Letter 11: Choose Life

Dear You

In first contemplating this letter, I was tempted to take a poor-me stance. I even had my first sentence planned out and it was going to simply be: “Again?”  Punchy, no? Following it would be a tirade of how I don’t understand what it is about me that provokes you to do the things you do. What did I ever do to you to deserve this? And so on and so forth.

Once I got past the pity-fest, I came to terms with the one thing I’ve been struggling to accept from the start: I’m not the one with the problem. You are. A part of me feels guilty even writing that down, but I think that feeling is a product of the society we live in today.

‘Don’t judge me’ has become such a catch phrase, that everybody – even criminals – throw it around as a form of defense. But sometimes, you have to judge – fairly and by universal standards – because otherwise, there is no way for people to take responsibility or reform themselves.

Remember things we used to try as children? Locking ourselves up in the cupboard from the inside, trying to see if our head would fit between the railings of a staircase and getting stuck, setting our socks on fire…the list of ridiculous experiments is endless. Inevitably these were followed by a thorough scolding or smacking – as if the experience hadn’t been a lesson enough.  What we didn’t realise as kids is that the reaction of the elder person was based more on fear of ‘what could have happened’ than fury at ‘what had happened’. It was love speaking, not anger.

But what if we repeated these mistakes as adults, knowing full well the consequences of our actions? Would people laugh later and tell stories of the things we got up to, as they do with our childhood escapades? Or would they look at us with disdain and tell us to ‘grow up’?  Where is the line between indulging your inner free spirit and being immature?

I believe the essence of being an adult lies in appreciating and respecting the ripple-effect your actions have in your life, on those around you and society as a whole.  The problem is that our emotional and spiritual maturity seems to take a backseat. So if you were get your head stuck in the staircase at work, you might get fired the next day or at least never be taken seriously while you’re employed there, yet if you happen to tell a lie or throw around a few curses, you get away with saying it’s necessary business sense or stress. Our standards for secular versus spiritual, superficial versus real growth are totally skewed.

And that is why this mail is going to be a rough ride. Because you’re not just doing some immature pranking in your life, you’re tying a noose around your neck to strangle yourself and everyone seems to be just standing watching the show. I’m sorry but I refuse to indulge you because I know what’s at stake.  Consider this my ‘reaction’ to the idiotic – and dangerous – choices you are making. I only hope something gets through to you before it’s too late…

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Be it known to you, my son, that nobody has given mankind such detailed information about God…as our Holy Prophet. …Have faith in his teachings, make him your leader and accept his guidance for your salvation. In thus advising you, I have done the best that I can as a sincere and loving adviser. I assure you that however you may try to find a better way for your good, you will not find any superior to the one recommended by me for success in this world and salvation in the next.

This what makes me so mad: you have no excuse in not having a role model. This man we both believe in, this man who is known on earth as Muhammad (One who is worthy of Praise) and in the heavens as Ahmad (One Who constantly Praises God). 

This is a man whom we know to be the most gentle, polite, compassionate, trustworthy, reliable and noble personality, who came as a Prophet and led a society out of barbarism into civilization, who opened doors to intellectual treasures and revealed oceans of knowledge, who set the highest standard of principles and ideals. This is a man who gave us back our self-respect and taught us the worth of being human.

He reigned over the entire Arabian Peninsula and also sat with the poor by the roadside, sharing their meals and their woes. He had the courage of a lion on the battlefield, and the gentleness of a lamb when he played with children.  He revealed to us our true purpose and taught us how to have a relationship with God.  He showed us the way Home, not just by drawing a map, but by actually walking down the path himself. He asked us to do nothing, unless he had first done it himself. He asked us to abstain from nothing, unless he had first abstained from it himself.

This man suffered and gave sacrifices for this message to reach us, you included.  And you claim that you are a follower of his faith, while doing none of the things he advises you to?  What kind of belief is that? What kind of respect are you showing for all the blood, sweat and tears he shed for YOU?

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Remember, my son, that had there been any other god, besides the One, he would have also sent his…prophets and they would have pointed out to mankind the domain and glory of this second god, and you would have also seen them. But no such incident ever took place. He is One God whom we all should recognize and worship. He has explained Himself. Nobody is a partner to Him….He is Eternal, has always been and shall always be. He existed before the Universe came into being, but there is no beginning to His Existence. He shall remain when every other thing has disappeared into nothingness, and there shall be no end to His Existence….None can understand or visualize Him.

