I’ll bet you thought I wouldn’t be writing you another one of these, eh? Guess what? You were wrong. I would gloat over that tiny victory…if only I hadn’t spent the last two months realising how wrong I have been about so many things, for so long.
Twelve letters so far, and this is the thirteenth. Superstitious folk would say this was an unlucky letter or that I should skip it and just call it the fourteenth. But I have something special saved for the fourteenth letter and anyway, this is proving to be the ‘turning-point’ of this who-knows-how-many-more series of communications, so ‘Letter 13’ it stays.
In many ways, these letters are proving to be a journey in themselves, something parallel to my daily life. The lessons I learn, the realisations I have, the emotions I feel – all these simmer within me until finally they produce a missive, something I have to say to you. And then I sit down and start typing “Dear You…”
Sometimes I wonder how Life is treating you. Are you a better person than when I last saw you? Have you learnt anything new? Have you added any value to the quality of your Life? Have you enjoyed moments of enlightenment and epiphanies? Discovered any surprises hiding on the path you are treading that make you smile in the knowledge of being Loved by a One Who Cherishes you? I’d like to think so.
But then I pause and I remember the way you’d tell me that for you Life was about just taking things as they come and reacting to them as you felt like in that moment. At the time, I sort of admired that philosophy because it seemed so easy-going and stress-free. But after everything you have done, I have realised that your definition of ‘taking things as they come’ is passive and resigned. It includes not taking responsibility for anything you do and not stopping to think about the repercussions of your actions – except in how they affect you personally.
That’s not Life. It’s not even living. It’s merely existing, and selfishly at that.
So what then, is Life…?
Remember, my son, that a long and arduous journey is before you. Life’s journey is not only very long, exhausting, laborious and onerous, but the route is mostly through dismal, dreary and deserted regions where you will be sadly in need of refreshing and enlivening aids, and you cannot dispense with such provisions that will keep you going and maintain you to the end of your journey – the Day of Judgement.
Doesn’t sound very appealing at first read, does it? Who wants to go through something of that description? Except on a second read, you will realise that it is exactly this that makes life so Beautiful. When you walk through a pretty garden, you admire the view and derive a sense of pleasure from it, but this can in no way compare to what you would feel if you climbed a mountain and then watched a sunrise from its peak. In the former, you simply react to your surroundings, in the latter you have taken a pro-active step and worked to ‘earn’ that view.
So yes, you can spend an entire day lazing around, watching movies, hanging out with friends and doing all kinds of random things and then go to bed tired, and perhaps happy. But if you spend that same day working hard to accomplish a task or helping someone in need, if at the end of the day you have changed in some way to become a better, more complete person in yourself, the exhaustion you will feel won’t just make you happy, it will satisfy you. Happiness is a fleeting emotion – now you have it, the next minute you’re don’t, but satisfaction lasts a lifetime.
So there is Life which technically is the act of breathing, eating, sleeping and surviving for a number of years through times, environments and circumstances mostly not of your own choosing. And then there is living.
Living is being filled with energy and purpose where you wake up every morning and when you realise you’re breathing and conscious while many others are not, you understand that you have been given the chance to add just that much more worth to your self. Living is to be motivated and full of incentives to try out something different even if it’s as simple as tasting a new flavour. But mostly living is to be challenged and adventurous so that you are looking for a fresh experience every day that allows you to explore the vast depths of your own complex nature. Because the more you understand yourself, the more you will understand and be in awe of how amazing the God Who created you is.
Purpose, motivation and challenges don’t come with ease. These are not things that will just ‘happen’ or fall across your path. You have to seek them within and hunt them down without. These are the provisions and aids that help you navigate through the harsh terrains that Life will definitely walk you through.
We are all born equipped with all the instincts and skills we need to survive. We need only learn how to apply them. Take for example, a child learning how to walk. It finds balancing on two feet the most awkward thing to do and often falls in the process of learning, and yet if it was not motivated to stand in the first place, if we didn’t play ‘come here’ games with it to encourage it to keep on trying after every fall, would it ever master the art of walking?
And once it does learn to walk, the ability literally becomes second-nature and so easy that as adults we don’t even pause to think about how we move from one place to another. Instead, we try and push the limits of that ability by running and jumping at the greatest speeds we can manage.
In the same way, the art of Living involves recognizing your inner instinct that always pushes you to what is Right and True. God is always there calling out to us to ‘come here’ to Him, and always encouraging us to keep on reaching out to Him no matter how hard or far back we fall. All we need to do is respond.
But remember not to overload yourself; do not entrust yourself with so many obligations and duties that you cannot honourably fulfill them or burden yourself with a life so luxurious as to be wicked and vicious. Because if this load is more than what you can conveniently bear, then your journey will be painful and tiresome to you.
Our times are filled with stress and worries – a lot of them imagined or self-imposed. Yet in essence, why should our lives as human beings be any more complicated than those of animals or birds? Did you ever hear of a bird wishing it had been born a bug? Or a cat yearning for the qualities of a dog? Creatures accept what they are and do what they were created to do. They simply fulfill their purpose, and are perfectly content.
