This morning, here in London (UK), we had woken up to heavy snowfall. Pellets of white, darting down from the sky. So graceful; so redolent of that fine word: hope.
Today, it is Sunday. A snow-day on a Sunday. On Friday, my brother and I went on a walk through our local area. The conversations he and I have together really do tend to be… something else. I am not sure if he sounds mature for his age, by consequence of living with three adults, or if I sound like an eight-year-old boy, by consequence of spending so much time with him… Probably a mixture of both.
I told him that I was a little sad that it did not snow this winter.
His response was quick and endearing, and said with conviction: “What do you mean? It could still snow this year!”
In my mind, I sort of dismissed this statement as a product of his ‘child-like optimism’. ‘Not rooted in reality’. It seemed to me as though the peak of wintertime had already come to an end: now was going to be that time when Winter begins to transition into Spring. Cold, golden, sunny days. Not snow.
I so love that young children tend to be so deliberately hopeful. I think it is something of a tragedy, that many of us lose this sense of hope along the way. Scepticism’s tenacious fingers tend to, over time, establish this terrible stronghold within our hearts.
While on last Friday’s walk, my brother wanted to stop somewhere and sit down for a moment. He went and sat on a boulder. We had been talking about the significance of making Du’a, and he decided to sit down on a street-side boulder, in order to make Du’a, there and then, for… a horse. Strange child [but then again… he is my brother.]
Du’as do come true. I know this for certain. My brother himself: I see him as a product of Du’a. When I was younger, I prayed and prayed for a little brother. Someone to do cool things like karate with, and art and baking, and to take out to Nando’s after Parents’ Evenings, and to sort of spoil just a little. Some family members, back then, sort of dismissed my Du’as as childish, foolish optimism.
Since then, I have been well-acquainted with good reasons so as not to internalise others’ scepticism, but to… rely on my Lord, and to have hope and faith and trust in Him; in His supreme wisdom and ability. Even if you doubt and doubt: sometimes extremely ‘unlikely’ things happen, just like that.
It is so okay if other people doubt. So long as you have faith. Those things that you are praying for: know that if you are humble and sincere in your prayers… everything you are praying for is yours. It may take a little time: these things will come about in Allah’s faultless timing, not in ‘your own’. We must be consistent, hopeful, and know
That Allah (SWT) does not reject the Du’as of the sincere. You either get those things that you want, a little later (and there is Khayr in the delays). Or, you get them almost immediately. Or… you get something that is better [for you].
Hope-like snow. And eyes filled, at least at times, with wonder and fascination. It is not exclusively ‘childish’, but good and… human-ish. We need a little bit of sunshine, and a little bit of snow.
A little bit of rain, too… [This is how good things grow.]
We really must not lose hope, nor despair in the Rahma of our Lord. Faith and reason. Hope and rationality. Optimism and scepticism. Questioning things deeply, and having trust. Dichotomies, but actually, each one is ever-in need of its other.
[And I really hope that, one day, I will get to see my little brother sitting on his own horse. I hope that I will be able to remind him of that fine Friday, in lockdown, 2021, when he sat down on a random boulder solely in order to make Du’a for it.]
.إِنَّ اللّهَ مَعَ الصَّابِرِينَ
“Indeed, Allah is with those who have Sabr*.” [Qur’an, (2:153)]
*Meaning: a mixture of patience, discipline, steadfastness, self-restraint, perseverance, endurance
Friday (the 18th) had been, for me, my last day of being nineteen years old – and thus, of being a nominal ‘teenager’ – and it also happened to have been the last day of my first term of being a teacher. Subhan Allah. I have much to write (type) about, in this article. Reflections, random thoughts: about teaching; about what I have learnt; about the art of ‘learning’, in general.
Usually, I scribble in my journal quite frequently; doing so has been, for a long time, a favourite hobby of mine, in addition to being an ‘outlet’ thing. For a while, I would write in my journal multiple times a day. On the train; by the river (Thames, of course. London-born, London-raised!); at school, in class [leading some classmates of mine, at sixth form, to, in earnest, ask me if I were actually some sort of undercover journalist or a spy or something!] But, wow: during term-time now as a teacher, this had been rendered practically impossible. I cannot, of course, simply sit and journal while delivering lessons… and, much of my ‘PPA time’ (the teaching equivalent of ‘free periods’) is taken up by a seemingly endless list of things to do. During my breaks, I tend to sit down for a while, and rest, often with a book. Actually, I have been enjoying listening to audiobooks a little more, lately [Sponsor me, Audible! I’m basically a YouTuber, but written version]
Alhamdulillah times a million, though: this whole experience has been wonderful; a true gift from Allah. But, since starting at this job, I have scarcely been able to sit in peace, and with the necessary energy levels – which are a prerequisite for that crucial feeling of ‘inspiration’ – to simply do nothing but write, to my heart’s (and, to my mind’s) content.
Teaching has been: waking up quite early, even though the beautiful wintry months make me really, really want to remain blissfully in bed; cycling or walking (and, admittedly, occasionally – when I am feeling especially lazy or have too much to carry – taking an Über) to work; getting there before the sun has even risen [I am not, by nature, a ‘morning person’]. What a lovely thing to witness, though: the stillness of an empty classroom; the pinkish, purplish glows of nascent sunrise, glinting off of the nearby high-rise buildings. The light, creeping into gorgeous wintry gloom. And all this, just before that incrementally increasing rush of students walking through the door. Subhan Allah.
“Assalamu ‘alaikum, Miss!”
Teaching has also been: going over things I myself had learnt in Year Seven and Eight and thereafter; it has been learning quite a few additional things, too. Planning, and then some more planning. And lots and lots of (submitting requests for) printing. Also: marking, administrative activities, among other things. Oh, and a lot of eating. Just prior to beginning this job, my aunt had remarked that if there is one thing I ought to know about being a teacher, it is that teaching makes you hungry. And, yes: it really, really does.
[Ah, food. How I love thee, food. Thy sugar and thy spice, and thy goodness and comfort. Healthful foods, and how they are known to nourish, but also some doses of indulgence and chocolate.