When you have accepted these truths and realities, then your behaviour, as far as His orders…are concerned, should be that of a person who realizes that his status, power and position is nothing when compared to that of His Lord; who wants to gain His Favour through prayers and obedience, who fears His Wrath as well as His Punishments and who is absolutely in need of His Help and Protection.

Every day, we dress, speak and behave in public as society expects because we don’t want to embarrass ourselves or offend others. So what of the fact that God is watching us every single second? The movies we watch in the solitude of our rooms, the books we read, the thoughts we think, the promises we break, the boundaries we trespass, the duties we neglect that we think no one will ever find out about…He knows each and every one of those acts. Are we not ashamed of offending Him?  

God gave us the tongue with which we speak – and we use it to lie, He created ears – and we listen to what He has forbidden.  He gave us senses through which we derive pleasure – and we use them outside of His set boundaries. He fashioned the amazing system of sight – and we view the immorality around us with relish. Can we imagine life without these abilities? And yet we use them to go against Him? Is there a depth of ingratitude to which we will not sink?

What excuse do you – do any of us – have for this disobedience? You gave me two.

i) ‘Because I want to.’

Really? I mean…really? After reading the above, you still have a sense of ‘I’?  Who are you? Who are any of us? What is our place in this world? Do we make the sun come up in the morning or bring the nightfall? We complain of lack of time but can we make a day longer for our convenience even by five minutes?

When we plant a seed, do we make it germinate or tell it how and what to grow into?  Do we control the rains that fall or just wait and pray for them to come? Did we make the sugar we sweeten our tea with or the variety flavours in our food? Did we create that heady scent the fresh earth gives off when it rains or the feelings that make our hearts beat faster?

How many things do we derive pleasure from in a variety of ways during any given day…and how many of those things did we originate ourselves?  Everything we use is borrowed, everything is on loan, everything is a favour, a debt we owe Someone Else. And we still have the audacity to possess a sense of ‘what I want’ over what He wants?

It doesn’t matter how successful, happy or great you think you are, as long as you can’t show gratitude for all you have been given, what really is your worth?

If you ‘want’ to sin so much, then do what the great-grandson of the Prophet said: either don’t eat any food provided by God, or find a place in the universe that doesn’t belong to Him, or hide your actions from Him…and if you can’t do any of that, then when the Angel of Death comes, refuse to give him your soul so that you have no accounting to worry about.

Do any of these things and then by all means go live your life the way you want to…

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Remember, my son, that God has not ordered you to do anything, but that which is good and which propagates goodness and He has not forbidden you anything but that which is bad and will bring about bad effects.

ii) “I’m getting it out of my system.”

You’re beyond blessed to believe in a God Who only asks you to do what will help you and to stay away from what will destroy you.  So what makes you think disobedience to Him is IN your system or needs to go through it in the first place?

The fact that He said you have to avoid certain things completely – immorality, alcohol, drugs, lies, promiscuity, certain kinds of music, places of decadence – it means these things have NO PLACE in the system He fashioned.

Would you start drinking a litre of sewage water every day as part of your diet? Maybe eat a plate of rotting vegetables or maggot-infested meat? Just to get it out of your system? If you were stupid enough to do this, not only would people think you were disgusting, you’d either die from the toxins or get so used to it that you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between wholesome and repulsive fare.

The same thing happens with your spirit. If you feed bad habits into your system, they will either embed themselves in your heart so you won’t even see them as being different from good or they’ll kill your soul.

Don’t kid yourself that you’ll get over them. If you think you’re in so much control, why the need to keep doing these things? Why not stop now?  If you decide to, you’ll have to fight the Devil himself to get rid of these habits.  And even if you succeed, the effects, the shame and regret, these will always haunt you.

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My dear son…I have explained everything about this world, how fickle and quick-changing its attitude, how short-lived…everything that it holds or offers is, and how fast it changes its moods and its favours. I have also explained the life to come, the pleasures and blessings provided in it, and the everlasting peace, comfort and happiness arranged for in Heaven.  I have given enough examples of both aspects of life, before and after death so that you may know the reality and lead your life on the basis of that knowledge.

