And if I told you that every single moment does indeed matter — every single interpersonal interaction of yours, every decision you have made. It all matters. Why? Because of the finitude of this first life of ours, simply. Life (this one, that is) is coloured by — defined by — its opposite: its end. Like how we come to know of light — because darkness is there: this is how we come to know of life. What it really is; what it really means.
[This evening, I have a pile of roughly one-hundred-and-twenty English assessment papers to mark. And, whenever I have a gargantuan pile or list of work to do, I tend to start thinking about reasons and ‘the point’ and meaning, and all the rest of it. I call it existential procrastination… (I reason: so long as the work gets done in time, and to a good standard, a helpful dose of ‘procrastination’ – especially when it comes to things like taking a nap when one is tired, or… sitting in the dark and staring at a clock in order to facilitate one’s more existential ruminations – can actually be rather h e a l t h y)]
The following video is, in my opinion, quite excellent. It had popped up on my YouTube ‘Recommended’ page, at right about the right time, and I think it aptly encapsulates much of what I had been thinking about.
Interesting. So we are going to die: this is a reality we must come to terms with, and (as Muslims) remember, be heedful of. Even if you currently have the entire world, seemingly in the palms of your hands. You are going to die. Much of it falls to dust, in the inevitable end.
I suppose my ‘existential thinking’ had been amplified by my having entered the teaching profession this year — and, actually, I reckon these modes of thinking are, on the whole, a good thing. I have come to the realisation that I would much rather have these thoughts, accept, and struggle with, them (and, in turn, be comforted by them) from time to time, than… live some life of blind, ‘busy’, comfort. Distraction and delusion. Only working, eating, sleeping, playing, and then… eating some more. Until death do us — this life of mine, and I — apart.
Because we spend so much of our youths planning, don’t we? Creating these grand schemes for, our ‘futures’. Careers: future routes. Planning, preparing for things. I had written this article just over four years ago, on the subject (more specifically, on the subject of my former ongoing ‘career crisis’). In the modern world, where religion is not always at the forefront of the existential considerations of we humans: most of us seek nests and incubators for our identities – as well as a means of self-definition – via the ‘work’ we do. And, these, coupled with the search for some core ‘meaning’ for our lives. It is, I believe, these things that we fundamentally look for, through our careers.
And I have been wondering. Questions about what makes things ‘meaningful’. ‘Spiritually’, ‘work’ is meaningful if one is working towards alleviating the suffering of people, or contributing towards their health and happiness: if it is towards goodness. For self, for others, for the world. Some detach these ‘spiritual’ considerations from more ‘religious’ ones, however as Muslims, we know to view them as one and the same. For, doing good for and towards others is an act of ‘Ibadah (worshipping Allah).
What are we currently living for, dear reader? And, for whom? Do we find ourselves, for example, living to work? Living, perhaps, for the validation of, among others, our academic and/or professional superiors?
I think a good life is genuinely about love. Life is this (at least, for the time being,) ongoing thing. And it is between oneself, and God. And there are other people, other human beings, like us, too: some of them, we love. Some of them, we may seek the approval and/or the admiration of. Pseudo- forms of love, really. But I think, ultimately, seeking to love the stuff of – the components that make up, adorn, and/or give character to – these lives of ours, and in turn feeling loved by them: this seems a worthwhile thing to strive towards.
Every moment of; every interpersonal interaction within, these days of our lives (which, in turn, become weeks. And months. Years, decades. And in a century’s time, you and I will most likely have materially perished). They all matter, these moments: they really do. And I certainly believe in making certain ‘small’ moments ‘big’: in “arrest[ing] a moment that might ordinarily be lost and lend[ing] it weight and dignity” [source, (a brilliant, useful and necessary article on dealing with long-term mental health conditions)]. Because all the ‘big’ things, including the entireties of our lives, are made up entirely of every single one of these ‘small’ moments, and only through the individual moments, the ‘small’, do we experience them. So, then… a cake to celebrate the coming of wintertime? Wearing that new dress of yours to work because it is Monday, and Alhamdulillah? Yessirree to both.
You know what I need to learn to truly do? I need to learn to invest, fully, in my personal, current, reality. The ‘here and now’: the people who are here, the responsibilities and tasks I am currently met with. I am not responsible for the entirety of this big, spinning world, and even doing too much for others is not good at all. All good things in moderation: calmer, and slower.
I am, however, responsible for my own small (but, on the experiential level: big) world. That is — at least, to a certain extent — I am responsible for my own self, and for my immediate family, and for my extended family (a well-chosen selection of them, at least…) and for my friends. Oh, and for my students, and for my colleagues. So, home, outside-of-home-loved-ones, work. Bish, bash, bosh: my interpersonal responsibilities. And then, there is myself and the natural world, and ultimately and most importantly, there is my relationship with my Creator, which ought to be rendered the basis of everything.
