Reflections on a decade
Thinking back over the past 10 years, I find my mind racing to recall all the things meaningful to me during this time. Some of it is just a blank in my mind, some extremely vivid. Rather than a chronology of the various events and happenings of the last 10 years I’ve decided to review my emotions this decade. Most of what I write will be spontaneous, discernible to some but may be a but cryptic to others, but that’s the thing with emotions, they’re funny like that. Each and every one of us experience them differently. How we experience them ties together a myriad of thoughts, events, and reactions. Emotions string all this together, like a thread connecting our varying experiences to each other.
Neither positive or negative, every emotion is beneficial even if at first glance it seems to be negative. There’s a purpose for everything that happens in life. When we experience “negative” emotion, that’s very much part of the process of living. We are supposed to feel sad just as we feel happy. We are supposed to feel less than at times, just as we feel more. Life is good, although at times it doesn’t seem so. What we see as negative is what gives us equilibrium, re-calibrates our purpose, and reminds us of our mortality, frailty, and humanity.
As Garry Shandling said “We need something in our society that says let’s give importance to heart and authenticity not just money, power, and how we’re going to control the world.”
So here for you are my reflections and recollections on a few emotions I’ve experienced this last 10 years.
Yes well, what *is* love? This one’s really a difficult emotion to tackle. I think over time my concept of love has drastically changed. While many times we think of it as the warm fleeting feeling we get when we are with those that are closest to us, I think love is something else. Love is dedication. Love is service. Love is devotion. Love is appreciation. All of those things will play themselves out and manifest in different ways throughout your life. The biggest mistake that we make about love is that we think that it’s always supposed to be the same, it’s always supposed to have the same effect, and when that love changes then it no longer exists.
I recall calling my mother after the death of my father. It being the middle of the night where she lives I was sobbing into her answering machine. I said “I know that you don’t love my father anymore but I think you should know that he has passed away.” My mother called me in the morning and said to me words that I will never forget “Son, although we are divorced, it’s not that I don’t love your father. I still love him, I just love him differently now.”
Love is like a seed, it has to be watered, given sunlight, and cared for. Sometimes, like a plant, it grows and has to be moved to a different pot, another land, or a better environment. That doesn’t mean that the love that we had in the past didn’t exist or was wrong. But what it means is that just as we grow, morph, and change from children into adults, so does our love.
After this decade of loss of life and love, I resolve to allow love to remain for those I’ve lost, so that the positive they’ve brought into my life remains something I honor and recognize. I will honor myself by honoring the memory of them, both living and dead.
I was speaking with a good friend of mine who was visiting from abroad. Like me, he had gone through a divorce in the past. I needed to know how to deal with the pain and frustration that is very real afterwards. While talking, he said to me “Do you know what the opposite of Love is?” I said “Yes, obviously its hate.” He said “No you’re wrong. The opposite of love is not hate, the opposite of Love is indifference. Hate is an emotion that occupies your heart and takes up space. Don’t give a space in your heart to someone you don’t love.”
There are many things that we love and hate about ourselves. Hate is an emotion that can consume you because you don’t want to honor yourself by allowing yourself to recognize the faults of others, and by extension your own faults. But hate is never a positive emotion unless it is done for God’s sake. We must love the good in people and hate the bad in them. But when we allow ourselves to be blinded to the good in others because of a (relatively) bad thing about them, we allow ourselves to be blinded by hate and that is not the same as disliking something for the sake of God. Malik reports in the Muwatta that Jesus was walking with his disciples and they passed by the carcass of a goat. His disciples said, “It’s so stinky and rotten!” He said, “Yes but look at its teeth they are so white!”
Learn to hate those things that attract you to sin and diminish your righteousness and learn to become indifferent to those things that are simply upsetting to your ego.
In reviewing the things I have “hated” over the last decade, whether that be people and their actions, or even myself and my own actions, in reality none of that was for God’s sake. When I look at hating others it was in reality only jealousy. Mad at what they had been given and I had not, I was envious of how they were able to leverage their resources in ways I was not. My self-hate was dishonesty with myself; I focused on others but failed to recognize my strengths and admit my faults. This is what held me back from my greatest potential.
Hate is an emotion that has to be preserved as a protective measure, to make sure that you dislike those things that will ultimately lead you the disbelief, sin, and lead you away from Jannah. Other than that, you should have no place in your heart for hate.
After my friend’s advice I’ve learned that I have to love and if not then be indifferent. See someone with blessings? Love that for them and if not be indifferent. It has no effect on your life. If I myself have been blessed with something then I must recognize that in myself, not hate it, not be ashamed, not feel bad for being good at what God has blessed me with. If there are things that I struggle with and do not like about myself, then my mandate is to focus on the positive, while recognizing the negative and being indifferent to it. This is not an easy thing to do and the struggle is real.
I remember going to my friend and personal trainer Chris and complaining to him about pain and tension in the back of my knee. He told me to lie down on the floor and to twist my foot out while keeping my knees in front of me. He then said to another person at the gym “Look at that, what does that tell you?” Not to bore you with the details but essentially what I thought was a bad knee turned out to simply a signal that other things in my body we’re not working how they should have. I would have to make changes to my lifestyle, in my mobility, and my physical fitness to be able to quiet that signal and solve the problem. It had nothing to do with pain or my knee.
Pain has been a very real feeling over the past 10 years. Whether it is the enduring pain of the loss of my father and my grandmother, the pain of separation and divorce, the pain of raising children and its related challenges, the pain of loss of business and opportunity, the pain of pushing myself forward for personal growth, the pain of consistency and time management, the pain of self-reflection and of learning to be vulnerable. All of this pain is very real, but what did it tell me?
