Do you ever experience a day – or a series of them, perhaps – during which things feel a little… weird? Like the things that still need to get done have really overcome you: swimming around, here, all around you. And it just feels a little… like you are running some race that seems like it cannot really be won.
And in this world, there are diseases. And darknesses. And difficult people, who fill others’ hearts with dread. And you might long for justice; for those bruises to hurry up already, and to grow into something beautiful.
And time moves, all dreary-swift, almost without our noticing. Though sometimes, once in a while, it might hit you that five years ago had been half an entire decade ago. That there are only ten decades in a century;
what sort of version of this world are we going to come to meet, in those days before we leave here? I so wonder what will matter to me, then.
I think, maybe, many of these notions of ‘respectability’ that we have swallowed like necessary pills – and which we have internalised, feel we simply cannot do without – oft feel a little cheap, to me. There are they, the mighty and ‘established’, attempting to tower over fellow human beings. On account of what, exactly? Money? Knowledge? ‘Taste’, ‘culture’, ‘style’?
But we find that there is no fulfilling replacement for sheer, unaffected love.
Yes: I think I ought to appreciate, for example, the validations of children, far more so than those of those particular adults who find themselves, rather tragically, lacking what may speak of authentic kindness; human humility – that sense of acceptance of what it is we truly are; imagination, encouragement, optimism.
A continual race to some sort of ‘top’. Maybe, most likely, to earn and to ‘still deserve’ the respect of people I do not really, myself, think I respect. I mean, I can respect them as people: being a human being – a child of Adam – is what it takes, to be a being of worth.
I realise, now (though, yes, it is still rather hard to fully ground myself in this understanding) that it will necessarily be difficult to stop directing my pursuits towards what other people might deem ‘best’ for me; the ‘best’ routes to take, and things to do. I do know, by now, that certain environments suit me, while others simply do not. And that other people do have all sorts of ideas and fancies and… unrealised expectations with regard to what constitutes a (in Dunya terms) ‘good life’, which are often projected onto us.
People are quick to criticise what they are ignorant of; what they do not understand. And we are also quick to idealise, from afar, realities that are not ours.
Subhan Allah, though: the ways through which Allah helps us to understand things better. The other day [insert that meme, here, about how when I say ‘the other day’, I could be referring to any day between yesterday, and the day I was born] I had to call up my brother’s school, since we had lost his online-school login details. [The previous day, we had gone on a little storage-clearing spree – and ended up also wiping his internet history, including saved passwords – because brother mine had been eager to download Fortnite on his laptop.]
My brother currently attends the same primary school that I had attended. And the receptionist who picked up the phone is the same receptionist I had known, throughout my time at the school. She still remembers me; she had also been a learning assistant to our class, in Year Two. A decade after my having left that school, during this phone conversation, the receptionist asked me what I am getting up to. I told her about my current job. She said she could really picture me as a teacher [it always means so much, doesn’t it, when people who know, or have known, you well tell you this] but also added that she always thought I’d do something “big”; something ‘more’, with my life. Something political, perhaps, on account of how “outspoken” and academic I had been.
I completely understand this way of looking at things. ‘Ambition’. Having goals; progressing, moving forward. And I am only twenty years old. Very happy with where I am, Alhamdulillah, and also not at all keen on the idea of staying in one place and doing the precisely same thing, my entire life. I explained to the receptionist that I thought I would like the world of politics too, at one point. I took part in local (council) politics, and met with a local MP, to learn more about her life. But in the end, I decided that this – as well as the many other options I had looked into, including commercial journalism and even investment banking – do not suit me, and I do not think I suit them.
The receptionist also told me that she, too, had been presented with the option to take a ‘higher’ job – further up the career-based hierarchy. But ultimately, she had refused it. For a number of different personal reasons. ‘More’ in one sense is not necessarily always best for everyone, in terms of the holistic picture.
I guess what I have been struggling with quite a lot – and I know that many Desi women struggle on a similar front: developing a lifestyle that is best for ourselves, in line with our own values and priorities. And having to hear, over and over again, from people who may (claim to) fundamentally disagree with it. We come to deeply internalise this sense of guilt. And, yes, we are meant to listen with open ears, for what the authoritative ‘aunties’ and such are saying. Wise, wise women they must be. Always knowing what is ‘best’ for us, and all. Insulting, and degrading, and always looking for something they can ‘find’ and fault. To truly, truly bring you down. How else would they manage to sit on a seat that feels, to them, ‘higher’?
I know that, the way I am living my life, currently, and the way I hope to live my life in the future: not everybody ‘agrees’ with it. Not everybody would want such a life for themselves. People want different things; enjoy different things. And this is okay, so long as we can learn to respect different people, and their choices.
I would not want the life you have chosen, for my own self. But I have no right at all to comment negatively on it, nor to make you feel bad. I am not living your reality – our values, priorities, and ultimate outlooks might be profoundly dissimilar – and you are also not living mine. And I find I cannot bring myself to reject what I know I truly want for myself, in favour of creating some version of things that is neatly packagable and explicable to scrutinising eyes.
Take, for example, the eyes of the man (a distant family member) I met at – get this – a family funeral. I had been sitting there, minding my own business, when he came up to me to ask, in quite a demanding tone, “What are you doing?”