We too were created with a purpose, but because so few of us know what it is, we end up struggling our entire lives to achieve a ‘success’ that we have no solid definition of. Is Success a certain amount of wealth? Or fame? Or having a perfect family? Plenty of people have some or all of these things and still end up in the depths of Negativity – depressed, addicted, suicidal – looking to escape from Life rather the live through it.
When we ignore our Purpose or neglect to fulfill it, then we cause an imbalance in the Harmony of the universe that exists both within us and around us. We make commitments knowing we cannot possibly honour them, or promise things we don’t intend to deliver. We turn our backs on our humanity and become deaf to the voice of our conscience. We know what we should do, but we only do what we want to do, and we exercise no control or discipline over those wants.
All of us are tightrope walkers, and Balance is the only thing that will allow us to tread safely along the Rope of Life. Living is always being in that struggle to find Balance. The better we get at it, the more gracefully and easily we go forward. And that is when living becomes a thing of beauty, to be admired just as we admire the talent of the professional tightrope artists.
Once we lose our Balance, however, or the motivation to find it again, there is only the never-ending, spiralling fall downwards…
If you find around yourself poor, needy and destitute people who are willing to carry your load as far as the Day of Judgement, then consider this to be a boon, engage them and pass your burden on to them. Distribute your wealth amongst the poor, destitute and the needy – help others to the best of your ability and be kind and sympathetic to human beings. Thus relieve yourself of the heavy responsibility and liability of submitting an account on the Day of Reckoning of how you have made use of His Favours of health, wealth, power and position. Thus you may arrive at the end of the journey light and fresh, and may have enough provision for you there, reward of having done your duty to man and Allah in this world.
Have as many weight-carriers as you can and help as many people as you can, so that you may have them when you need them. Remember that all you give out in charities and good deeds are like loans that will be paid back to you….Be it known to you, my son, that your passage lies through the dreadful valley of death, and the journey is extremely trying and arduous.
Here a man with light weight is far better than an over-burdened person, and one who can travel fast will pass through the valley more quickly than the one whom encumberment forces to go slowly. You shall have to pass through this valley. The only way out of it is either in Heaven or in Hell; there is no other way out and no possibility of retracing your steps.
The funambulist who walks the tightrope has to grasp one main ability: to ensure his center of mass is directly above the high wire at all times. This means that the entire mass of his body is concentrated in the area above the thin path he has chosen to walk upon and this takes a constant conscious effort every second of the walk. It is not easy or even possible to always maintain this delicate state of equilibrium which is why many artists often carry a balancing pole that gives them a bit more time to move their center of mass back in place and ‘correct their balance’.
It’s not hard to shift this analogy to the Path that we must walk as human beings towards our Final Destination. The ‘straight and narrow’ it’s called, because that’s exactly what it is, just like a high wire. And in order to keep on it, we have to find the center of mass of our being – the thing that defines our existence and who we are – our soul or spirit. And then we have to weigh it down and make it the heaviest, most wholesome part of our Being and in the process ‘lighten’ everything else about ourselves.
You don’t have to ascribe to any faith / religion to know that the soul is always oriented towards what is right, good, true and simple. It yearns for Peace and Balance, but it knows that the only way to get this is by going back to Basic Essentials. Every holistic philosophy, whether ancient or modern, will emphasize the policy of de-cluttering: both externally and internally, in your physical surroundings as well as your emotional state.
The conclusion of many centuries, studies and observations have taught us that one of the best ways to feed the inner soul is to give of oneself to others. Helping those in need, works of charity, service to the community, fighting for the rights of the oppressed…these are the things that make our modern day heroes as much as they made the ancient heroes we look up to. The Universal Standard of Humanity has never changed.
It is these acts of selfless giving that become the ‘pole’ with which we regain our inner balance. Every time we stumble or make a mistake, every time we do something that we regret or are not proud of, the best way we find to atone for this and seek retribution is to turn outwards to others. We can distribute the ‘burden’ of our duties only by seeking to fulfill the rights of those around us. Our conscience understands that this is the Law that governs not just the Hereafter, but this life as well – that Giving is the only way of Gaining.
Therefore, it is wise to send your things beforehand so that your good actions arrive before you, prearrange the place of your stay before you reach it, because after death there is no repentance and no possibility of coming back to this world to undo the wrong done by you.
And therefore it is wise to act Now. To do all you can to give all you can to all the people you can. Regret is the very worst punishment we can ever inflict on ourselves. And if it is such a terrible thing to bear in this life, where there is always a chance to make amends. then how much worse will it be in the next life when there will be no chance to repair the things and people we have broken?
As someone once said: “In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take, the relationships we were afraid to have, and the decisions we waited too long to make.”
May you always seek out and find your Balance.
*All italicized blocks of quotes are from the Will of Ali bin Abi Talib (a) to his son.