of the deluge you once said you enjoyed drowning in, but now may very well be trying to simply forget.  If you must forget, then forget everything except what I write in this series, please.  These are the things I would have told you personally had the future permitted, the special thoughts I saved for a ‘right time’ that was never to come. These letters are my final gift to you.

(If anyone else reading these letters ever thinks they know who the (a) you is, do let them know when they’ve got mail?  Much thanks.)

(b)  You are my friends and my family. 
The people who are close to me and those I admire and respect from afar.  For you, these words are what I try to base my thoughts and my actions on.  I have found no better replacement to live life by than these principles.  I share them with you because you have selflessly shared your wisdom with me on countless occasions and given me impeccable advice even when I wasn’t ready to listen to it.  I hope these letters will repay a fraction of your immense generosity.

(c) Don’t worry, even if I have never spoken to you or met you…I know you lot too.
If you’re reading this via email or facebook, I know you because I know every person I have ever added to my address book or accepted a friend’s request from. I know you and there is something about you that makes me want to be known as your ‘friend’.  You are not a stranger, you are someone whose life matters to me, and so I want to let you in on the secrets I am discovering, because I think you can use them to your advantage and do much with them.  As I write each letter in this series, I will thinking of you specifically as well.

There’s only one final thing to add to this first letter.  As the days go by and you get these missives, I hope you find in what I share the same treasures I did.  And if you want in turn to share them with your group of ‘yous’, then please do – on a single condition: that you actually believe in what you are sharing and that you sincerely appreciate its value. 

Because words that come from an insincere heart will never touch another heart.  I truly hope I touch yours.

And so we begin this journey.  Just the two of us…

Always,
Me.

A Lesson in Silence

Silence is supposed to be golden, right?

Right now it feels like a lot of lead. 

All my life I’ve enjoyed good conversation, and for decades I would wait and savour the few I’ve had like precious treasures – playing each one back and revelling in just how involving it was, how it made my mind feel alive.

And then for some time, it seemed I had found an almost endless supply of it.  I could be assured of a daily dose – sometime a day-ful dose.  Who knew a person could get addicted to conversation?  I didn’t. 

Which is perhaps why now that my ‘supply’ has been rudely cut off, I find these odd hours of the night stretching endlessly away in silence…only for morning to bring more quiet.

I have a new respect for silence of the wise, but I find I am nowhere near able to achieve it. 

The empty minutes seem only emptier.   How pathetic that everyone around me seems to be able to find people they can talk to, and yet I am too fussily particular to be able to get along with even one fellow human being.

tick tock tick tock tick tock….

S’laams,
bint Ali

Square Pegs

I can hear a kid crying down the street at the top of his lungs.  It’s 11 p.m. and he doesn’t care that his shrieks are echoing in the silence of the entire neighbourhood.  Sometimes I envy that kind of self-possessed abandon.  Most times I know it’s not practical to have a world full of adults who think only of themselves.  That kinda makes me proud of being an adult i.e. someone who can put others before myself – if I choose to.  Sacrifice, for the right reasons, can be extremely fulfilling for the human soul.

But I digress, and my aim henceforth is to try and address only one topic per blogpost instead of jumping back and forth between different things that may occur to me in my train of thought.  So, if I was to try and steer this to where I want to go eventually, I’d wonder how much sacrifice a person should give?  You can give of your wealth, of your abilities, of your time, of your pleasure, of your convenience, of many things…but what of your self?  How much of your self should you be willing to give up for others?

And I believe the answer to that is: None.  Not one part of your self should be available to other human beings.

Some of you may be thinking “That’s what I always say!” and others may be thinking “That sounds selfish…” and to both of you (and all others who fall in between), I’d say you need to read on because I’m being very specific in my use of the words ‘sacrifice’, ‘self’ and ‘selfish’.

More and more, I’m beginning to understand – in a very practical and tangible manner – that there are two layers in life.  We spend around 99.5% of our time in the top layer.  The way we interact with people, our behaviour with friends, our loyalties, likes, dislikes, actions, thoughts even – all these float on the exterior of life.  And often as we do and say things, we forget the part of us that makes the decision on what to do and say and work on auto-pilot instead.

We react to new circumstances based on past habits.  Because something made us happy in the past, we begin to relate happiness to it until only that thing makes us happy; the same goes for sadness and anger.  We read a lot of self-help books and lifestyle features and because these tell us what ‘general’ human behaviour expects, we begin to relate to the ‘triggers’ described in them and then begin to live our lives based on that instead of analysing each experience anew as it happens.

So really if the books say that you need to indulge yourself every so often and splurge on a shopping spree to make yourself feel special, then if you don’t get a chance to do that you begin to feel like you’re not that special.  Even though you might never have thought of doing it before. 

The same goes for relationship advice.  If you want a guy to be interested in you…don’t show your interest too blatantly because that will scare him off.  Don’t approach the subject of committment too early because men can’t handle the thought easily, and so on and so forth.

And funnily enough, even as Muslims we try to apply these ‘rules’ to our lives, despite the fact that some of them are totally contradictory to our beliefs.  I don’t remember the policy of ‘splurging’ ever being part of the recommended traditions or practicies of Islam.  The most famous story we ever tell of Fatimah al-Zahra, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), is that when she was given a new dress for her wedding day, she gave it away to a poor person and got married in her old clothes.  What happened to the need for a woman to feel like a princess on her special day? Obviously, it’s not in the dress (or the flowers or the food) because14 centuries years later, no one would have been describing her amazing wedding gown, but we remember this act of selflessness and still stand in awe of it.