Do you notice how the last sentence above refers to only life? The event of death is simply a barrier you pass through between two sides.  The only difference being that this side is a reflection of the other, what you do here is what you are there.

For a while, I blamed your circumstances and your friends for your change.  After all, events could have pushed you to make bad choices and the people around you, your new relationships, how much could they really care about you if they were inviting you towards the forbidden? But then I realised those are their choices.  In truth, only YOU are to blame for your own decisions. 

How much can you possibly love your friends if you’re dragging them into disobedience with you?  Instead of trying to show them the right way, you’re happy to watch and help them along as they destroy themselves as well?  Isn’t that selfishness of the worst kind?  As if handling the responsibility for your own choices isn’t enough, you want to take on the responsibility of encouraging others too?   Perhaps you need to re-define your concept of Love and Friendship.  Because right now it seems you claim to care easily enough, but your actions show the complete opposite.

There are people out there who, if they had even one of the many gifts you have been given, they would set themselves firmly on the path to progress towards Him.  Instead you disregard your blessings and then hide behind excuses.  What a strange mix of ingratitude, bravado and cowardice…

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I started this mail by warning you that there would be judgement involved. I have tried to use a measure that you cannot refute – unless you want to deny your own beliefs.  But true judgement isn’t about pointing out someone’s flaws, otherwise it would just be gossip.  It’s about telling them: “YOU are better than this”. That is the message the Prophet – your Prophet, brought for you: realize your own worth and help others realize theirs.

We buried a 12 year old girl this past weekend. It was a harsh reminder that death does not discriminate. It could come to you or to me at the end of this sentence. Or this one.  Every second that ticks away is carrying you one second closer to your end. 

In Islam, ‘dead’ isn’t used to describe your physical body. It’s only when your soul is no longer aware of God, then you are considered to be dead.  It doesn’t matter how much fun you have or how much you achieve, or how much you entertain others and are entertained by them.  When you turn against the Truth, in the eyes of your faith, you’re a walking, talking corpse.

You need to realise that the greatest gift you have is Now.  And that means you only ever have this moment to make a decision to be brave or be a coward. Every time you pass into another moment, it’s a gift on loan from God, one more second to make that choice.  Not days, not months, not years, just this one moment to choose between living and dying.

You may think you’re not suicidal, but I’m watching you slowly kill your true self.  And no matter how much I want to, I can’t physically shake you in the hope that something will come awake inside of you.   I can only write all these letters and keep yelling: Stop being an IDIOT and CHOOSE LIFE, will you?  Not for God or me, not even for the new friends you have, but for your self.

Choose. Life.

Always,
Me

*All italicized blocks of quotes are from the Will of Ali bin Abi Talib (a) to his son.

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Letter 10: A Tale of Three Years…

Dear You,

I’ve lived most of my life forgetting things.  I forget to shut doors and then bump into them; I forget my cell phone and miss important calls, I forget toast in the oven and burn it.  I forget important deadlines, essential necessities, promised tasks, birthdays, anniversaries, telephone numbers…I’ve even forgotten my own name once.  It’s never been hard for me to misplace memories and let things vanish into yesterday like they never happened.  Until now.

Suddenly I remember.  I remember waiting with fingers poised over a Send button three years ago today, wondering why I was doing what I was doing, debating whether to simply delete the message unsent or not.  I remember sitting for months afterwards and thinking – first in amazement and later in confusion – of what it did accomplish, and whether it might have been better never to have indulged in that one (and only) true whim I ever had in my life.

I remember a lot more too.  I haven’t gone back to re-read a conversation or to reference an event but I can recall with a clarity I find surprising, the most random moments from the past thirty-six months.  Words, gestures, tones, silences, events.  I can recall the coolness of a stone step and the barely comfortable heat of a sunned bench.  I can hear the rain on a tin roof and shiver at the memory of chill breeze.  I remember the colour of the sky on certain days and the smell of a specific scent on others, I can feel ghost textures that my fingers trailed on and sense emotions without the events that evoked them.