We many times think of pain as a negative emotion. Because we experience pain, we think that we are wrong, bad, or not worthy. But pain doesn’t mean that you’re not worthy, or that you’re a bad person. Like that knee, it is a signal. It’s letting you know that the noise in your life has gotten so loud that you have to be alerted to your need for change. Of all of the different types of pain that I listed above I have become grateful to God for every single one of them. Each has allowed me to grow personally in ways that I would have never imagined had that signal not turned on for me one day.
Always ask, “What is pain telling me?”
At my grandmother’s funeral in 2014, some of my relatives were worried that I would not be able to enter the church because I was a Muslim. My mother quipped “Do you think if he walks in, he’s going to spontaneously combust?!” My aunt said “Jesus, you didn’t have to put it like that!” My mom smiled and said, “Don’t worry he believes in Jesus too!”
Later on, as we gathered for the funeral we the grandchildren were asked to stand at the front of the church with my grandmother’s lifeless body. As we stood there and our parents were in the pews, my stepfather remarked that instead of the thick black jacket that I had worn due to the cold I should have color coordinated with my siblings and worn something gray.
I grabbed the upper button of my coat’s lapel, tugged it a bit, and simply said with a smile “It’s fire retardant.” He smiled back then chuckled, then everyone else in our family audibly laughed, much to the chagrin of other parishioners. We greeted those entering to pay their respects, all of us with a smile on our faces at least for a second. As we walked away, I took one last look at my grandmother in her open casket. I knew that that was the exact level of jovial melancholy that would have made her laugh as well. Looking back on this moment, we were all able breathe a bit easier at a time when the air was very heavy. I was content, and remember this as one of the most beautiful moments in my life.
There haven’t been many times that I feared for my life. Fear comes in different forms. There is one time however when I was living in Saudi Arabia and having been one of the students of that time that owned a vehicle, I drove some friends to Mecca. One of our friends with us was from Morocco. His father lived at the top of a mountain in Mecca and so instead of walking the steep incline we decided to drive. He said to me, “I know these streets like the back of my hand so just continue to drive.” As we went up the winding roads on the side of the mountain scooting past other cars on streets that seems too small, we reached a small incline that we would need to overcome in order to get to flatter more navigable asphalt. My car was at such an incline that I couldn’t even see over my front of the hood. I had no idea what was in front of me. I asked them to get out of the car, lighten the load, and guide me on the street. My Moroccan friend said “Absolutely not! Just drive straight, I’m sure that there’s a road there!” Something in me said this is not the thing to do so, I put the car in park and refused to move until someone got out and guided me. As I drove up one of them said “okay let off the brakes, step on the gas and cut a hard left.” I did as he instructed and as I as I came over the incline, I noticed that had I obeyed my friend in the passenger seat all six of us in the car at that time would have drove off of a cliff and plunged to our deaths into a rocky quarry. I got out of my car, walked up to the edge, and looked down. I felt a huge sense of fear for my life but also an immense amount of relief.
It’s amazing how many times the things that we fear in life are not absolute unknowns, but they are the known unknowns. Small children aren’t afraid of climbing trees or petting dogs. But once they are bitten or they fall down they develop a fear of doing those things again. Them falling or getting bit again is probably not going to happen, but our human brains go into protection mode and want to save us from the pain again. So, we suppress our urge to climb higher and to interact with things that were interested in. We allow fear to overcome us, we stash it away deep inside of us, then we sit inactive and do nothing. We wonder why, but in reality, it’s because we are trying to avoid our fears, instead of face them head on and find solutions through them.
Don’t suppress your fear. Expand your comfort zone. Normalize what you’re afraid of.
When we think about happiness, we tend to think about major events that bring joy. A marriage, the birth of a child, a graduation, a major accomplishment. Yes, all of those things make us happy. But is that was “joy” necessarily is? I’ve started to rethink this. I try to look at life as a constant joy. What I mean by this is: when our focus is on making ourselves happy, this means we think we are normally not. When we talk about living a good life, it’s almost as if we assume that life by default is not good.
When I think back on this decade sure there were a few major events that made me extremely happy. My four oldest children graduated from high school. Oldest of the four graduated from college, got employed, finished memorizing the Quran, and got married. I finished teaching several courses and felt a sense of accomplishment. These are things that no doubt made me very happy.
But where do I find my joy. Thinking back over the last 10 years I find my joy in the little things, the things that usually we take for granted, the things that come and go quickly. These things I like to think of as the building blocks of our life. I think back to gifts my children bring home for me from school, to the times when they ask me to take them to buy supplies for their science projects, to the times when someone gives me a firm handshake after prayer and simply says thank you, to the times when parents in the community would mention to me how grateful they were for my ex-wife’s teaching abilities and the care that she showed their children in class, to the expenses that although they seem to take money away from us helped build frequent flyer miles and allowed my parents to be with me when my children graduated, to the blessings of a dedicated class of students study in the Quran together now for five years. All of these things are joy. I remember one Sunday this year I walked into the school building to teach class. As I entered the door someone looked up and simply smiled at me. That smile brightened my entire week and has remained a glimmer of joy in my memory since. Joy is simple. Its those silly memes that a friend and I consistently trade over Twitter DMs. It’s that text from a person who just messages out of the blue to say that you are appreciated. Joy is a warm hug from your child. Joy is the cool breeze that refreshes you while you wait outside. It’s the small things that happen, are almost not noticed, and many times disregarded. They are the small things that are a catalyst for the great things.
I want you to think back to everything that happened over the last decade and realize that the small things that pleased you are the plot points on your timeline of happiness.
No matter how small they are, they are significant and move us forward.
With the year 2020 commencing and a new decade starting, I hope that you can find joy in every moment moving forward, leading you down the line to happiness in this life and ultimate happiness in the next.