Making food; breaking bread and sharing food. Connection. Good stuff.]
At my workplace, there is this lovely ‘middle-of-the-table’ tradition: individual staff members often bring foodstuffs to share with everybody else. Doughnuts, falafel, soup, Turkish food, some good-good (Masha Allah) chicken karahi, once. And anything that is for anyone is placed in the middle of the long staffroom table.
The start, to now
This has all been one of those things: I could never have seen any of this coming. But, oh, how I love these very things. The ones that arrive kind of quietly, and then they show you how powerful they really are. The ones that can, quite quickly, take over significant parts of these lives of ours by storm. This year alone: we moved houses; I stopped wearing makeup to go outside [just a personal preference thing. I really do think it is a problem that most women wear it every day since we have been led to believe that we look “ugly” or “dead” without it. We do not, though. And Allah is the Best of Creators]; we got a cat [the most unexpected happening of them all: my mum has been known to absolutely hate the idea of having pets. And now, this cat is her third child!]; this whole pandemic took place – it has been approximately ten months since the start of all this; I started this job.
“You can only know something when you know it. Not a minute before.”
— Gilbert Blythe, ‘Anne with an E’
It is true that I had been tutoring for a fairly long time, but I had never before been given the responsibility of teaching thirty students at a time. Tutoring involves sitting with between one to about, maybe, six, students at once, once or twice a week. There is some preparation that goes into it, sure, as well as some marking to do. But teaching is, altogether, something quite different. Greater responsibility, no doubt. An honour, and, certainly, an Amānah, too.
It had been my aunt who had encouraged me to apply for this post, actually. She works at the same school as I do – part-time – and teaches A-level Biology there. We tend to walk home together on her workdays. Roughly two weeks ago, I had some PPA time and found I could not concentrate nor do much in the staff room. I went all the way upstairs [the sixth form and ‘Alimiyyah faculties of the school are located, rather interestingly, on its roof!] and sat comfortably at the back of her classroom.
She had started her lesson off by asking her students what the term ‘gametogenesis’ might mean. She then asked me if I could explain what ‘genesis’ means. This made me smile. Biology teacher aunt, and her now-English-teacher niece. A nice moment. But then she proceeded to talk about puberty, and my ‘inner child’ re-emerged, and I wanted to laugh. [Thankfully, I did not.] Anyway.
There had been something quite nice about that particular sixth form classroom. The floors – unlike those of the secondary school ones on the floor levels below – are carpeted. You leave your shoes at the door. Moreover (if I recall correctly) there had been a lot of natural light flooding in, as opposed to glaring and sharp artificial ones. Also, her students had been sitting on the floor, with floor desks before them. Sunnah vibes. Teacher and slideshow at the front; students really paying attention, albeit in a calm sort of way. It had all felt quite serene, (connected, and meaningful) and not at all stressful, sort of reminiscent of some mosque classes I had taken in my early adolescent years:
Spatial escapes from the ever-‘busy’, the autopilot-modes, the grimy, the dizzying, the confusing, the relentless ‘grinds’, searching for things that might, in the end, be so far away from peace. And into carpeted-floor room, all clean. A glow of sorts; frosted windows, softened voices.
There is something about sitting on the floor, don’t you think? It makes you feel more… grounded. Connected. Learning, eating – even sleeping – on the floor, at least sometimes. There is something that is essentially quite lovely about it.
This ‘modern world’. It is fast-paced, rat race, relentless. Dog chase, altogether so industrial. All in the name of ‘progress’, of uncurbed growths. People just do not know where they are headed, but we find ourselves chasing all these abstract uncertainties, regardless. “We are surrounded by all of these lies, and people who talk too much.” [E.S.]. Maybe I am too sensitive, in this sense. But it all makes me ache and feel drained.
A personal preference, maybe: but I far prefer the presences of plants, and of warm lighting. An emphasis on connection, on good mannerisms. Moderation, and not ‘too much’. Places in which to deeply connect (with places, people, the contents of good curricula), and to learn – via mind, heart, and soul – and not merely in which to ‘work hard’: all that stuff of harsh lighting, caffeine-driven sleeplessness, desk-chair, desk-chair, desk-chair, unquestioning obedience. I so believe in holistic humanity being nurtured within places such as schools and hospitals. And, with the former in mind at least, it should not be about the incubation of mere ‘workforce robots’: obedient slaves to some deified ‘Economy’.
Schools should be houses of wisdom, and not factories or… prisons. Warm and inclusive; not cold and steel-gazed, wolf-like. Places in which mind, heart, and soul, are truly, deeply, nurtured: all three.
What I have learnt
As far as ‘learning’ goes, I have learnt oh-so-much, Subhan Allah, from all of this.
My first day at the school had been my observation/interview day. Prior to walking in, I admit I had envisioned Madrassa secondary schools in general as being… stern, serious, sad places. Draconian. No colour: just rules, rules, rules. Scarcely a student laughing, or having fun.
It was like I had (perhaps in part as a consequence of having been away from distinctively Islamic places of learning such as this one, for a while) rather shamefully internalised a particular sort of prejudice. And I had been wrong.
When I first walked in, I noticed the nice colourful displays on the walls. Basketball hoops, martial arts, for PE. The lovely scene – and sound – of a group of students sitting in a circle, on the floor of the hall, reading Qur’an together. The lovely light; how bright and energetic the Year Seven students were. Our first lesson together had gone well, Alhamdulillah [We had discussed how to use different punctuation marks so as to make our writing more effective, and wrote short imaginative stories about going on hot-air balloon rides in Turkey]. And it was thanks to them: my first class. What a funny, ambitious, clever, often downright melodramatic, bunch they are, Allahummabārik.
The art of learning is about discovering new things – information, stories, ideas. It is about piecing things together; making/finding connections between things. And it is also truly about being reminded about certain things that you may already, somewhere in your mind, already know. And you are granted the ability to come across them again, albeit in different, and unexpected, ways. As I have spoken about in a previous article, life is an adventure; a story, and – it is a school.
