Letter 05: Sacrifice begins with an L

Dear You

It’s been a little longer than usual, hasn’t it?  I haven’t been sure what to write.  People have said wonderful things about these letters and yet, a small part of me is waiting for some sign that you are reading them as well, that something I’ve said has helped you too.  Makes me feel like a total ingrate really.

Sincerity is seriously hard to achieve, y’know?  How can you ever tell if what you’re doing is truly for others or for yourself? I know, for example, that when I write these letters, I genuinely want to share what I am thinking or realising.  But I also want to write. And to be read. (By you.)  When I take an intangible idea that only exists in my head and given it shape and dimension with words, I feel a sense of achievement, of having ‘created’ something definite out of something vague.

The reason for this random preamble is because this next paragraph in the Will addresses the essence of what went wrong between us and yet it also seems to make that same wrong insignificant in many ways.

Remember how I told you the difference between us was that you gave up and I didn’t? That you chose to ignore a problem while I sought to solve it?  You were afraid of how much worse the rift could get, while I was looking for ways to build a bridge.  Someone, somewhere once said, “When you feel like giving up, remember why you held on for so long in the first place”.  You forgot why you held on, didn’t you?

Your fear has always been that people will get too close and begin to influence you.  And if they convince you to change even a simple habit, you will stop being the person you have worked so hard to create.  You rebelled against norms, society and even family to build this personality and make it singular.  So much so that you’ve begun to identify your persona with your self.  What you don’t realise is that since you created it, you can also modify, adapt and perfect it – without ever changing your inner essence.

Instead of giving up on letting others help you see things from another perspective, on sharing different opinions, I wish you had given up on wanting to be different, just for the sake of being unique.

On the other hand, I find that despite trying to make things right, there are some things I might have to give up on.  Perhaps I need to give up trying to be happy always and instead just be at peace. Or maybe I should give up needing a reason to love others, because isn’t being alive and healthy reason enough?

But choices aren’t always clear-cut.  When should a person give up and when should they hang on?  Does giving up mean you failed?  Is failure real or relative?  Should the standard be set on how our actions make others feel?

——-

Give up where there is a possibility of your going astray. When there is danger of your wandering in the wilderness of ignorance and losing sight of the goal which you want to attain and of reaching the end aimed at, then it is better to give up the quest than to advance and face uncertain dangers and unforeseen risks.

There are thousands of motivational quotes on never quitting, on trying one more time, on failure not being an option.  Hanging in there longer than others is often attributed to being the key to success. But who ever gives advice to give up?

The words above have a different layer of meaning for those who know the man who wrote them. This man is globally revered for being the one person who never backed down in the face of wrong, not even when he was alone against an entire nation.  As people who love him, we take deep pride in his courage and un-shakeable faith.  And yet, this very man – who never turned his back in battle, never allowed temptation to divert him, never showed anything but boldness in the face of injustice – this man is advising us to give up?

Under a condition though: when the danger is that of going astray.  No, correction…when the danger is a possibility of going astray.  What does that say about the immensity of this danger?  Why is going astray so bad?  And where is it that you go astray from?

We began with the words: “First and foremost…Be His obedient servant”.  This is the standard by which everything else in the Will is measured.  Therefore, disobedience is the danger, diverting from the path that leads to Him is going astray.  Losing God is the greatest mortal danger you will ever face in your life.

Too often, I find we give importance to the wrong successes in life.  I wanted something from you, and I assume you wanted something from me. Had we got these, we would have counted our relationship a success.  Not getting them led to the dissolution of that friendship, implying that it failed.  For a long time, I thought it also implied that I had failed in providing my part of what was needed.

When I think about it, I begin to see that I may have fallen victim to the common misconception that ‘lack of success = failure’. But that’s not true, is it?  Sometimes, success comes in so different a form from the one we expect that we don’t recognize it.  I don’t think we can truly tag anything as failure unless something negative has come about as result of our actions.

A lot of times we’re afraid we’ll hurt people along the way if we give up or walk away from a situation. But we need to ask ourselves: how did the situation arise in the first place? Should we have considered our options more before taking action?  Will staying longer hurt them more?  Was it our own doing that led to the impasse?