Silly, anxious me. Sometimes fooling myself into thinking I ought to be responsible for everyone and everything, at times. It is comforting, however, to know that I am not. That I will not ultimately be judged, necessarily, on mere numbers and statistics. Rather, my deeds shall be weighed, and, for example:
“Your family’s right upon you is greater than [that of] all other seven billion members of the world population combined.
The admiration of a million people pales in comparison to the smile you put on the face of a parent, spouse, or child.”
— Shaykh Omar Suleiman
A ‘big’ life, or a ‘small’ one? An ‘exciting’ one, or a ‘quiet’ one? One more centred on order (fixed mealtimes, routines, etc.) or more on creativity and such? I now believe it is not all a case of ‘either-or’. It is: ‘quiet’ does not necessarily mean ‘boring’, while golden and ‘shiny’ and ‘loud’ do not tend to be reflective of inner, deep and true, goodness (read: the train track suicide statistics for Canary Wharf and Liverpool Street stations… and, how, in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge – USA – the higher suicide rate comes from the more economically prosperous side of the bridge, and not from the comparatively far less economically prosperous side…) On the ‘macro’ level, in my opinion, ‘small’ lives are better, though. Because they are ‘big’ for the right people, aren’t they? For oneself, for example, and for one’s little brother, for one’s friends. The people who deserve the best of us.
What other people may see, of thee and thine own life: they will see the entirety of your reality neatly packaged within a label or two. They do not hold the keys to the truths of neither you, nor your life. So may we live more… ‘organically’, and in line with the fullness of reality. The reality, and, secondarily, your one. With the latter: you know, you are the only person who is with you all the time, experiencing every moment of this reality of yours with you. So forfeit not your individual experiences of goodness for the sake of pleasing or placating others. And focus on looking inwards; on tending to your actual responsibilities.
“A palliative nurse described one of the major regrets of the dying as the wish that they’d had the courage to live a life true to themselves, not the life others expected of them.“
— one of the cards from the ‘School of Life’ ‘Career Crisis’ Prompt Cards
You must plan and organise and exercise routines: insomuch as they are useful, and truly beneficial, and aligned with the realities of life, though. Morning routines, and evening routines, and relatively particular ways of doing things. But: do make room for some adaptability, too, for the seas of life are oft fairly stormy. Yes. Too much ‘order’ can prove to be rather boring and stifling and, on the whole, unrepresentative of reality: stubbornness and frustration may ensue. On the other hand, too much ‘creativity’ can very much bring about chaos, anxiety, a loss of direction. The ‘upside’ of the former might be… stability, while its downside might be… boredom. Of the latter: upside, excitement. Downside: anxiety [someone quite well-known, I believe, had famously remarked that “anxiety is the intolerance of uncertainty/ambiguity”. But I forget just who, though. Sigh]. We need both; in balance, and together, both order (sameness, routines, planning) and creativity (novelty, adaptability, colour) are good for us. When each works to both enhance and temper the other…
I often find myself questioning: am I more of a ‘planning’ person, or an ‘improvising’ one? Itineraries, ‘or’ free-spirited adventures? Both, my friend. Definitely, both. You prepare and you plan, and then when the active moment arrives, you also demonstrate adaptability. This is what good lessons (at work) are made of, for example. A good plan, research, revision. But in the delivery: things may come up, which you had not ‘accounted for’ in your planning, anticipated. Good things, and sort of difficult things. So do make space for those things, too.
Actually (and I acknowledge that I am now absolutely waffling) the commitment to both ‘order’ and ‘creativity’ is what makes for the best holiday adventures, for example. Planning: packing lists, itinerary, looking into the sights and sceneries beforehand, in preparation. And, also: some spontaneity, a willingness to explore, demonstrating creativity — and a good degree of adaptability, should things go wrong. The truth is: they can go wrong; they often do. We plan, and then… things happen. But it can all make for some really good stories. [Travelling certainly has much to teach us, about life.]
We have come a long way, dear friend, have we not? And may we love things for what they are, embrace the active moment — this one, right here and now. [Even if we are currently planning – say, for a lesson, or for a holiday: we are using this active moment, in preparation for another string of active moments.
It is only the present moment that is real. Discuss. (25 marks)]
May we put our trust in Allah, and keep going.
Being, in the ‘most good’ ways.
Learn to trust ourselves, as well as ‘the process’. Deeply and organically; lean into the active moment more, too.
May we learn to live in a way that is good – for us, and for those around us – and true, and beautiful. Āmeen.
1. We must live right now
2. When the time is right / if it is in your Qadr
3. You are going to die.
Sadia Ahmed J., 2020