I have learnt that sunshine is always nice. But storms are what tend to leave us with the best stories, at the end of the day, aren’t they? They are known to bring us something that is altogether more than just ‘nice’. Sure, they can bring up, in us, feelings of fear. Unpredictable, and unknown. And, yet, how woefully, tragically straightforward and bland these lives of ours would be, without them.
One of my Year Seven (English) students had penned – for a competition – the following poem. Its message deeply inspires me [Everyone say Allahummabārik laha!]:
I have learnt things: new and previously-known alike, at this school. From students, and from staff members, alike. From books; from videos. Textbooks, podcasts, sometimes, and from outside of them. But mainly: from people. We humans learn (best) from other humans. We are fundamentally needy, imitative, receptive of and responsive to the subtleties of human connections, relationships.
Like about the temporality of life. It just keeps on moving: one moment, straight to the next, and then to the next, and so on. There is no ‘preparation time’, then ‘practice time’; no clear-cut delineation at all between ‘theory’ and ‘praxis’. There is only life. And here we are, living it. No dress rehearsals: these are our lives.
Our relationships with the past (i.e. before we were born, and also the past[s] of our own personal histories) and our experiences of the present moment, and… notions of ‘the future’. We will meet those (the latter) moments, Insha Allah, as and when they come.
A number of things have forced me to give notions concerning the past some more thought, this term. Teaching History for the first time, for one thing. And, also: back in October (I had started in the middle of the first academic half-term. Hectic!) I had been taking a particular route to and from work. That is, until, I had stumbled upon an alternative route: a shorter, simpler one. And en route this route, I came across a building that my mother, uncle, and aunt sometimes speak about. A quite old-looking tower block: the first home they had dwelled in, actually, upon having migrated to this country.
‘History’ – including our own personal ones – is filled with events, happenings, which we can truly fascinate ourselves by interrogating the following, of them: what if this particular thing had not taken place? What if my grandfather (Allahu Yerhamu) had never made the decision to move here (alone, no less, and as an adolescent!)? And what if my grandmother had rejected his proposal for marriage? Or, what if they had chosen to settle in, say, Kent, or in New York (as some of my other relatives had done) as opposed to in this very part of East London? [What if I had been born a boy?!] And so on, and so on.
So many potential questions. But here we are, in the present (a gift). Much of it: a summation of the consequences of a series of individual decisions. The rest… remains to be seen.
[I am accidentally-on-purpose including quite a few ‘AWAE’ references in this article. You are a certified awesome person if you have managed to pick up on them…]
I think it is very easy to become ungrateful, though, and to take things for granted. But knowledge: one of its key purposes, I believe, is to cultivate and foster deep appreciation within our hearts, gratitude. I, and my family, Alhamdulillah, live in a state of economic stability. But my grandfather had to work hard for this: back when East London (which is now increasingly becoming gentrified) had still been a centre for the British textile industry, he had worked at a coat-manufacturing warehouse. The building is still there: it stands on the opposite side of the road from the bus stop I used to wait at almost every day, after secondary school. Over time, I watched it – the warehouse, that is – be converted into a ‘hipster’-style hotel, all painted white.
And maybe it is true that we humans learn best through experience: I never could have told you what teaching is actually like, until doing it. The strangest of feelings, particularly right at the start: being on the other side of the teacher’s desk. Having to be this responsible, for the first time. I was quite worried, right at the start: What if they won’t like me? What if I don’t do a good job? What if I’m really awkward and they’ll find it off-putting? Worries done away with, Alhamdulillah, as a result of experience. The barrages of (repeated) personal questions, too [“Miss, where are you from?” “Miss, what are your plans for the weekend?” “Miss, are you married?”]; ten students attempting to speak to you, at once; the “Miss, have you marked them yet?” the literal day after they have all sat the assessment. The classic borderline-frustrated response of, “Teachers have their own lives too, you know!”
I think, another thing that has significantly changed – for the better, Alhamdulillah – has been my relationship with ‘work’. It is good, insofar as it is good, in good amounts. But it is no ‘saviour’, no deity to be worshipped, slaved after. I have my responsibilities; I will try to fulfil them. But aside from that, ‘work’ itself does not give me selfhood nor meaning. It… is not my master.
It seemed almost as though different weeks had different overarching ‘themes’ for them, in terms of what they had in store, to teach me. During one week in particular, I believe, I began really thinking about how on Earth other people live. How do some mothers, especially, manage to work for forty hours during the week, and carry out all of their household/family responsibilities, without collapsing as a result of exhaustion?! I remember thinking about this, on my way to work, one day, and I had passed by a (most probably, at least) working mother. Bulging backpack on back, coffee flask in hand, 07:30AM. And she had been on the phone to her (by the sounds of it) young daughter, likely providing some moral support as her husband had shouldered the burden of breakfast duties.
At work, in the staffroom, I am surrounded by some young and unmarried women; some who are newly married; there had been some expectant-mother teachers; some who have a child; some who have a handful of children. Older mothers who are teachers, too: speaking about their children-in-law as well as about their grandchildren. Discussing childminders; speaking on the phone to their kids, at the end of long school days, about homework, and about matters pertaining to ‘playground politics’, and some of the other things that matter deeply, to children. Teachers who are also mothers. How do they do it?! Subhan Allah. The (joys and) stresses that these screaming, energetic children give rise to. Exchanged, at the end of the long academic day, for… those ones (the ones that look half-like them, and call them “Mum” in lieu of “Miss”) …
We are watching, witnessing, as time moves [us] on and on and on. As relatives of ours grow and grow older; as we, ourselves, do much the same thing, too. Our relationships with different places – and with different people – are ever-changing. Sometimes, for the better: development, evolution, we may term it. And sometimes, we find that some leaves simply have to fall, in order to allow for new growth to take place.
Take heart, dear one. Some things will be somewhat (very) hard, some of the time, perhaps the whole way through. But you are more than well-equipped enough to face it, and to get through it all. In a beautiful way, I hope.