Imagine you’re taking a walk, and you see a sign that says “Scenic Route” with a warning in smaller writing “Beware thorn bushes ahead”.  If you decide to take a walk down that path and persist on going further even when the road narrows, you will be scratched, pricked and torn by the thorns that will hem you in.   At some point you will reach a point where you are stuck between a lot of thorn and very little road.  You could give up and just stay there, but then you’d starve to death.  However, when you decide to do the wise thing and turn back, you also accept that you will bear even more pain to extricate yourself, because on the way back the scratches will now be on already-raw skin.

You may have taken along people on this walk with you.  If they read the sign and came willingly, it’s not for you to bear their pain for them.  If they came along based on your assurance that all would be well, then you may be lucky in your choice of companions and find they are reasonable enough to see that you have shed blood with them and thus accept your apology, otherwise they may walk away blaming you for their wounds.  However, as long as you didn’t drag anyone along kicking and screaming, no one can say you failed to walk the path.  Instead the walk becomes a lesson in thinking before you make promises, in taking responsibility for your actions and in choosing your friends.

Almost every decision we make in life is based on such scenic routes.  The fine print will always be the voice of reason, the laws of religion, the principles of faith – the common sense of life.  If we don’t learn to stop and read, we will keep on falling prey to the pretty views and make the same mistakes over and over.

So yes, we will hurt people and be hurt by them in life, because no one is perfect and there will always be consequences for our actions.  But as long as we are vigilant in re-aligning our intentions towards the right, as long as we are willing to admit and correct our wrongs, there is hope that things will turn out well for everyone in the end.

And how do we re-align ourselves?  By remembering that there is only one indisputable hierarchy of priority.  First comes obedience to God and then follows our emotional attachment to our selves and people around us.  If we ever put the feelings of others before our obedience to Him, we’ll end up committing the most dangerous of sins: a subtle shirk*.

I’m not even sure how all of this applies to our situation. I haven’t thought much about that…perhaps because the conclusions involve trying to decide the worth of our friendship and figuring out who was responsible for what went wrong. These are not comfortable thoughts to have, but hopefully along the way, I’ll figure it out and be sure to let you know.

(*shirk – the Arabic term for attributing a partner to the One Absolute God i.e. polytheism)

—–

Advise people to do good and live virtuously….Let your words and deeds teach the world lessons in how to abstain from wickedness and villainy. Try your best to keep away from those who indulge in vices and sins.

Practice what you preach is what we were always taught as kids.  And I would re-phrase that to say “preach through your practice”.  Because that’s how the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) established a global system of life – by first living it himself for forty years.

So many of us (Muslims) complain that trying to live by the code of Islam alienates us. That it doesn’t allow us to fit into society and invites hostile reactions.  And yet, don’t we all claim to follow the sunnah (practices) of the Prophet (pbuh)?  Is this restricted only to the 23 years after he shared the news of Islam?  Was he not the same man, believing in One God and living by the same moral standards for forty years before that?

Is it not then the sunnah of the Prophet (pbuh) to refuse to fit into a society that lacks morality and noble principles?  Didn’t he stick out and face ridicule and mockery for his beliefs, the same beliefs we claim to be so grateful for receiving?  He was willing to defend his faith against every form of discrimination and even under the threat of poverty and death.  

Why do we refuse to do the same?  Because we won’t fit in? We won’t be cool? We won’t get the jobs we want or have the status in society we covet?  We’ll have to settle for a lower paycheck?  We’ll get called regressive, backward, boring, traditional, barbaric, militant, fundamentalist or any other tag the media feels like throwing at us? These are our reasons?  There are even some who say that we shouldn’t stand up too firmly for our beliefs because it creates a negative attitude about Islam in an otherwise flexible, adaptable society.

Well, guess what?  Islam isn’t flexible.  Not when it comes to principles.  Faith needs a stable, solid base from which to leap.  If you are allowed to compromise the basic beliefs you live by, what kind of a foothold can your faith have?  And how far will it take you?

That’s why we’re advised to build our foundations on good, strong morals; to strive, not to fit in with the vices of society, but to rise above and out of their reach. To dare to chose a different path even if it will take us away from all the things and people that are familiar and comfortable to us.