“Nothing, really,” had been my response. I was slightly alarmed: although I had heard of this person before, I do believe this had been my first time meeting him in person.
“No,” he meant, what I had been doing with my life.
“Oh,” I understood. I began to tell him, still slightly taken aback by the fact that this entire conversation had not even been prefaced with a “hello”.
He looked at me with disapproving eyes. “Oh, you mean… you’re doing an apprenticeship?!”
It felt very much like a strange, unwarranted telling-off, of sorts.
“No –” I tried to explain. He proceeded to speak, at length, about how, well, his own children are at university, and how they have also made strides in terms of Qur’anic memorisation. I said, “Masha Allah,” but still felt awfully uncomfortable. A) funeral setting. B) No “hello”. No semblance of any real human connection established. Just cornered by a near-stranger, in strange conversation. C) kind of, sort of rude. D) …okay…?
I guess I just cannot wait to be forty-years-old or something – when it will be a little more socially acceptable for me to respond to incidents like this one with questions like, “In your eyes, what do you think… the purpose of this conversation might be?”
Because such interactions are certainly not uncommon. A second example: last year, during an Über journey, the driver – a Bengali uncle – asked me what I am currently ‘doing’. I explained that I had chosen to take a gap year. He asked why. Sternly. I said, because I really struggled with my mental health. He said, with such self-conviction, that I should have just carried on; my gap year had been a bad idea. ‘Mental health’ is just an excuse. Yes, because clearly, with the fare for this twenty-minute journey, I had also paid for a stranger to become my father, and he knew me so well.
I guess I did not want to be rude. So I just tried to ‘explain’ a little, but mostly just listened. I really want to locate that perfect balance between being strong, without being rude, and being kind, without letting others assume undue ‘authority’ over me, which might resemble gaping disrespect. Muhammad (SAW) was probably somebody who had managed to master this skill; I really want to know more about how he dealt with such things.
A big part of it is likely: truly understanding, and remembering, that others’ perceptions are just… others’ perceptions. One can take what might be good, useful, from what they say. And leave the rest. [Another key Prophetic character trait]. Through my own way of viewing things, I perceive such intrusive comments as being indicative of ignorance and insensitivity. And Allah does instruct us, in the Qur’an, to respond to words of ignorance with [words of] peace. This is certainly something I hope to get better at, Insha Allah.
I know what matters to me. A key question, though, moving forward ought to be: can I develop and love my own lifestyle so much, that my love for it is enough to look upon words and attitudes of disapproval and criticism as being, for the most part, empty and unimportant? These ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’ look down on women who do not work as professionals – and whose children would appear to enjoy uniquely deep bonds with them, on account of the benefit of their mother’s greater sense of presence in their lives – and they also look down on the women who do – their accomplishments and such suddenly become ‘unimportant’. With the human being, there are always decisions we must make. We necessarily forego certain options, when choosing others. Limited resources; decisions must be made. We cannot do it ‘all’; certainly cannot do it ‘all’, ‘perfectly’. And nor should we ever feel expected to.
I must say, as a human being, I do need positive validation. Everybody does. But I think I should deeply value validation from those whom I truly, authentically respect. And the litmus test for this – whom I truly, authentically respect, that is – is: who would I want to be more like? What are my ideas of success, and do these people fit into it? Would I want for my brother to be like this person?
Who are they? What are they saying? Why might they be saying it? Why should it mean something, to you?
Off the top of my head: the people I have the most respect for are… the woman with the such-kind smile, who went around telling other women how beautiful she thought we looked, at her own wedding! My uncle who, as I recently found out, did something pretty amazing a few years ago, but never really made a big deal out of it. It seemed like he had just been so secure in his life decisions that the praises or the criticisms of the Bengali masses had seemed a little meaningless in contrast.
I thoroughly respect someone I know who treats everybody – including little children – as though they, each of them, might just be the most important person in the world, even when he might think that no fellow human being is watching. The woman for whom everyone’s views really seem to matter; just the way in which she speaks. She is a colleague of mine, actually, who has been recognised by Ofsted as being an outstanding teacher. Her students seem to truly love her, and I think she also truly loves them: they are important. And it is not a job position, or a badge, or a trophy or such, which makes them so.
I respect people who make it clear who they are; make clear what they will not compromise on, and they prove this through their very being. Respecting others, while also respecting oneself. Never one at the expense of the other. People who are positive and encouraging; never seeking and ‘finding’ others’ faults and flaws, in order to ‘shoot them down’, through exaggerated, unfair deployment of them. If you have to go out of your way to make others feel bad, in order to feel good about yourself: you might just be a little (quite) insecure. Desiring respect, maybe. But this is not how you go about really earning it. I reckon true respect is gained through goodness and humility, and not through coldness and arrogance.
All I know, though sometimes I might feel a little more doubtful, is that there are these things that I truly, unwaveringly, believe in. It is undoubtable that we are going to be tested, here in Dunya, through everything we do have; likewise, with everything we don’t. There will be critical talks of us, comparisons, illness, fears, losses and grief. Endured before, by the ordinary men – and, indeed, prophetic examples – of old. And here we are, I suppose, doing it all, albeit in our very own ways, over again.
With Salaam, Sadia, 2021.