We crave permanence, don’t we? This sense of… feeling entirely at home. But I regret to inform you (both you and myself, dear reader) that that is not what this world is for. This whole experience – this maybe eighty-odd-years-long one – is an essentially dynamic one, and it will take you by surprise, over and again. The best thing to do is to locate Earthly home in Sujood: this is what stays. Your soul, in conversation with its Author, Creator. Everything else, you see, is etched only in sand. A gust of wind, or two, and then it is gone.
Here for a time, and then it falls, to dust.
Here, I have learnt (been aptly reminded) about how actions are but by intention [it is the intention behind an action that counts. So we ought not to concern ourselves too much with the outcomes of things. Even with regard to numbers and such… the Qur’an tells us that saving one life is equal to saving the whole of humanity (5:32). The weight of a deed is derived from the intention(s) underlying it]; about the art (the beauty, the tender humanness) of sincereapology; about the rich complexities that individual minds can house. Sometimes, even eleven-year-olds are quite ‘mature’ in demeanour: they have been through so much.
I have learned that we often learn things best as a result of stumbling and falling. That when it comes to deeply difficult things: Healing and Patience are lovers. That it is good to take rest when it is good to; you can then begin again, at a good pace, when the time is right. When you are ready.
That there is no use in ‘crying over spilt milk’ [or spilt Coke, to make reference to something that actually, for some reason, took place] as the aphorism goes. These things happen. Mistakes are made; you will also likely have done and said (and will continue to do and say) some utterly cringeworthy things, during this lifetime of yours. But it is okay. We grow from them; look back and laugh at them, even. Time and other considerations move us on.
That staple-gunning can prove to be an excellent way of releasing aggression. That ‘Resource Rooms’ are, to stationery lovers, what drug dens are to drug addicts. [My gosh, I sound like Amy Santiago here…]
My Bengali-speaking skills have improved, too, Alhamdulillah, as a result of some conversations with a particular colleague of mine, in Bengali. At first, I was not too confident in speaking with her: my Bengali skills had been rather rocky, disjointed. Altogether, in my own head at least, quite embarrassing a thing to behold. ‘Benglish‘. But my gradual improvements in this regard have not gone unnoticed!
A key word, that one: gradual. Trial and error; some things work, some things do not. We learn, and we develop, and this all happens over time. Reflection, then effort. Some courage, maybe, and then patience. God’s Command.
I think, yes, learning is illumination.
And “اللهُ نورُ السماواتِ و الأرضِ” [Qur’an, (24:35)]. Allah is the Light of the Heavens and the Earth. Truth is Light, and in truth’s absence, there is darkness.
“What is school for, do you think?”
“…to get a good job, innit.”
“Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do,
— Lord Alfred Tennyson,‘Charge of the Light Brigade’
Work is only meaningful when it has real meaning. Otherwise we (ultimately) find ourselves doing for the sake of doing. Work for the sake of work. ‘Growth’ for the sake of itself: the ideology of the cancer cell [E.A.]
Do we learn solely towards economic-benefit, and/or social-status-related ends? [A good job, in order to earn good money. To provide for my family. To give back to society.]
Fair enough. Economic and social considerations are all well and good — they are deeply important, actually. But, as Muslims, we know that the absolute queen of all these considerations ought to be: our relationships with Allah. Helping people is a noble thing to do; providing for one’s family is also a noble thing to do. Social connections are wonderful, but some of them may come to fray, or be lost. Money, beyond what is needed for survival and to fund for necessities, is not everything. The way of God ought to be the path we seek to always be traversing; the consideration that all other ones are tethered to. This is Light; this is Truth; this is true Purpose and Meaning. This is concerning your Origin, and your place of Return, and this is concerning every single moment,
after moment, in-between.
And in the absence of truth, what is there? There is only darkness and delusion. Looking for these things where they cannot ever truly be found.
Some things that we encounter will seem quite a challenge, at least at the start. But we learn through experience; we [pardon the cheese. A little statement, that one, which ought to extend over the entirety of this blog of mine…] grow through what we go through.
It is quite nice, at times, to look back on things, and to see how we – and our circumstances – have changed, progressed. When, at the start, in conjunction with the hectic novelty, I had been given an actual form class [whom I now, thankfully, share with a colleague, so I now only have them for certain days of the week. We joke that we are like a divorced couple: we have shared custody over the kids] I had found myself feeling quite overwhelmed. I thought it would be a sign of ‘strength of character’ if I just continued, grinned and bore it. But my aunt had noticed how stressed I had seemed that week; she persuaded me to go and speak with the Assistant Principals. Then, the aforementioned changes were made. ‘More’ does not necessarily mean ‘better’!
Kind of linked to the above: a certain family member had remarked that he thinks I should become a headteacher someday. Which had been a nice thing to say. But, firstly, I have realised that in order to do ‘good’, and to do it well, you do not always need to have a ‘big’ official role. And, secondly, I am really trying not to think too much about ‘the future’, while here. Where I am now is where I am now, Alhamdulillah, and I do not want to fall prey to ‘destination addiction’ or idealising, again [looking at other than who and where – and, when, and why – I find myself]. Over-contemplating secondary school while at primary school; thinking so much about sixth form while at secondary school; university, while at sixth form. Being married, while being single. Always obsessing over ‘the Next Thing’. Besides… once, in Year Eight, I had shadowed my school’s headteacher. What a gargantuan, stressful, role, Subhan Allah. Meeting after meeting; I do not think it is for me. I do not know where I will be, this time next year; I do not know what Allah has planned for me, for the rest of my Dunya-based existence…
For now, here I am, as I am. The ‘here and now’. I want to honour it, as best as I can. Very soon, this moment will be gone. The next one arrives; takes its place.
This is a big one. For we are crucially, essentially, undeniably, social beings.
Your family, and then, your friends (i.e. the family you come to choose for yourself). The people you love; your sources of joy, goodness, comfort, security.
The love of your life, too (Insha Allah). If it is in your kismet to find them, you will find them. All you have to do is… be exactly who you are (not anything ‘more’, not anything ‘less’) and you shall be loved precisely for it: for you!
Other people are other people. Allah (SWT) is Allah (SWT). Other people have no ‘power’, of nor from, their own selves.