———-

Fight, whenever required, to defend the cause of Allah. When you think of defending the cause of Allah do not be afraid that people will laugh at you, censure your action or slander you. Fearlessly and boldly help truth and justice. Bear patiently the sufferings and face bravely the obstacles which come in your way when you follow truth and when you try to uphold it. Adhere to the cause of truth and justice wherever you find it.

The mistake many of us make – including me – is in describing the hows of Islam without ever explaining the whys.  The rules we live by may seem rigid and restrictive to others, but we need to explain (and perhaps to first understand ourselves) that we do this not out of abject slavishness but rather out of devoted love.

Did you know Love has the power to change people? It breaks down the veneers they have put up over time and reveals their true self.  Of course, it depends who the love is directed at.  (I think though, it’s safe to say that if you love something bad, it’s not really love at all, just greed or lust.)

One of the most amazing things real Love does is inspire a unique bravery when it comes to the object(s) of affection. We’ve seen and heard – maybe even felt ourselves – an all-consuming anger when we think the one we love is being slighted or threatened.

And yet when that same loved one is threatened by a more sinister evil, one that cannot be so easily seen, we turn a blind eye to it in the name of caring.  How many a mother has overlooked a bad habit in her child,  only to regret it later when the habit leads to destruction?  How many of us accept the vices of friends instead of correcting them and end up adopting the same, all in the name of unconditional friendship?

I think we do this because we are afraid to defend what is right when the enemy is hidden inside our friend.  We’re afraid of what will happen to us – will we lose them? – as a result of exposing that enemy. The painful reality is that neither our love for the cause of God is strong enough for us to take His side nor is our love for our friend selfless enough for us to think of their good before ours. The strongest love we feel is for our self.

I can see now that I was also afraid.  Afraid if I pointed out the things you did wrong, you would think me a wet-blanket and I would slowly lose my place in your life.  Even when I did try to say something, (half-heartedly) the slightest opposition from you would make me back down and change the subject.

I wish I had put aside my selfish fears and told you when you broke a rule casually.  I wish I had assured you that you were better than the society you were trying to conform to, that it didn’t matter how far you had gone off the path, there was always a way to come back if you wanted. That you always had a choice to do what was right. 

In that I did fail you.  And I am so sorry.

——

I regret my silence because even if you hadn’t heeded my advice, at least the words would have been said and heard.  Sometimes that’s enough.  Now I have only these letters with no guarantee you will ever read them.  

As I write I realise that I should have spoken this plainly to you, because if I ever want to claim I love God enough to defend His cause, I must be willing to give up whatever it takes along the way – fame, popularity, wealth, careers, family, friends, my self.  In the end, only the strongest love can survive, all other loves must give in to it.  Whatever your life submits to, whatever you find yourself hanging on to despite all odds – that is your strongest love.  And as long as it’s not God, you know you have a problem.

I’ve thought a lot about making choices and I think you’ll be glad to know – if you ever read this – that I would never have chosen our friendship over my relationship with God.  I know I’m the one who insisted on doing everything to try and make things right, but had the choice ever been between you and God, I’d like to think I would have walked away without a single moment of hesitation. Because you can’t claim to truly love unless you’re willing to sacrifice and you can’t sacrifice unless you first love.

I only wish your reason had been something half as substantial.  Then I would have had nothing to fault you for.

Always,
Me

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Letter 04: Like Chocolate To My Ears

Dear You,

You remember how the Will said to think about the people of the past?  The people you have known or known of in all your life?  About what they did and how much they achieved in their lifetimes?

Now…

If you carefully ponder…you will find that each one of those people has parted company with the others and with all that they cherished and loved, for a solitary abode, alone and unattended and you also will be like them.

Who would have guessed, eh?  That after all that thinking about lessons, the final, most important lesson of them all is to remember that none of it lasted.  That of all the things we place so much emphasis on in this world, the only ones that really matter are those that can be translated into the currency of the Next.

Remember how sometimes when we spoke I’d end up saying the most ridiculous things and you’d look at me with a raised eyebrow and this half-smile that seemed to question my sanity? One of the reasons I used to speak my mind without ‘editing’ was because I felt safe enough to think as I spoke, coming to conclusions verbally and saying them aloud as a test of how solid they sound (literally).  The other reason was to provoke that look because you did it so well.

