I watched a movie today. I don’t really watch them so much anymore. Lame as it sounds, not being in sync with the rest of the world is one of the ways I maintain my independence. So when people are going on and on about this latest release or the other, I can just shrug and look around for what’s not getting any attention. It makes me feel like I’m in on special secrets the majority haven’t a clue about.
Back to the movie though… it was a happy, simple, linear story. As movies go, there were none of the conventional plot twists. In fact it was less about the how of the story and more about the what. Reviewers have described it as a showcase for ideals, a feel-good movie about honesty and sincerity, simplicity and innocence, about principles and noble thinking, about family and friends, about being there for each other and about celebrating existing relationships and building new ones. The cheesy stuff, y’knw?
I think the producer was trying to recreate the way things were just a few years ago and perhaps it was the stark contrast of what was and what is now that got to me. The sense of utter loss in seeing all the values we have abandoned played out in this ‘life-should-be-like-this’ story. I don’t cry easily and I’ve never needed a tissue during a movie, but this one made up for all my years of stoicism.
It reminded me that the stories we tell in fiction are the dreams and ideals we hold in our hearts. We create and watch these stories with such enthusiasm because a part of us wishes real life would be like that – where people always end up doing what’s right, where villains realise their wrongs and change or get what they deserve, where there is a recompense for every pain and hurt and where justice is served; where no matter how far you go down the wrong road, you always have the sense to turn back.
It got me thinking. What really prevents us from actually living these kinds of lives? Why can we envision the ideals and goodness, but not practice them? If we can dream up what the best kind of human being would be and call him or her a hero, what stops each and every one of us from becoming those heroes in real life?
My dear son! Though the span of my life is not as that of some other people who have passed away before me yet I took great care to study their lives…sifting the good from bad I am concentrating within these pages, the knowledge that I gathered. Through this advice I have tried to bring home to you the value of honest living and high thinking and the dangers of a sinful life…
Honesty and high-thinking. In the journey through this Will, there’s got to be a lot of that for me. Honesty about myself: what I have failed to do, what I haven’t done yet and what I need to do still – these are not things I’m enjoying having to analyze. And sharing them is another issue, yet having promised to do so the same honesty demands I have to stick to my word. But difficult as all that is, high-thinking sometimes seems even harder to accomplish. Setting your sights on a more noble way of life means losing a lot of things and the first of these are usually your friends…
We relate to the good guy in a movie or book because he appeals to the innate tendency we all have to gravitate towards perfection and right. But we don’t go beyond just feeling because a part of us thinks: “It’s fiction. No one like that really exists. I don’t have to feel guilty about not being like him.” The 2-dimensionality of silver screen and paper gives us a chance to excuse ourselves.
But what would happen if we had to actually live around someone who constantly upheld ‘good guy’ principles when we didn’t? Someone who had the depth of character we lacked? It would be like looking into a Mirror of Truth where all our flaws and shortcomings are clearly reflected. Suddenly, there would be someone tangible in the same environment we are, with the same challenges we face but still managing to live with nobility, not giving the excuses we are, making hard choices and rubbing our noses in the fact that we’re too selfish /cowardly to do the same.
That’s why if you decide to try becoming high-minded in your thoughts and actions, chances are good that people will translate that into being high-handed as well. If you choose not to compromise on your principles, you might be tagged as inflexible, judgmental, self-righteous – anything negative that will allow others to silence the inner voice of their conscience.
Keeping that in mind makes it so hard to be different, to be better. A sinful life just doesn’t seem dangerous enough to warrant being ostracized. If someone wants to live immorally then it’s their choice, isn’t it? They’ll waste their own life and that will be that. We conveniently forget that society is a community. One person’s actions affect not just their immediate connections, but everyone. When we accept the unfair or immoral actions of an individual or ignore their effects on another, we reduce the general caliber of the entire society.
Yet, in a world where the soul is denied or dismissed, how can we expect concern for its health to exist? All we want is an easy, happy, entertaining life surrounded by friends and family and some level of success, so it can become tempting to just go with the flow of things in order to ensure you have people around you – regardless of the quality of their company. After all, the greatest fear a human being harbours is that of being alone in this world.
I did something a few nights ago that I haven’t in a long time. I took my cup of tea, went outside and looked up. The last time I had looked up at the night sky, I had marvelled at its beauty (yellow stars!) with you. After everything, it had been too painful to even do that, so I was surprised at how easily the hurt settled in, made itself comfortable and then allowed me to continue my musing.
I stared and stared and then stared some more, because I couldn’t stop staring. When did I forget that particular shade of deep black-blue that only a moonless night can have? And the stars…did someone polish them in the months I have been hiding away in the shadows of my heart? Because these stars twinkled and sparkled like none I can remember seeing. It was as if the air had become thinner or my eyesight a little clearer or perhaps, maybe… the heavens had shifted just that bit closer?
Have you ever looked into the eyes of another person and seen something so deep, so strong, so fearsomely overwhelming that the world seemed to take a deep breath and stand still? And no matter how hard you tried, you couldn’t tear your eyes from theirs? That’s how I felt. My palms were stinging from the prickly heat of the ceramic mug, my neck had a crick from looking back so far, my knees felt weak from the weight of cosmos bearing down on me and my eyes were burning from the uncountable pinpoints of light searing them, but…but, it was impossible to look away.