In terms of relationships – Islam demands committment from men before anything else!  Muslim men (should) have no queasiness about marriage because it’s not just a hit-and-miss thing for them, it’s a careful unified decision made based on solid factors that provide a pretty good foundation for happiness…if the advice available is followed.  And guess what?  The marriages are (gosh golly) pretty successful and happy.  Are Muslim men are men at all? Or suppressed, indoctrinated hybrids of some sort to manage this feat?

The point I’m making is that we’re slowly becoming a copy-cat society.  Not just in our fashion and cultural trends, but also in our tendencies.  People like the same things, they look down on the same things, specific qualities define ‘losers’ and ‘cool’ people.  Not only are our clothes and hairstyles categorizing us, but our morals, principles, characters – our fears even! – are becoming pre-determined.

So that when you speak of modesty, integrity and principles, you automatically become boring.  If you prefer to be tactful and polite over ‘frank’, you’re spineless.  If you don’t have a mouth like a sailor-in-training, you’re a prude.  If you can’t see the point in partying and extreme entertainment, you’re not living life to the fullest. If you don’t drink alcohol, talk trash, break rules or take risks, you’re a baby.  If you dedicate yourself and follow a religion, you’re brainwashed and un-intelligent. 

And if you’re not going against the norm, you don’t qualify to be a ‘rebel’.  If you want to be different, you need to be either ‘overbearing’, ‘selfish’, ‘mad’, ‘crazy’, ‘out-there’, ‘nutty’, ‘wild’, ‘pervy’ or a combination thereof.  And proud of it all. In fact, it’s encouraged that you gather a few flaws under your belt, and then flaunt them rather than try to correct them.  Even being unique is now subtley pre-defined!

Ergo, if you don’t throw a senseless emotional tantrum approximately 12 times annually, you’re not really female.  If you don’t run from committment and act like a jerk, you’re not a ‘real’ man. You have to talk and talk and talk (and talk) about how you feel and be all b***** about other females or how else will you be labelled a true woman?  You have to shut down, refuse to sort out problems and walk away from your responsibilities or how can you be excused as being ‘a guy’?

Society and media has slowly created a Life-puzzle with loads of round holes, and to fit into the frame you need to adapt to these already-existing definitions. Self help books and life coaches can only succeed if they can be guaranteed that the problems they address a) exist and b) can be solved in the way they describe.  That way issues can be uniformly predicted and advice tailored to suit it. 

Perhaps that is one of reasons I am falling in love with my faith again.  For years, I have complained that the kind of specific help I used to read about in books and magazines isn’t as readily available from Islamic sources.  But it is only very recently I realised that Islam doesn’t want to spoon-feed me (or anyone) one-size-fits-all solutions. Within the Qur’an and the traditions, the major kind of advice you find is that of refining the self.  What core principles are best to have, not just how you should behave, but why you should behave that way, how your actions affect others – these are the things that are emphasized over and over again.  Because once you have your core corrected, you can apply those basic skills and actually begin to explore the finer nuances of any experience in life.  Then you can deal with any situation in life admirably and respectfully without leaving a trail of hurt behind you.

Islam teaches that you need to create a self that can go about Life unburdened by the issues most people have.  That you can’t be at peace with yourself if you’re constantly being selfish and hurting others.  So yes, sacrifice is encouraged, but it’s not just to make others happy – it’s to make you stronger and more refined.  It’s amazing that God asks us to give selflessly, but even when we do that, He is so Generous that He can’t stand to see our efforts go unacknowledged and so instead He gives to us of Himself.  That He knows other human beings will take advantage of our sacrifices and so He fills the gap they leave with appreciation from Himself.

And the more you give to people in terms of the top layer of experiences, the richer and more clarified your inner, deeper layer becomes and the easier it is to give even more.  Then you begin to understand that you are making the decisions and it’s not the decisions making you.  Concepts like “I can’t” no longer make sense because you realise that you can do anything, perhaps even more than you had thought you could.

However, if you manage to do this – to break free of the expectations of society and truly define yourself on your own terms and beliefs – there is one more sacrifice you will have to give.  You will no longer fit into those ready-made round holes.  You’ll be the true Square Peg with nowhere to belong.  Sure, there are other odd-shaped pegs around the world, but chances you’ll meet them will be rare. 

And so you might have to blend in and out of the lives of others, assisting where you can, supporting who you can and then moving on because once your work in done, you will stick out again and be the One That Doesn’t Belong Here.  People may appreciate your help and even seek it, but they will never find your presence completely comforting because you will always be a vague reminder of the fact that they are allowing themselves to be shaped by cookie-cutter personalities while you are choosing to build your own boundaries.

Given a choice, I’d say: Be lonely, but be yourself.  Be abandoned, but never give up doing what you know to be Right.  Be hurt, but never hurt.  Be sad, but never because of your own choices. Be boring if you must, but be someone from whose actions and words people can always feel safe.

And if you feel like you don’t belong anywhere, always remember – you weren’t created to ‘belong’ in this world anyway.  You’re just a guest passing through.  Come, leave presents and happy memories, but always place your hopes on going back Home.

S’laams,
bint Ali