Here’s what I’m thinking now: people around the world are talking about how to live every day and make the most of it and I find myself wondering what ‘the most of it’ means.  Are we trying to squeeze every drop out of life like we’d do with a tube of toothpaste?  Because at some point in time we’re all going to run out of breaths and we want to be able to say we used up the time we had in a good way?  

Wait a moment with that thought…who exactly is going to be commenting on the quality of life you lived? The people you leave behind?  Or you yourself?   When you learn something new, is it the place of others to talk about your experiences and what you’ve gained or do you say it for yourself?  Reminiscence cannot be done from a third-party point of view, can it?

So if it’s the people left behind who you want to comment on your life in their eulogies – then aren’t you living your life for them?  Not even for them, but for a set of words to be said at your funeral or engraved on the headstone of your grave.  How will you truly assess if you’ve made the most of life if there’s no point at which you will be able to look back and say “Now that was time well spent”?

You can only do that though, after you’ve reached the end.  As long as you have some days left in life, there is always the possibility that you will either grow and enrich your life further or that you will do something to devalue it.  Because life isn’t measured in the minutes and days that we have lived – those are temporary and lost forever with every passing second.  (See how the last one just disappeared? And another one’s gone just now…)  Life is measured in one moment.  

At any one point in time, who you are is simply the sum total of your past experiences and actions. Who you are Now is your Life.  The question is, when your last moment in this world has passed and you cross over into the Eternal Moment that will never pass, who will you be then?  What will be the value of your Now at that moment?  How much of the ‘making the most of it’ will you have carried with you into it?  Because that will be the real measure of your Life.

And it doesn’t matter how much someone loves you and wants to be there for you, this journey of realisation is one you will have to take on your own. It’s only when you’ve gone through the doorway called Death that you will be in a position to look back and evaluate your Life.    

And when you do that you’ll be alone, with only your Self to keep you company.

——

Take care to provide well for your future abode. Do not barter away eternal blessings for the pleasures of this mortal world.  

Life is a Business Deal.  A lot of people tend to think it’s a deal between you and God, but I think that’s a huge misconception.  Sure, God talks about giving ‘goodly loans’ through charity and helping ‘His Cause’.  The advice above from one of His Chosen Servants refers to a barter and there’s many references to selling your ‘soul’ or ‘self’ in exchange for His Pleasure and how that is the wisest and most excellent of all trades.

The ‘business’ bit is actually a front of sorts, because business implies an exchange of items that have value for both parties involved.  You have something I want/need, I have something you want/need, so we exchange them in good faith.

But what is it that we have that God could possibly ‘need’ or ‘want’ when He is above and beyond all needs and desires? How can we think of ourselves as being traders when we have neither goods nor leverage with which to bargain?  The reality is that He is The Giver and we are simply taking (mostly without thanks).

The only reason I could find for the business analogy is that it is familiar and appeals to our egos.  We all have egos and we cannot truly connect with God until we destroy them, but the majority of us will never manage to do that completely. Because He knows so many of us don’t stand a chance of finding the way Home on our own, He gently entices us by giving us more importance that we deserve.  The business we do is actually with ourselves.

It’s the same thing we do with our loved ones isn’t it?  Mothers and children, husbands and wives – the timeless advice given by all is that if you want to convince someone to your way of thinking, don’t demand or threaten, instead make them feel important.  Make them feel like they are the ones making the decision, even though you are the one who set it all up for their own good.  And if you love them, you wont even have to make a pretence of it at all.  (Doesn’t it send a shiver down your spine to realise how much God Loves you?)

So yes, let’s pretend that this is a business deal. This world for the next.  This life for the real Life.  A few decades on this earth for an Eternity in Heaven.  Why do we even need to talk about this when the choice is so clear?  Because we’re human, that’s why.  And one of the greatest failings of being human is the innate desire for instant gratification.

Why do the words up there talk about bartering blessing for pleasure?  And in any case why is there always an emphasis on the pleasures of this world whilst the next world seems to talk more in terms of reward and achievement?  Perhaps the lesson to be learnt in that we should not judge the worth of something based on how ‘pleasing’ it is.  Pleasure is relative and fleeting.  This is actually something humanity learnt a long time ago, which is why we have proverbs like ‘no pain, no gain’.