I have many many details in my mind that will haunt me for the rest of my life. I don’t know why these things have been carved indelibly in my mind.  I never consciously stored them and so I don’t know how to rid myself of them.  At first I thought that I remembered them because the specific memories had such strong associations that there was no choice but to do so.  But then I discovered that many a time, something I had stored away as being special had simply slipped your mind as a passing event. 

Did you know that sometimes saying “I don’t remember” doesn’t mean you have a bad memory?  It implies that you didn’t consider that incident worth remembering. Perhaps there is something to be said about everything that has happened in that?  Perhaps.

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Remember that this world is working under the laws ordained by Him, and it consists of the totality of actions and reactions, causes and effects, calamities and reverses, pains and pleasures, rewards and punishments; but this is not all that the picture depicts; there are things in it that are beyond our understanding, things that we do not and cannot know, and things that cannot be foreseen and foretold.  For instance the rewards and punishments of the Day of Judgement.

I have always been aware of the Unseen working under the patterns of our actions and words.  It has been a blessing of the faith we belong to – knowing that the Hand of God supports all our plans.  And that sometimes, it thwarts them too.  But that doesn’t mean the way things work is fatalist either. 

The laws set out by God guide us to understand what causes will have what effects.  When you try and grab the blade of a sharp knife, you will cut yourself and bleed, but when you hold on to someone you trust, it makes you feel warmer and more secure.  The same hand, the same sense, but such different feelings based on what you apply it to. It only matters which you choose to reach out for.

Pain and pleasure are to some extent our own doing.  We may feel them as an effect to the circumstances around us or the actions of others towards us, but we can also cause them in others. If you are born with a disability or in circumstances you cannot control, there is a different kind of patience and understanding required of you.  But if you have the power to harm or to heal, to support or abandon, to help or to hurt, to make the right choices or the wrong ones…as long as you are equally capable of doing one or the other, I cannot find any justification for choosing the negative option.

It is true that the future cannot be predicted, that the familiar can become strange overnight, but for every moment in our lives, we have the choice to try and make the present the kind of ‘cause’ that will have the best ‘effect’ on our future.   We can neither blame our character and habits nor our feelings and fears.  If we are to be truly human, we must step back from ourselves and first take control of who we are.

Otherwise every dictator and tyrant, every liar and thief in the world will claim that they only committed their crimes because they couldn’t control their actions, because it was in them and they didn’t understand what motivated them. Because once they were down a certain path, it was too late or difficult to turn back.  It was when people stopped questioning themselves and holding themselves accountable, when people refused to take long hard looks at themselves and forgot that the only way to perfect themselves was to admit their flaws, and then to have the courage to change…when this happened, we ended up with the society that surrounds us today.

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Under these circumstances, if you do not understand a thing, do not refuse to accept it. Remember that your lack of understanding is due to the insufficiency of your knowledge. Remember that when you came into this world your first appearance was that of an ignorant, uneducated and unlearned being; then you gradually acquired knowledge.  There were several things which were beyond your knowledge, which perplexed and surprised you and about which you did not understand “why” and “how”. Gradually you acquired knowledge about some of those subjects, and in future your knowledge and vision may further expand.

For every four out of five questions I have ever asked you in seeking understanding, you have replied with: “I don’t know why”.  I have to be satisfied with this answer because I don’t see myself getting any others in its stead.  But it bothers me that you are satisfied with it too.  It reeks of resignation and I never took you as being of the people who give up on themselves so easily.

Of course you don’t know! Few of us do when faced with new and frightening circumstances.  Isn’t life a process of growth? What to do, when to do it, how to do it?  Every time we face a new choice in life, our first reaction is always “I don’t know how / why / what.”  But we weigh options and think of possibilities, we find out and do research, we take the effort to learn and be absolutely sure that we do know so that we can do what is best for ourselves and those around us.

So when you say you don’t know and then you’re okay with not knowing, with ignoring the things that would help you understand your actions and the consequences they have, this seems to me to be a stubborn streak that stunts potential and abilities.  An imprisoning of the self by someone who was born to be free. A fear that has gripped you so completely that it has crippled you on your True Journey.