اِنَّ اللّٰہ علیٰ کل شی ءٍ قدیر
[Perhaps best translated as: “Indeed Allah is, above allthings, Powerful and competent”. Qur’an, (2:109)]
We do need other people, though. We need to love, and to feel loved in return. And in these very endeavours, there is a great amount of ‘vulnerability’ (openness) that has to go into it. Maybe we need to speak our minds and explain our hearts better and a little more often, to those whom we wish to share love with. Maybe we need to also do a better job at listening, understanding. Stopping; turning our hearts toward them. Giving our loved ones, whom we have been blessed with, the time of day. Chasing whatever it is we may find ourselves chasing: that all can wait.
We absolutely need to make time for ‘the boyz’ (this is a non-gender-specific term). Surround ourselves with good company, which, as a particular Hadith explains, can leave us with the mark of its good fragrance. (Just as unfavourable company can leave us with the mark of its stench).
And our Salāh, Du’a (the weapon of the believer), Adkhār, and so on. The relationships we servants have with the Almighty. This ought to be the fundamental consideration, for us.
What is the point of ‘learning’?
I would like to continue to be both a teacher and a student, Insha Allah, in this life of mine. I have to think about what my learning is to be ‘for’.
I want to be a good Muslim, Insha Allah. To improve; to develop. I want for the awe and the wonder that learning often exposes me to, to bring me closer to my Creator. I want it to help me in serving people (my wonderful students, for instance) for the sake of Allah.
The process of learning illuminates. Our hearts and minds. Places. We learn; use our intelligence and knowledge, pass it on.
“Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim.“
— Sahih Hadith
We learn for good; to make us better. Towards beauty, too. Truth. A Muslim – a human being – is, at his or her very core, a learner. And may it all drive us to say “Subhan Allah” and “Alhamdulillah” and “Allahu Akbar“, over and over again, Āmeen.
[Below, I have included a list of some ridiculously awesome facts, taken from this article. How astonishing are the creations of the Creator!]
– The journey which the sperm makes in order to get to the egg is equivalent to us sprinting for 150 kilometres nonstop. The journey is not straightforward. Many obstacles and hurdles await it, yet it overcomes them without losing direction. [Subhan Allah!]
– Your heart weighs around 321 grams. Its size is around that of your fist and beats around 60 to 80 times per minute. On a yearly basis, it beats around 40 million times and pumps around 2200 gallons of blood per day, and approximately 56 million gallons of blood per lifetime.
– The blood which the heart pumps to the brain returns back to the heart within 8 seconds, and the blood which it pumps to your toes – the furthest distance from the heart – returns back to the heart within 18 seconds.
– The blood is home to around 5 million red blood cells per cubic millimetre of blood. If red blood cells from one human were to be placed side by side, they could cover the surface of the Earth 6 to 7 times over.
– Platelets are the cells that circulate within our blood and bind together when they recognise damaged blood vessels. A normal platelet count ranges from 150,000 to 450,000 platelets per microlitre of blood.
– The human body is home to over 600 muscles, and the average sized muscle is comprised of approximately 10 million muscle fibres.
– The human body has around 2 to 5 million sweat secreting glands to regulate our body temperatures.
– The brain is home to approximately 100 billion neurons. Each neuron forms about 1,000 connections to other neurons, amounting to more than a trillion connections.
– Neurons combine so that each one helps with many memories at a time, exponentially increasing the brain’s memory storage capacity to something closer to around 2.5 petabytes (or a million gigabytes). For comparison, if your brain worked like a digital video recorder in a television, 2.5 petabytes would be enough to hold three million hours of TV shows. You would have to leave the TV running continuously for more than 300 years to use up all that storage.
– The human retina contains about 120 million photoreceptor cells. How it communicates this information to the brain, and how the brain then processes this information bringing about love, hate, hope, despair, fear, security and so on, is a completely separate and highly sophisticated discussion.
– The tongue has a role to play during the process of chewing, swallowing and tasting food as well as for speech and sounds. It has 17 muscles to allow it to move in any direction. The surface of the tongue has 9000 taste receptors to differentiate between sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.
– One kidney weighs around 150 grams and is made up of about a million filtering units called nephrons. Each hour, it filters 1800 litres of blood and about 1 and ½ litres are extracted in the form of urine. Consider the difficulty experienced by those who are undergoing dialysis treatment. They are required to spend around 12 hours a week connected to 150kg worth of machinery, let alone the side-effects, in order to carry out what your 150 gram kidney is able to carry out within moments.
– Your outer layer of skin, the epidermis, replaces itself every 35 days. You are given a new liver every six weeks. Your stomach lining replaces itself entirely every 4 days, and the stomach cells that are involved in digesting food are replaced every 5 minutes. Our entire skeletal structures are regenerated every 3 months. Your entire brain replaces itself every two months. In fact, the entire human body, right down to the last atom, is replaced every 5-7 years.
How is it, then, that if one’s brain replaces itself every two months, they can still retain long term memories? The nerve cells in the human body are the only exception to regeneration. If they did regenerate, say, once every six months, you would need to relearn your language every time.
Consider also the sounds from within the digestive system following the consumption of an apple, the sounds of a real factory at work. Consider how matters would have been if people were able to hear such sounds from each other, whether at interviews, marriage meetings, circles of knowledge, communal prayers or around the dinner table. One would need to escape to a remote corner to eat and drink in dignifying solitude. This dilemma has been, by divine design, overcome.
The briefest moments of reflection on creation are sufficient to leave one lost for words, and such bewilderment will only ever intensify as time progresses and discoveries are made. Our only words are therefore:
فَتَبَارَكَ اللَّهُ أَحْسَنُ الْخَالِقِينَ … So blessed be Allah, the Best of creators” [Qur’an, (23:14)]
“Does He who created not know, while He is the Subtle, the Acquainted?” (67:14)
Of course, He who created you knows you better than you know yourself. Thus everything He commands, prohibits, or sends your way is, as the āyah above alluded to, out of His Subtlety towards you, and out of Him being Acquainted with you.
Trust Him, […] and watch how you will live in [true contentment] with Him.
