I have a weird thing about, an affinity for – perhaps an obsession with – lists. I seem to have longings, in me, to create lists on every topic. Favourite movies, cool places to travel to, things to pack in my bag whenever I go on these adventures. I generate numerous lists of numerous things. I suppose they (are meant to) give me a sense of control over my life. I also have a list of the names of my ‘loved ones’. Of course, love and good friendships tend to be (and should be) fairly organic affairs. However, in my mind’s own view at least, keeping lists of such things grants me a sense of structure; ensures that I will not accidentally forget to, say, keep in touch with those who are truly worth keeping in touch with.
At times I wonder if my list-making tendencies are a tad unhealthy. They certainly do function, in my life, as tools of stress relief. But then I also worry about forgetting to add important things to my lists; I worry about including too many things. What truly motivates me to write them up in the first place? Why are sensations of stress so effective in driving me to put pen to paper and list things in such a way?
I am so afraid of forgetting important things. Like who I am, and how ‘best to live my life’. I am afraid (even though I know that a human being cannot be concisely defined through things like sentences and lists) of being wholly undefined, amorphous, personality-wise.
I love that I am ‘naturally inclined’ towards certain things; I love being driven by passion and inspiration. And maybe it is because I have been, for so long, such an ardent lover of writing, but I almost feel like things are not real until they are written down. If left unwritten, things just float around aimlessly in the air. They disappear; we rely on our own memory functions to preserve any of their realness.
I do seem to tend to underestimate the sheer brilliance of the human capacity to remember things. But I do also know that writing things down has its own unique benefits. For instance, I find I experience a particular sense of joy whenever I come across an old journal of mine from a few years back. In them, I have recorded many of the minute details of what my life looked like back then – things that had been hidden somewhere in the recesses of my mind, deemed unimportant by it, until I revisited those words, which I had formerly immortalised on paper.
I do long for my life to be governed by certain systems, things that can be written down, and which I can hold myself accountable to and for. But – and this has been a huge point of inner conflict for me – I am also so very drawn to the opposite of this ideal life governed by systems, and by efficiency, and by never forgetting who I am and the habits that make ‘me’, me. I love the concept of adventure, and of spontaneity, and of dynamism, and of stories that I live through, which I could never have been able to foretell.
The lists and structures I have in place (which I have been trying to reify, though their contents do seem to change rather often) will likely continue to be the source of much stress relief, efficiency, and perceived virtue via discipline and ritual, for me. But they will not – can not – define my experiences of life. I might be able to use lists to generate ideas about what I, say, hope to do when I am older. But these lists and structures will never be able to account for the complex completeness of my experiences. I might be able to write down the names of the countries I hope to visit, for example, but I will never be able to write detailed plans about the actual human experiences I will have in those places, if I even end up visiting them at all.
I cannot leave everything to ‘chance’ and to the inclinations of my own whims. I fear the unknown. I fear utter chaos and goal-lessness; I fear completely ‘not knowing’ – both about what will happen, and about who I am.
But I cannot account for all of it; I cannot predict things, nor can I control everything. My lists are just skeletons, in truth. They might provide guidelines, outlines, for how I do things, and for how my days might be planned. But the flesh of these occurrences and days will be determined by many other factors.
Maybe it is time for me to get over this seemingly ingrained need to ‘write everything down’. I am fond of the notion of focusing on ‘this day’s daily bread’. Eating enough for today, doing enough ‘work’ for today, nurturing my soul enough for today. I must stop thinking of life as a series of things attained, or places travelled to, or books read, or whatnot. Ultimately, I only have this day to reasonably think about: life is a series of days – of todays. In a single day, I may be able to cook and eat a delicious meal; read two chapters of a good book; sleep well. As long as an activity that is good for me gets done, it is okay if it does not stem, say, from the criteria of any list, or if it does not contribute to the generation of yet another one.
Sigh. ‘To-do’ lists are important and are usually very useful, yes. But sometimes I would appear to magnify their importance, in my mind, a little too much. The value of the entirety of a day is not to be measured by how many specific predetermined activities I managed to complete. It is contingent on a combination of factors. Did I sleep well, did I eat well? Did I pray on time and with due concentration? Did I manage to go for a nice walk or something? It is true that school-related to-dos do always seem to loom on the anticipated dawn of a new day. I do need to get those things done. But to act as though my life is to just be a series of lists – of anything – would be extremely unfair to (the complex completeness of) my own humanity.
But, as afore-implied, there is some significant virtue to be found in moderate, well-chosen lists and structures – routines and rituals and the like. They help to govern things; they can be like fences, assisting us with the limitation of some negative habits, and with the encouragement of useful and good ones (through discipline, where our own inclinations and whims are known to fail us). But they are just fences: whichever flowers bloom amid them must be celebrated, somehow, too. These are the tokens of the soulful part of humanity, a thing of passions and inspiration.
I do need my fences, but not too many, and not to the detriment of beauty. And I yearn to also have my flowers – not hindered by the fences, but helped by them, and indeed virtuously contained by them.
Okay, 03:30 AM rant over. Fajr time. Adios!
Sadia Ahmed, 2020