It is as the Will says: you only have got so far in life based on the things you have been taught in the journey from infancy through childhood to adulthood.  What you learn next or ignore, how far you go and in which direction – now these things are in your hands and your responsibility.  And where you go, what you do, the people you are with, these things determine the kind of path you will adopt. 

The son to whom this Will was addressed has said “If you felt the need to befriend people, then befriend a person whose association adds to your dignity…”  because habits are infectious.  How much true dignity is there in your life right now?  How much of its lack is from your own choice? Are you adding dignity to their lives?

Even if you don’t do something to change your life and fail instead, it will be of your own doing and not just ‘meant to happen’.  Inaction is as much an active choice as action is.

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Therefore, the best thing for you to do is to seek guidance of the One Who has created you, Who maintains and nourishes you, Who has given you a balanced mind and a normal working body.

I have a book on my shelf that talks about why men don’t ask for directions and women can’t read maps.  It’s an age-old Mars/ Venus issue.  In both cases, the problem is with taking instructions.  Regardless of gender, our pride prevents us from asking someone else for what we consider to be simple direction.

Therefore, the concept of asking an entity we can’t even see for guidance on how to live our lives is one that rubs a large number of people the wrong way.  Life is the only thing we think is our personal property to do with as we will.  To be told how to go about it would be the final supreme act of suppression.  What would happen to free thinking and expression? What would happen to independent spirits and exploration?  What would happen to identity and individuality? What would happen to ‘me’ and what I want?

We don’t disagree on the existence of God.  You know as well as I do how much of your daily life depends on Him.  The body you use – and misuse – in all its health and glory, that is a gift from Him; every breath you take, you owe Him.  Your mind that challenges and explores, that is capable of witty answers and thoughtful conclusions, of dreaming and imagining, filled with intelligence and sensitivity – that was created and given to you by Him.

Can you imagine what kind of life you would live if you didn’t have a personal sanctuary within, that keeps you sane?  How often have you withdrawn to that special inner place and found that you can be good company for yourself because you have been blessed with the ability to do so?

You have the capacity to show enormous appreciation for the smallest of favours from other human beings, to make them feel that the one good turn they have done you is worth a dozen times more.  Why do you then deny it to God who has given you literally everything?  Why do you give so much to others whom you owe no more than thanks, and keep away from God the constant gratitude He deserves? If you did that to another human being, society would look down on you.  Indeed you would not respect someone who did that to others.  So how do you accept it in yourself towards Him?

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Your prayers should be reserved for Him only, your requests and solicitations should be to Him, you should be afraid of Him and of nobody else.

He doesn’t want much from you, you know.  Dedication to His cause – which in essence is your cause as it only perfects you – is all He asks of you.  That you obey Him and follow His Laws. That you show utmost loyalty to Him alone.

And that in times of confusion, when decisions need to be made you turn to Him for help instead of running away into the escapism of desires.  That you stand up and face whatever He sends your way, always choosing to do the right thing, even when you don’t feel like.  That you seek out which path is the right one, instead of hiding behind excuses of not knowing.

He wants you to make Him your priority, because you are His priority.  He created you to be an example of nobility, honour and leadership.  He gave you the potential and the circumstances to mould you – sometimes with the gentle touch of a potter, sometimes with the fierce flames of a furnace. 

Why do you give in to fear of your own self when the only one to be feared is Him?

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I write these words and try to inject as much enthusiasm into them as I can, but I must admit (raw honesty was the policy, right?) that I find my energy waning.  I am tired of coming up with new ways to say things so that they have some effect.  I feel like I’m beginning to repeat myself; scraping away with a nail file at the brick wall of your prison when you have the key to open the door and walk out yourself…

This isn’t about something simple or inconsequential.  This is about life and death, about saving an Eternity and I wonder if I am up to fighting this battle.  At first my doubt was whether you would ever read these words, but now I wonder if even when read they will ever be the spark I try so hard to make them. 

How many times do you strike flint before giving up reasonable hope of ever lighting a fire?  When do you finally give up and allow yourself to fall asleep in the dark without knowing when the dawn will come? 

I ask myself these questions because three years have passed and the only thing I have to show for it is being stuck between ‘Farewell’ and ‘Hello again’.

Always,
Me

*All italicized blocks of quotes are from the Will of Ali bin Abi Talib (a) to his son.