So there I stood on a slab of cracked concrete, wondering at the mind-boggling extent spread out all around me, at how endless the space was in all directions! Each of those pretty sparkles was a solid mass, gigantic beyond imagination. Some were entire galaxies like our own (galaxies!) and I could see them merely as hazy blots. What about the distances between them? Chock-full of more cosmic debris and yet so far way that it looked like just a few inches of emptiness instead. And even that emptiness didn’t last…
It was a bit like you feel when you enter a dark room and are blinded for a few moments. Then gradually, your eyes become accustomed to the lack of light and you begin to make out objects. The more I stared at that inky sea, the more stars appeared in places they hadn’t been a second before. Faintly shining dots overlapped each other – layer upon layer – creating a depth that spiralled outwards into eternity. There was no light at the end of this tunnel, the light was woven into the very fabric of its walls.
Slowly the sky began to take on a consistency like clotted cream – thick and heavy – into which someone might have stirred crystals of sugar that sparkled, reflecting Divine Light with every motion of the Cosmic Hand. Then, as I stood there covered by that rich thickness, it all came alive…
One by one, each twinkling synced with those around it until finally the entire sky seemed to be gently throbbing. And in the next moment, I felt my entire being expand and contract in unison with it, as if in having managed to find the pulse of the universe, I had torn through the fabric of space-time and become trapped in its veins…until I realised it was because everything had synced itself to the most familiar of all music to my self – the rhythm of my own heartbeat.
I’ve always believed that there are other life-forms somewhere out there. But now I know there IS life out there. It’s the same Life that is in me and around me, it’s the same Life that is in everything that exists. It doesn’t matter if we ever find a new species on another planet – it will still originate from the same Life Source as us. (Why are we hunting so desperately for answers that we already have?)
In that moment, I knew that God was staring me in the face, giving me His Full Attention. No one had ever gone to so much effort to show such Love in just one glance, so I opened up to Him. I told Him all the things that I was afraid of for you and for me, the things I regretted from Yesterday, the things I was unsure about Today and the things I hoped so much for Tomorrow. I must have whined a lot more than I thanked, begged a lot more than I shared, wanted a lot more than I could promise in return. But it was a nice chat, I’m pretty sure about that even though I don’t remember much of it.
I don’t remember how long I stood there or when I sat down or what I sat on. I don’t remember when I finished my tea or how I managed to come back inside, when at the slightest encouragement from Him, I think I would have simply floated up into that Sparkling Tunnel to Eternity and never missed a thing I left behind.
However, I do remember wondering why I hadn’t done this in so long. Did I get so caught up in you, myself and everything that’s happened that I forgot Him? I always thought that in this friendship we had, God was an Overseer, looking out for both of us. But I’m beginning to think that might not have been the case. None of my relationships are about me and another person. All of them are about me and Him, the other person is only there to make me appreciate His Perfection. In reality, I only have one relationship – the one I was born into and the one I will die in. I have only one Soul mate and one Love, and He found me before I even knew to look for Him.
I will always have Someone to talk to, Someone who understands me, Someone who accepts me just as I am. I can be as high-minded as I want with Him, because there’s no limit to the summit or the depth or the vastness of our relationship. I know I loved talking to you and sometimes I miss our conversations so much I play out old ones in my head, but despite all that, these talks with Mr. God are different.
After all, who else can I chat with who can ask me, “How much Starlight would you like with that tea?”
…I felt nervous that I may leave you untrained and uneducated in the subjects which themselves are subject to so much confusion and so many contradictions. Subjects whose confusions have been made worse by selfish desires, warped minds, wicked ways of life and sinful modes of thinking. Therefore, I have noted down, in these lines, the basic principles of nobility, piety, truth and justice. You may feel they are over-bearing and harsh, but my desire is to equip you with this knowledge instead of leaving you unarmed to face the world where there is every danger of loss and damnation.
Looking back, even in just 8 letters, I know I have said things that are over-bearing and harsh already. And what is to come in the letters that follow will probably be even more blunt. But lessons as valuable as nobility, piety, honesty and justice never come on a silver platter. You have to hear hard words and accept harder truths, and then hardest of all, you have to be willing to actually change, to make amends, to sacrifice, to fight against friend and foe alike to gain these qualities and nurture them for your self.
Just remember that if you choose to stand on the battlefield of Right and defend the Truth with your life, you may be lonely, but you will never be alone. You may feel misunderstood, but there will always be Someone who understands you perfectly. You may have no companions, but your fight will not be solitary.
I believe you are as capable – if not more – than other people to do this. Therefore, the final words I leave you with for this letter are filled with some of that old feeling I was so sure I had eradicated when I wrote my last letter. (Perhaps I am an emotional wuss after all?) They are the words of encouragement that this father left, not just for his son, but for anyone who wants to inherit from his Will:
I am sure you will receive Divine Guidance and Help. I am sure He will help you to achieve your aim in life.
Just make sure you set your aim right so He can. Please.
*All italicized blocks of quotes are from the Will of Ali bin Abi Talib (a) to his son.