“You’re either worrying, or you’re enjoying”
[Interesting, isn’t it, how dopamine is strongly believed to be the neurotransmitter that is responsible for both high levels of stress and fear, and for high levels of excitement and energy… So, between ongoing states of worry and those of (positive) excitement [both are centred on some sort of motivation, to do something]… is it all just a matter of being able to channel what would appear to be responsible for both states alike, into one mode of being or the other? Perhaps, perhaps!
Bipolar disorder is another deeply fascinating thing to think about, here. When ‘stress’ brings about a state of hyper-‘excitement’ (otherwise known as ‘mania’). And how these tend to be accompanied, at different points in time, by states of depression. Depressive disorders also tend to be co-morbid with anxiety ones. So perhaps ‘depression’ comes about whenever our dopamine levels become ‘burnt out’?]
I so love these random staff room conversations. Each different personality here brings something a little different to the table — to the literal wooden table, that is. The Psychology teacher, the other English ones, the teachers of Biology…
Ms. N, one of the Maths teachers, is telling me about how she has, over time, amassed the courage and the ability to, with ease, and regularly, dine alone, outside. Even at biryani restaurants whose tables find themselves crowded with large groups of hungry men. She is okay with finding a nice little corner for herself, ordering her meals with confidence, truly enjoying her meals in her own company. Ms. N is able to find peace in alone-ness, even when surrounded by all these strangers. “You’re either worrying, or you’re enjoying,” she explains.
We are talking about riding bikes. I do love riding my bike, but I have been hesitant to start cycling to this present workplace. In certain pockets of East London in particular, people are known to… stare. But ‘different’, attention-catching – both negative and positive – though it may be, is not ‘bad’ or ‘wrong’, and I need to always remember this.
This morning, I did ride my bike to work. Channeling those ‘Call the Midwife’ vibes, as much as possible, as well as those of one of the best fictional teachers, at least in my opinion: Miss Muriel Stacey, from (you guessed it…) ‘Anne with an E’. I know it is seemingly no outrageous thing: I am simply cycling to work. But, trust me. Some people here are so deeply accustomed to one thing, so rooted in their own convictions, conventions: that, often, anything done a little differently is deemed ‘wrong’. A hijabi?! In a bright jacket? Riding a bike? How very unbecoming!
I truly love people, though, whose minds and hearts are open and active. And I also so admire those who are authentically confident in their ‘weird’. These people have won the entire game, I think. This is what I need to do, a bit more. Believe; have faith in the value of ‘strange’. To beckon not to ‘norms’, always, solely for the sake of doing so.
Yes, what stops people from being open in their ‘weird’? What are we afraid of? People disapproving. Not accepting us; not warming to us. Because there is something about us that, perhaps, they are unable to understand. But the ‘right’ ones always do. Their hearts are open – so they are able to be deeply endeared by, appreciative of, difference. And their minds are open – so they try to understand who you are, and where it is you may be coming from.
Some people have… more closed minds, don’t they? Solipsism may be the word. And, more closed hearts. A tragic coldness: these may just be the other words. We can outgrow these people, though; refuse to grant them power over us. Respect the fact of their being older than us, and related to us, perhaps, in certain ways. But we can also question their authority over us – their abilities to influence our hearts and minds and ways of doing things, and being. What are these norms that they have collectively decided on? And, what is the actual value of them?
‘Call the Midwife’. But, instead of midwife-nuns in East London, we are instead teacher-Muslims, here. We sit at a long central table, in the staff room, just like those fictional midwife-nuns do. We eat together, speak to one another about our work days, and about our lives, little random things, some ‘academic’ topics. There are the older, more ‘matronly’ teachers, who sometimes make soup for the rest of us, and whose strong sense of humour frequently makes all of us cackle. And there are the expectant mother teachers, and the ones with infant children whose humorous personalities and doings we are frequently told about. The ones who love talking about Politics, and about nutrition, and the ones who are good friends with one another. I want to say that ‘sorority’ is the word, here. Sisterhood. Sans the Haraam partying and stuff, of course.