There are, in my opinion, two kinds of pleasure.  There is the one that comes instantly: you eat good food, the tastes entice your palate; you sit in the sun, you warm up; you read a good book, watch a movie, go to a party…all the nice feelings come straightaway.  And when you’re done or soon after, those same feelings fade away and you’re left with an emptiness you need to fill again.  So you eat again, go out in the sun when you’re cold once more, arrange to go clubbing the next weekend…and the cycle continues.  

This kind of pleasure has no ‘achievement’ quality, that’s why it doesn’t sink in and last.  In fact, it has the opposite effect in that it creates a need in you, making you hunger and crave for more. The more you need, the more you’ll do to get it.  Not very different from an addiction to drugs, it creates an addiction to ‘highs’ and ‘rushes’ and at its most basic level, an addiction to ‘life’.

The second kind of pleasure is the one that comes after a period of struggle or effort.  It’s not instantaneous, it might take decades to appear, but when it does come it’s there to stay.  The pleasing quality is secondary because despite knowing that it’s a long way off, we still invest in the things that will lead up to it.  A part of us recognizes that the long-term benefit is worth the difficulties we have to endure while getting there.

Revising for an exam, setting up a business, getting married (note I’m not saying ‘wedding’ here), giving birth…none of these is always easy or fun.   

When you see the distinctions and pass grades on your result slip, do you remember the 2-hours-a-day naps and 4 a.m. coffees that kept you going as you revised?

Setting up a business involves taking risks, living on a minimum, spending sleepless nights and working weekends for a dream that you can only hope will come true, but how do you feel when years later you have established a successful venture?  

Do you think of the fears and doubts, the efforts and sacrifices you had to make when you hear your spouse tell you they love you for the first time? Or every time after?

Giving birth has become almost legendary in terms of pain involved.  And even though there’s the cute new baby to hold soon after, there’s also years of changing nappies, teaching it how to eat, putting up with queasy messes, colic, tantrums, night-long wailing…none of which is pleasurable.  And yet, when parents put in everything they have to make it through all that, one day they wake up and find they have nurtured a fine young man or woman into maturity and only they can tell you the depth of that feeling, because pleasure doesn’t even begin to describe it.

That is why the words used are more sober and when we recognize the Real Source of these things, we describe them in their true form: blessings.  The pleasure of the Next World is so great because you ideally spend a lifetime investing in it.  You build up your Life there with the choices, sacrifices, actions and words you make here, that is why God refers to it as an achievement.  The pleasure part of it you can take for granted, and really if it’s so hard to put in words the feelings you get for successes of this world, how can you begin to describe the ones of the Next?

So yes, you can choose to ‘enjoy’ life and stock up on its delights, moving from one high to the next, but when you find yourself having fun, take a moment to pause and wonder about the longevity of that feeling.  That should allow you to pretty much decide which category it falls in.  

Then ask yourself if that half hour or hour is what you want to trade for an Eternity of the other kind of pleasure.

——–

You might (if you’re even reading this) be wondering about the title of this letter.  It’s a reminder that despite the tangents I go off on, I haven’t forgotten who it is that I’m writing to.  I saved this as the sentence to end on, because it reminded me so much of you…

Do not talk about things that you do not know. Do not speculate and pass judgement on subjects that you are not in a position to form an opinion upon and are not called upon to do so.

Before I met you, I tended towards being judgemental.  Not by my standards but by the standards of Right and Wrong.  While my intentions may have been sincere, you taught me that the only One fit to judge by those standards is the One Who set them up.  I’m not saying that I accept wrongdoing or let it pass by without protest, but I’d like to think I now understand the limits of my own perception better.

One of the many things that made me feel that our friendship was real was that we never felt the need to involve the affairs of others in our lives.  We talked and talked and talked, but it was about things that we knew about, things we wanted to learn, things we wanted to share.  The first rule we both had was not to make assumptions – about each other or anyone.

There was so much to explore in the dynamic we had created that we didn’t even have the time to look around and speculate about others.  It was refreshing to have so many conversations and never once say something that would qualify as ‘gossip’.

Packaging does add an extra quality to a product through, doesn’t it? I’ve always reacted more to the audible than the visual, which is perhaps why the sound of my father’s voice in tinged with memories of late night family chats and the smell of brewed coffee, my sister’s voice brings back school days and childhood games and my mother’s voice reminds me simultaneously of good English grammar and my internal principles (since she gave me countless lessons in both), my brother’s voice reminds me of geeky Zen, MS-DOS and summer afternoon naps.

