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.

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