This year. Did you feel it too? When our world felt itself grind to a halt. We had to stop. Turn back. Grief took over. It was hard. Hard to get out of bed; hard to do much at all. Hard to not question and question and question things. Hard to escape.
It had not happened without reason. A number of reasons. And it was – and is – so difficult.
The acute feelings of entrapment, loneliness. Uncertainty: that anxiety. Heavy, and at the same time: minds whirring, whirring away, feeling almost detached from our bodies. The disruption, and the difficulty. That terrifying sense of stagnation… and nobody really knew what on Earth to do.
Did you feel it too?
Mental unwell-ness. Not feeling particularly mentally ‘healthy’. Anxiety, depression, and all the rest of it. These things do not signify ‘character failures’. It need not be some ‘shameful’ secret, which you carry: which you pretend is not there, does not exist. It is something very real; something we can go through. And it might take years. Maybe we will never completely be rid of it: maybe depression will continue to dawn on us on those days on which we may least expect it. Anxiety often takes us by surprise too; turns our very nerves into jelly. But, over time, things do get better. And Allah does not burden a soul with more than it can bear [Qur’an, (2:286)]. You are strong enough.
A few articles, by ‘The School of Life’, which I have loved and benefitted from:
I want to be open and honest with the people I love; I would hope they feel they can be open and honest with me, too. And I will love them no matter what. Sometimes up close; sometimes from afar. In light of the texture, and never ‘in spite’ of it.
It might feel as though you are quite alone in this. While others go ahead and just ‘live’. ‘Nobody gets it’? But people do. Many of us are pretending. Depression, for example, is a fairly widespread reality. It often results in people taking their own lives: suicide, unfortunately, is the leading cause of death among 15-29 year olds.
Why is it important to better understand mental health conditions? So many of us suffer as a result of them.
So many people are hiding, because they feel they need to. And, I get it: you do not want to be seen as being ‘broken’ or ‘defective’. But you are not. We are all fundamentally imperfect; we are our essential ‘upsides’ and we are our ‘downsides’, and you are neither somehow ‘evil’ nor some sort of ‘failure’ by consequence of this. Pardon my cheese again; this ongoing cliché. But, you know what we are? We are human beings. Not shiny robots; not filtered pictures, carrying ourselves around; not made of porcelain. Insān. Allah is closer to us than our own jugular veins are, and He knows, even while others may not know. Other people do not somehow hold the keys to the truth(s) of you, anyway. And we can get through this, together, Bi’ithnillah: it will (likely) not be easy — but it will be worthwhile.
Acceptance can be hard: that first step. I have certainly found it to be liberating, though.
Rejecting hyper-individualism, hyper-‘productivity’, hyper-competition; these obsessions with images. Depression, for instance, is a reality, and one whose numerous (dumb) stigmas require some doing away with. So that some of the ridiculous pressure might be taken off from the shoulders of those of us who experience it.
1. We must live right now. As Muslims.
2. When the time is right / if it is in your Qadr. (When Allah decides.)
3. You are going to die. And you will return to Allah.
We are Muslim in the morning, when we open our eyes. Muslim before we start eating; Muslim after eating, too. Muslim, first and foremost, when we choose to don additional titles. Doctor, lawyer, engineer [I am very Asian indeed for instinctively listing these three occupations…]. Muslim in the courtroom; Muslim when in scrubs. Muslim when young and healthy; when older, when sick, when out-of-work, for a while, perhaps, too. Muslim when driving our cars; Muslim when riding our bikes. When standing on stages before thousands; when all alone, in the dark. At 5am, at 5pm. In Winter, in Summer, in the less-easily-definable bits in-between. Muslim when it might feel like the entire world is at our feet; Muslim, still, when it feels like the entire dark sky weighs somewhat heavy upon our chests.
We are Muslim. And may we be so, first, last and always.
There is so much to (possibly) do, here, in this big world, and so little time. This fundamental conflict can bring about quite a lot of… worry, ache. So many things that can potentially be known; done; written about. But so little time. So we must focus on essences; we have to be quite selective. And if we focus on the Why of things, all will be well – swell, even, in the present and in the end, Insha Allah.
I think, for me, the essence of this general time is captured very well by Siedd’s [whose works my students seem obsessed with] song, ‘God Knows’:
Back when I was eighteen We used to live in daydreams Then woke up in our twenties Life passed us by so quickly
Said I’d put You above me But been so busy lately Out all these hours daily Been driving myself crazy
I’ve been losing myself each day Losing my rest each day All these things I want for me Oh I’ve been Caught in distractions Oh lost in my passions I don’t know where this road will lead
Oh God knows, God knows, God knows Oh God knows, God knows, I’m trying Oh God knows, God knows, God knows God knows I’m trying
Been soul-searching for purpose Is there more to life than this? Been carrying these burdens Hoping this will be worth it
It’s not as I imagined I’m losing all my balance Take me from all this madness I just don’t understand this
All these bills and burdens A jester in this circus From midnight till the morning Can someone save me from this
I know I’ll be buried ‘neath the same ground No matter rich or without a pound The only things that matter now Is finding You somehow
I reach my goals and see another three I’m never satisfied, always wanting to be No mountain of gold can feed my soul I get and I get and I just want more
‘Cause I reach my goals and see another three I’m never satisfied, always wanting to be No mountain of gold can feed my soul I get and I get and I just want more
Oh God knows, God knows, God knows God knows I’m trying.
I am not perfect; life is not perfect. And nor will I, or this life of mine, ever be. That is what I need to let go of: these ideas that I must be ‘smooth’ and sort of perfect. No. I am so anxious, at times, and I am quite awkward. I get socially drained, quite quickly. Sometimes I find myself feeling inexplicably, profoundly, sad. Sometimes I am very quiet; sometimes I talk far too much. And it shocks me that my loved ones can still love me this much, even with all of this.
But, then again, what on Earth would I be without all of this? I would be… character-less. Smooth, and shiny. No texture, to allow for authentic love’s grips to grip onto.