And your voice?  Your voice made me feel like I had come home.  A place to belong with no pretence and no need to be anyone else but myself.  I remember – even a year after we first met – holding my breath for just a second before you’d say “Salaam Alaykum” in anticipation of the feeling of comfort and security, of total ease, that it never failed to bring.  

If there was a challenge to describe the many voices in my life in one phrase or word, I’d say Chicken-Soup for my grandmother, Spring for my favourite preacher, Fresh-Laundry for my best friend and for you…Liquid Chocolate.  I guess words are easier to hear and believe when they come coated in chocolate.  And easier to misunderstand as well.

I don’t like the sound of my voice too much but considering the amount of words I say with it, I sometimes wonder how much it adds or removes for those who listen to me and I regret not asking you that question.  But regardless of what was said and what was not, I often look back and wish I had made a call instead of sending that text message or email because my ears miss their dose of chocolate.

Before you think that this was a purely emotional insert to the letter, the reason I decided to tell you is that there are others I also wish I could tell and can’t anymore: my grandmother, uncles, aunts, friends I have no way to get in touch with.  

So would you do me a favour and think about the people you care about…do you have a special memory of how they sound?  Have you ever really listened when they speak? Go talk to them if you haven’t please and make a memory for yourself.  And if there’s someone you haven’t talked to in a long time, pick up the phone, dial their number and say you called ‘just to hear their voice’.  

Before it’s too late.

Always,
Me

Letter 03: You Are Part of My Big Picture.

Dear You,

“We tell the bits of the truth that we want others to hear. Or that we, ourselves, can handle. We ignore, deny or refute the truths that hurt, threaten or compromise our sense of comfort. Those truths, though, do not go away. They won’t meekly and mildly comply with our attempts to censor and suppress them. They wait for their chance and then they come back to haunt those who will not recognise them.”

I read this somewhere on the internet and I wondered how it was possible for someone I don’t know to put into words the exact thoughts that were in my head.  How do others know what we’re going through?  And sometimes know it so well it seems like they have lived our lives, thought our thoughts, grieved at our pain and shivered at our fears?

Don’t we often say “You took the words right out of my mouth?” and in the moment we say it, we feel a sense of camaraderie, of sharing with the person to whom we say it.  We create a temporary ‘community’ to which we belong.  What then happens, do you think, when someone takes the words right out of your heart? Or perhaps out of even your soul?  How much more will you connect with such a person?  How much more will you belong?

Do you ever think about these things when you choose where you are going or who to be with? Because everything in humanity is polar, isn’t it? If you can feel a sense of community with good people, you can also with bad.  If honour and integrity binds you with those who uphold them, then crassness and indignity also binds you with those who indulge in that kind of behaviour.

The first group is hard to belong to.  People who demand your trust and respect also expect you to live up to a certain standard, they challenge you to be the best you can be at every moment.  The second group is easy to join in comparison.  People who don’t care how they behave, don’t care much how you behave either.  They don’t want to be corrected, so they won’t correct you.  You leave them be and they’ll return the ‘favour’.  At the end of the day, any sympathy they claim for you is superficial because really caring means getting involved, which can be both painful and uncomfortable.  Real concern means being able to see when things are wrong and having the determination to change them to what is right. 

People usually prefer to take the easiest way out.  Despite our bravado and ‘take risks’ attitude, we’re really cowards who like to ignore the fears that imprison us.  Denying the existence of the chains, doesn’t make us free though.  Sometimes those around us can see the prison.  However it is a self-made prison, which means only we can break free from it – but when and if we choose to.

Some days I wonder if that was my mistake? I thought if I simply spoke to you of the Real World, of its beauty and its wonders; if I gently, but persistently, nudged, you would begin to see it for yourself.  We both knew I could not sit outside your cage forever, but I always believed that when the time came for me to leave, all I would have to do would be to hold out my hand and you would walk out of it yourself.  Perhaps, egoistically, I thought that I, myself, might be temptation enough for you to want to do so. 

