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

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