I have held, in my head, all these unrealistic, over-simplistic, standards and ideals for myself. I cannot live up to them. Today, I (metaphorically) burn them all. They are not fair. Besides, these fancies of simple perfection are quite boring [nothing to learn, no challenge, no storms nor surprises!], in reality, aren’t they?
I worry, sometimes, that I do not deserve patience, or chances. But this, too, is so untrue. All humans deserve these things, don’t we? God knows I am not perfect. But sometimes parts of my mind tell me that I am crucially, fundamentally, terrible. This is… not true.
God knows, I’m trying. Learning, developing. And this is what matters.
Things can change a lot, as they do. And, they should be allowed to. The present moment, also, is beautiful. And I am thankful for every historical twist and turn that has led me to this here, this now.
For both you and I, dear reader: may Allah grant us so many answers to our questions. And may some things take us completely by storm and by surprise. May they cause our skins to quietly fire up with awe, sometimes [have you ever felt that? When something is so lovely and/or amazing that you feel (what feels like) light wash over your entire being, somehow?] and wonder. May they make us say, over and over again, “Subhan Allah”. Āmeen.
May it be true wisdom that we seek; may it all make us more human – better Muslims – and not less so. Haqq-rooted, Deen-rooted, learning. And not merely towards ‘the life of this world’ (الحیاة الدنیا) which, as the Qur’an clarifies, is “only play and amusement, pomp and mutual boasting among you, and rivalry in respect of wealth and children” [Qur’an, (57:20)]. Things of illusion, and then they just up and wither away. And I think: our learning ought not to simply be for amusement, nor for the collection of titles and ‘glory’. We should not perceive it as being ‘wealth’ – stuff we can ‘own’, and through which we readily compete with others. May our learning be truly and everlastingly meaningful, dear reader. And may it benefit us on Yawm-ud-Deen: Āmeen.
وَقُلْ رَّبِّ زِدۡنِىۡ عِلۡمًا
“And say, ‘My Lord, increase me in [beneficial] knowledge'”
From our Lord, Allah, did we come. He sustains us, every breathing moment of every living day. And to Him shall we return, at the end of this journey; after the final full-stops of these stories of ours; at the end of these school days:
when the lights are turned off; when the tables and floors are cleaned; when the boards are wiped blank. After all the learning; the fun. The structure and the unpredictability. The getting-into-trouble here and there, as well as those feelings-of-triumph. The time we are given for eating; for chilling. The streams and streams of things to do. At the end of the school day, we pack up; say goodbye to our friends, and then we make our (own) ways home.
Jannah, dear reader. For you, and for me. Good, and better, and the best.Eternally. Āmeen.
At my workplace, on Tuesdays, we are fortunate enough to have staff Halaqahs (Islamic talks, during which we sit on the prayer carpets, and one person leads the session). Delivered by the ‘Alimiyyah (Islamic Sciences) teachers in turns, these weekly circles are something I have truly been loving. This, and coming into school with Surah Kahf being played through the tannoys every Friday morning, just after winter sun has come up. The Tuesday Halaqahs: such necessary, and often quite moving, reminders. I like that Deen is at the very centre of the ethos, purpose, and all else of this school. I do not think I would be able to contentedly work at a state secondary school [where true spirituality and religion are not core principles, I truly think only meaninglessness and materialism are left behind in their wakes…]
Today’s had been a rather memorable Halaqah session. I suddenly found tears rolling out of my eyes: unimpeded and so unexpected, while processing the teacher’s words, today. Bringing it all back to what I had been thinking about, quite a lot, of late.
That is what I truly am, as a teacher there. I feel, simultaneously, I am very much a student: I am learning and re-learning things, from their very basics. Teachers do not know everything — about anything. They very much learn, and learn, and learn, on the job.
I love it when the early morning sun floods through this old Victorian building. Big windows, old walls. I love that the Qur’an is always there, to turn back to: I love that Qur’ans line many of the shelves here. And the view of yellow-leaved trees outside, and the high-rise buildings (Aldgate, the increasingly gentrified parts of East London) on one side, the rows of chimneyed council houses just adjacent to them: what an interesting contrast. The unmissable deep orange reflection of sunrise, still left behind on the new(-ish) part of the Royal London Hospital.
My brother had been born there, on the twelfth-or-something floor, of that building. I can still remember the day fairly vividly. Three days before my having started secondary school (as a student, that is!) Everything had changed, that year. Hours on end, of waiting and waiting. But that did not matter: I had waited for years and years to be an older sister. I mention my brother, here, because during Ustādha S’s talk, I had found myself thinking about the following questions:
“Do I love?”
“Am I loved?”
The answer is, Alhamdulillah, yes to both. I thought about my brother, and about how much Du’a I had made for him, prior to his coming into (worldly) existence. Nobody, really, had seen him coming. Most thought I would remain an only child forever. And, I don’t know. He is not the type – and those of you who know him personally will likely know this about him – to express affection so openly and/or ‘conventionally’ (except, perhaps, when it comes to his cat…) But it is in the small and the silly and the unexpected and/or typical-of-him moments that my heart floods with the love I have always had for him. The love I had come to learn upon first being given the chance to hold him in my arms. The love I am frequently reminded of, for example when he… needs me to deal with a spider in his room or something. Yes, sometimes it is ironically through his eight-year-old boy remarks about how “annoying” or how much of a “dummy” I am – or when he simply needs to tell me everything he knows about Charles Darwin – that I am reminded that I am indeed so loved, as a big sister, Subhan Allah, too. There is loneliness in this world, and there is also love. Allah (SWT) is the provider of all of this love: He is Al-Wadūd.
Ustādha S had mentioned, in her talk today, That Day. A forthcoming reality we oft find ourselves quite heedless of, or in outright denial of. Falsehoods mixed with and mistaken for truth, and vice versa. That Day on which, on the horizontal ‘creation’ level, we will find ourselves quite alone. Standing before our Creator, trembling. Are you prepared well enough for it? And, right now, we are quite alive, and we are quite real, and every single moment means something. This is your story; these are the moments, and the days, of your life. The flow of time; the presently-ceaseless flowing of ink. The grand storybook that shall be produced, come the End of it all. It will either be placed in your right hand, or… atop your left one.