Not very realistic, I know.  I conveniently forgot that breaking out of a prison requires a necessary amount of violence.  Practical action if you prefer. But even if you use politically correct words, the fact remains that you have to be disgusted and frustrated enough by the things holding you back to yank yourself free from them.  Without that motivation, you will never pull hard enough.

Isn’t that how an inhumane animal trap works?  When it snaps down on an animal’s leg, the animal will struggle for a bit and then the pain will get to be too much and it will simply give up. Because it has no concept of a future to lose.  If a human were to be stuck in a similar trap, he or she would struggle to their last breath…because they know the value of life. They know the pain is in the present and they may even lose a limb, but as long as they still have a mind to dream with, a heart to feel with and a soul to contemplate with, they have every reason to be alive for their future.

We understand this when it comes to physical pain, but forget it when it comes to emotional pain.  The lightest snap on our hearts, the slightest chance of facing a ghost from the past or an imagined monster of the future makes us lie down and give up.  And everytime we do that, we let a little bit of our future die.

——

Animals fall for the same trap (pun intended) over and over even when they’ve seen others of their kind die horribly in the same way.  What excuse do we have as humans?

We can learn from each other, can’t we?  Heck, we can even learn from people who are no longer with us!  We gather stories from hundreds of lifetimes we have never lived.  We have a wealth of knowledge from centuries: mistakes people made, lessons they learnt, advice they thought important enough to preserve.

I tried to give you advice. Not because I thought I was better than you (there was so much in you that was better than me), but I hoped it would show you that I appreciated how far you’d come and that I wanted you to go even further.  I wanted to be able to say I had contributed to your journey in some way because you had to mine in so many ways.

I don’t know if you ever heard the things I told you, but what follows far surpasses anything I could have said.  My words came from a flawed self that has walked down a path strewn with mistakes.  These words come from a man who first acted on his own advice before giving it out with authority.  Can anything be more secure or sincere? 

He writes:
Accept good advice and refresh your mind with it. Adopt piety and kill your inordinate desires with its help. Build your character with the help of sincere faith in religion and God. Subjugate your self-willed, obstinate and refractory nature with the vision of death; see the mortality of life and of all that life holds dear; realize the actuality of misfortunes and adversities, the changes of circumstances and times and study the histories of past people.

One of things you taught me was the value of being a student.  To be able to look at someone more experienced, admit your own deficiencies and then be willing to take advice from them on how to improve.  You were eager to find people more skilled than you and as you grew in talent, you always looked for those who could show you the way to open the next set of doors and move forward.

Why do you think it is that we are so eager to take advice from experts on our careers, to learn from the masters of our chosen fields?  Many times, these ‘teachers’ are rude, disrespectful, harsh in their criticism and never let us forget we are subordinates. And yet, we overlook their pathetic manners as ‘idiosyncrasies of genius’ and speak humbly of our respect for their abilities and how much we have grown in our time with them.

But when it comes to advice on how to be better at the most essential thing we are – human beings – we don’t want anyone to tell us anything.  We flee from people who question our way of thinking, seeing them as a threat to our identity and never realising that we have been in a process of flux from the moment we were born. 

This ‘I’ that you think you are, the ‘me’ that you don’t want to change…it’s always changing.  It is refined with your every thought and action.  The challenge is to accept this fact and take control of that change.  You then decide how you want to grow and in which direction. The harder the battles you chose to fight, the stronger you become. This is what allows you to break free from the very restrictions you are so afraid of being chained to.

We always were united in our suspicion of self-help, remember? Self-help tends to look at things from only one perspective. It concentrates on enhancing general positive attitudes. While this is an excellent thing to do, it’s far from holistic.  You can’t work on just the positive, without simultaneously working on the negative as well.  It’s like trying to fill an oily container with clean water.  You have to wash out the oil first or it will be a fruitless exercise.

Why then the reluctance to take constructive advice on morality, on behaviour, on attitude?  What if someone told you to be humble, to assess your own faults, to check your behaviour on a daily basis, to face your flaws and account for your actions?  What if you were asked to live by the Universal Standards of Right and Wrong? What if an ‘expert’ on humanity gave you lessons on how to be a ‘professional’ human being and asked you to understand that there is Someone to Whom you owe your life and everything in it?  Why turn your back on that kind of advice? Is it just because the word it’s called is ‘religion’ and not ‘career’?