Throughout this second lockdown of ours, schools are remaining open. Personally, I am unsure as to how I feel about this governmental decision. If there ever was a space in which a catching illness would find it quite easy to spread, secondary schools would be it! However, I am also glad that I will not have to stay at home for a month. With the ability to physically go into work, the world does feel a little bigger, for me.
I will continue to cycle into here, Insha Allah, maybe on some (blissfully!) emptier roads. We – the teachers – each have to wear visors here, at all times. And, preferably, disposable gloves, too. I feel like a beekeeper, at times.
Truth be told, I do love this. Not only does it all add to the aforementioned beloved-TV-series-of-mine vibes… it all also speaks deeply to my hygiene [some may call them:] obsessions. I would simply call them ‘inclinations’, though. These are something I have pretty much always had: I would always carry hand sanitiser and wipes with me, wherever I went. People (namely, my cousins) would tease me for this, at times – for how much of a ‘germaphobe’ I had been… or, am. So I suppose I tried to temper it all, as much as possible, at least when with others.
But, oh how the times have changed, and how the tables have turned! I am very glad that my loved ones in particular now share my… enthusiasms… for these things. Ms. N is quite like me, in these regards. Our first conversation had taken place when I noticed how she carries a little travel bottle of disinfectant with her, at work.
We started talking about the (perhaps slightly) ‘odd’ things we do so as to ensure good hygiene. A slightly peculiar thing to ‘bond’ over, perhaps. We got a little too excited, [the feeling of disinfecting our work materials at the end of the day brings about quite an inimitable feeling of goodness!] thus earning a certain amount of side-eye from the teacher who had been trimming worksheets, next to us.
Yes, I very much love being able to talk about all these things. Random things, particular things, and important ones. Bonding with fellow human beings, and not merely with the ‘outer shells’, mere images, of them.
It is also interesting that some of the things that are commonly, quickly, ‘pathologised’, these days, also carry with them a fullness of experience.
Some people who may, quickly and easily, be diagnosed as having social anxiety, for example: one person’s fullness of their personal experience will dramatically differ from another’s. And, ultimately, for instance, people who have some degree of ‘social anxiety’, I think, also tend to be the ones who are able to love most deeply. Likewise, have you ever noticed how those who tend to be collectivised as having what is termed bipolar disorder, often have the most magnificent and creative minds? Some people who are on the autism spectrum are extremely clever and interesting. I think we ought to see people first: their fullnesses, their complex truths. And labels are only for convenience; they ought to be used, only insofar as they are useful for explaining. But they should not be relied on. Not at all. What is a mere word or two, when compared with the unique and un-fully-graspable complexities of an entire human being?!
We are more than black and white; we are a series of all those greys, complexities, in-betweens. Throughout my adolescent years, for example, I have lived with what may be categorised as anxiety and depression. And I am a full human being; more than what may come into mind when one thinks of these words, these diagnostic labels, in isolation. “No man is an island,”(J.D.) and these things never do occur in ‘isolation’.
Crucially, in the Qur’an, Allah tells us that He created us as a series of counterparts (Azwājā). Some people only focus on the more ‘marital’ implications of this verse. However, the word ‘Zawj’ literally means ‘counterpart’, in Arabic. The day is Zawj to the night, and vice versa; man is Zawj to woman, and vice versa. One partner, with the other, makes for a completion, a fullness. Everything in creation exists within some sort of dichotomy, at least from our points of view, of experience.
I firmly believe that every ‘good’ thing has some sort of unique downside to it. Maybe it is also true that every ‘bad’ thing also has a unique ‘good’ side. I think every single one of the great (‘classic’) writers whose writings I have thoroughly enjoyed, for example, had suffered from depression, or from severe alcoholism.
An up-side, a downside. Things, and their counterparts.
Every way of living life, too: you will necessarily find a unique ‘good’ side to it, and a unique and particular ‘bad’ side. Dunya; these universal human-experiential laws.
One thing I had quite liked about ‘Call the Midwife’ was how the show gently, in a truthful and compassionate way, depicts things like addiction. Alcoholism, addictions to medications. The drama is ‘soul-ful’: sentimental, heartwarming. And also, the characters are imbued with a human fullness, an authenticity.
It shows how — the ways in which — life is often quite beautiful. Often in the places, and the moments, that are the least expected ones. Unplanned, ‘imperfect’. Tender moments, and heart-touching ones, and poignant ones. And there is also sisterhood, and joyous times; inside jokes amid long and tiring work hours, and there are all of these individual journeys. And yes, there is a great deal of suffering, too. An intrinsic and undeniable part of being human is suffering. Losses, anxieties, traumas, addictions: both of a somatic nature, and those of a more psychological kind.
When we speak about what is often, these days, collectively stamped with the term ‘mental health’ (how many entire worlds these mere two words are forced to contain!) my experiences will necessarily be different from yours. But there will likely be some ‘common ground’ too. Sameness and difference, as ‘Zawjayn’ to one another. They are different, but they are also inextricably united, deeply linked. Partners, counterparts.
‘Mental health’ experiences are always a good thing to talk about, I think. The fullness of all these experiences can often make for some very interesting conversations, you will find. And, heart-soothing ones. Necessary reminders that you are not alone: not at all. As a human being, the ‘bad’ of your experiences is deeply partnered with the ‘good’ of them. And here, you will necessarily have to face some feelings of grief, and some of fear. So why don’t we be braver; talk about them a bit more?
And, do you not yet understand? Everything created, for us, exists in dichotomous states. To love a thing fully – to have the ‘day’ of a thing, one must learn also to love its night, in a similar but different, different but similar, manner. Every single personal characteristic, every way of being, and of doing things. Every space, every place in time, every other patch of grass… is composed of dichotomies. This is Dunya; there are no Jannahs on Earth.
And, here, to come to know, and love, a thing: one must come to know, and love, it in its fullness. Including the Zawjayn of it.
If you are to accept the praises and acceptances of people, for instance, you must also come to accept that there will be some criticism and intolerance, from their Azwaaja. The ‘right’ people, as well as some ‘wrong’ ones.
To focus exclusively on the exteriors of things: the appearances, the shells. And on the ‘day’ – on one potential Zawj – of things. To let one side dramatically outweigh – or to completely outshine, make us forget about the presence of, even – the other side. To let one’s imaginations run wild, while not being tethered to reality; its fullness. This is the nature of idealism: a type of naivete. When we idealise other times in our lives (be they past or future) or other places – away from here, or other people’s lives, because we have not (yet?) experienced them. Naivete is foolishness, essentially, that comes about as a result of lack of experience: the absence of knowledge of the fullness, the reality, the Zawjayn, of things. So stop idealising; stop focusing on one Zawj only, and allowing your imagination to grossly magnify it. In the same vein, do not overly focus on the negative, and be neither overly cynical nor defeatist.
What a world, what a life, this is. In which we should try to seek to accept the fullness of things — one side, and the other; locate Haqq in balances, in the middles of things, and between them. And walk on, young traveller. The grass is green, and it is also necessarily straw-like in some places, no matter where you walk. For there is no ‘essentially greener grass’, except in Jannah. [I travelled to work through some splendid autumnal scenery, today, and, later on in the day, saw another coffin being transported, just outside the Masjid. So, naturally, I am thinking about the goodness that is present in my life, Alhamdulillah. And I am also thinking about reality, and about my ultimate destination.]
You are human, and I am, too. Our selves and our experiences are full, and they are also intrinsically dichotomous. You know what it is like, to be human. And so too, do I. This is your first time doing this thing: living this life as a human being. And this is my first time being here and doing this, too. We are similar in these ways, though we may be quite ‘different’ in many others. We have been created in ‘pairs’, in dichotomous states. Won’t we pay attention to both sides of things; to these true fullnesses of ours?
“I am human; I consider nothing human alien to me”— Terence
Sadia Ahmed J., 2020