Phrases like “Take me as I am” and “You can’t change me” or “What you see is what you get” are repeated all over the place these days.  I used to use them myself with a sense of proud independence.  But don’t you think they have an almost defeatist attitude at their core?  They seem to say “Yes, I’m flawed, but don’t expect me to try and become better.  I’m too weak / scared / just don’t care about what effect my behaviour has on me, you or others. (So there.)”

Some people call it stubborness – which it seems is a coveted quality these days.  From where I stand, such obstinacy might be cute in a toddler, but it is a ticking time-bomb if you’re an adult.  And when it implodes, it sucks others in along with you. It’s not a nice feeling for them.  Trust me, I know.

——-

See the ruined cities, the dilapidated palaces and decaying signs and relics of fallen empires and past nations. Then meditate over the activities of those people, over all they have done when they were alive and in power, what they achieved, from where they started their careers, where, when and how they were brought to an end, where they are now? What have they actually gained out of life and what was their contributions to human welfare?

I love the fact that the very Will I’m pulling out of the Past as a study for these letters is in turn recommending we all do the same thing with an even older history.  People have told me to forget what happened, to leave things behind.  Why should I when there is so much to learn from it?  Is not yesterday my past as much as last century?

I really wish I had only the best memories of you, because I often think of the people I have known. So many of them dead.  Buried. Turned to dust. All in my lifetime.  Their homes sold, their rooms occupied, their beds slept in by others, their clothes worn to rags….The only thing keeping them alive are the memories of the good they did, the feelings of love and respect in their deeds and words.   But these memories too will vanish when I die and take them with me. 

What about the famous people? The ones who lived larger lives and in vaster circles.  Is it their real stories that have survived or just the story of their actions?  Who do people remember as ‘heroes’?  When we talk of being inspired by Mother Teresa, Gandhi and Mandela, how many of us know what their lives were like on a daily basis?  What decisions did they have to make? How much pain and fear did they have to overcome? Given a choice, how many of us would actually exchange our lifestyles for theirs?

Almost every person who left a positive mark on humanity did so after an internal struggle with their self. We tend to look at their victory and want to emulate it – without fighting our own battle first.  However, in the world of the inner self, you can’t reap the harvest another has sown. These people didn’t fall into thier missions, they chose them.  At each challenge and difficult step, they chose to stand, to grow, to adapt to the situation instead of refusing to change and giving up.  That is what is truly inspiring about them.

That is why I love my faith too.  In the lives of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and those of the Imams (pbut), I see not only the major achievements, but also the habits and actions that formed the foundation for those achievements.  I can actually choose to copy their words and choices because they preserved everything they did and their reasoning behind it through messages like this Will.

—–

We may never be world-famous, but we need to understand that history is recorded in two dimensions.  We have the human recording of history – biased, flawed, temporary, full of mistakes and assumptions.  And we have the Divine History, where every detail of every moment of existence is recorded with only Truth as its measure.  We will all see that History some day.  Ours as well as those of the people around us. 

We will then understand the links and connections that we were unaware of, the coincidences that confused us, the reasons that dumbfounded us.  We will regret the missed opportunities and rue our careless choices. In that History, each and every one of us will have a chance to be Famous or not, based on the battles we choose to fight or flee from now.

Once, when we were talking about the greater meaning of life, you said I was “part of your Big Picture”. I remember thinking that it was the most inclusive and sincere statement I had ever heard.  For a while I was beyond disappointed that you had chosen to remove me from my place there.

But now I realise that there is in fact only One Big Picture. It is painted by the Master Artist and we are all part of it.  You in mine, me in yours, us in everyone else’s.  That’s why we are all connected and our actions and words have such far-reaching effects over time and distance.  That is why strangers understand us, the dead give us lessons in living and the past builds the foundation for our future.

So just like with fears, good advice and true history, you can try to deny or ignore my existence in your Big Picture, but you can’t rub me out of your canvas.  Because the Eraser isn’t in your hands.  Some Time, some Where, you will open your eyes and discover this Truth standing right in front of you…just where it has always been.

Always,
Me

Opt-out:  As I make this journey, I have invited some of you to share in my conversation without asking.  It’s going to be a long, uneasy road and not even one you volunteered to be on.  So if you want out, please don’t hesitate to drop me a line and let me know at any time.