Nothing will matter, on That Day, except for your own soul, quaking in new-urgent God-consciousness. You will be alone.
Have you ever come to know what true aloneness feels like?
We must not fall in love with Dunya, my dear: not while Jannah is waiting for us. And, also, we must know to bow not to creation – not now, and not ever – but to the One who created us. This is authentic liberation, and this is authentic strength. Be flowing, and be firm.
People are only people, and I think I have learnt, by now, that I am capable of walking alone. I ultimately ‘need’ nobody else. But I sure do love some people. For some of them, I am willing to wait. But they are not whom I seek to bend and grow towards. Maybe they are trying to walk the same way as I am trying to walk; perhaps we shall grow together, towards sunlight, intertwined… but maybe they are not, and we will not. Maybe sometimes we must love, and ‘have loved’, and we must leave it at that.
This moment: time, and the present workings of your life, of your mind. This is what is real, right now. I have found myself thinking too much about distant and imagined things, and all the while… the ink is ever-flowing, is it not? Writing, writing. Things are happening, happening. These are the days of my life; every second, I find myself authoring my life’s story. I will not give it up for any human being; for any fleeting thing.
I have realised that if it is not Real, it does not matter,
neither to, nor for, me: simple as.
So long as my feet are rooted in Truth. Myself, I seek to be, and become, in submission to, and with the love, protection, and guidance of, the One in whose Hand my entire being is. I so hope to feel that sense of peace, relief. To be worthy of جَنَّةٍ عَالِيَةٍ, you know?
To do this, and to get there, to outside-and-away from truth and here, (now), I must say goodbye.
To everything I know to be so true, hello. Things either matter, or they do not. There is what is Khayr; there is what is not Khayr. I am learning to filter things, along these lines, better.
We are growing individually, though in parallel, I hope, towards being People of the Right Hand. Asking ourselves: in this very moment, if we were to go right now,
Work, work, work, work, work [ad infinitum]. Today I am thinking about ‘work’. This week I have been ‘blessed’ with the task of having to mark one hundred and eighty-odd books. Spelling, grammar, PEE paragraphs, and all. And this, amid preparing for and delivering lessons. And all of those additional[ly numerous] pastoral considerations.
Alhamdulillah, though. ‘Work’ is truly a blessing. To be able to be concerned not with things like whether or not I will be able to eat tonight or have access to fresh water (etc.), but about things like whether or not I have printed out the Year Eights’ worksheets for tomorrow. To be financially secure, and to have this structure to my days, reminiscent precisely of all of my own former school days. [Teaching is definitely a befitting career path for stationery addicts and school-lovers!]
I have so much to do… I really like it, though sometimes it feels like the stress is enough to give me a stomach ulcer or something. There are always ‘pay-offs’ at play when it comes to work (and, indeed, when it comes to all things in life!) I can either make that History lesson as wonderful as it could possibly be: carry out some more research for it, tick all the boxes, every single one of the statutory ‘criteria for success’. Or I can focus more on those English lessons, instead. I cannot ‘do it all’, and I cannot do things ‘perfectly’. I can only assess the circumstances with which I am presented, and do my (realistic) best, given them.
I must always adapt. And try my best. عمل and تَوَكُّل. Work, and Trust.
Put the work in, and then put my Trust in my Ultimate Provider, Governor of all outcomes.
Gosh, today I am tired. My work day had begun approximately twelve hours ago. It is nice there: I like the environment. A group of lovely Muslim women, a nucleic, rather comfortable, staffroom. We are a rather ‘homogenous’ group, maybe, to outside eyes. But how different these personalities are, how various and multifaceted, when one is able to look a little closer.
That is a very important thing, in matters of work: the people, ‘work family’. Community, environment. Places – edifices and such – and the people that inhabit them, shape them, make them. I so enjoy working in a Muslim environment; I feel like my Deen is being nurtured well here, Alhamdulillah.
Also, the nature of the work you undertake is important. Sometimes, it will just be you and your work, alone. And that state of ‘flow’ that ensues, at the best of times [although marking feels like painful hackwork, at the worst of times]. You, feeling fulfilled and challenged. Like you are ‘good’ for the work, and like it, too, is good for you.
Khayr. We seek the Khayr in things. And know that we do not ‘work’ merely for the sake of work. We must take a balanced approach. Ultimately, the supreme consideration in our lives ought to be our submission to Allah.
That is another nice thing about working in a Muslim environment: when it is prayer time, you can simply pray. There are Wudhu facilities, and prayer mats.
My official time is up now, but I feel I must carry on. I want to write about ‘work’ some more, in a future article, perhaps. How important a thing it is, to talk about.
It is the thing most people in the ‘modern world’ find themselves centring the majorities of their days on – devoting their existences to, in both ‘direct’ ways, and indeed in ‘less direct’ ways (e.g. planning for family holidays around work demands). Our identities – who we are – are largely defined by what we do.
“Who are you?”
“I am [a firefighter / an accountant / the CEO of a salsa dip company].”
People are known to define themselves, almost instinctively, through their professional (or academic) titles. People are known to attach purpose and meaning, intrinsically, to these very things, too; ‘work’ finds its way to the very core of their existences.
As Muslims, we are told to partake in society; ours is not a tradition of any sort of sustained monasticism. Study, work, mingle with others. But ‘work’ in and of itself need not define us, nor give us ‘meaning’, nor be the ‘be all’ or the ‘end all’ of it all.
Because, first and foremost, we are Muslimeen. We are privileged enough to be acquainted with Haqq. The foremost consideration in our lives ought to be Deen: servingAllah. Everything else – including ‘serving’ our superiors at work – is subsidiary, and we must link everything else to our ultimate purposes. And the ‘workaholic’ ways of the ‘modern world’ around us had come about as a direct consequence of some of our fellow People of the Book having come to favour Dunya and materialism over Deen and spirituality. Trying (futilely) to satisfy the yearnings of the soul with… ‘work’, and with material ‘success’, which they had looked upon as being indicative of God’s grace and favour upon them.
“Hard work, self-denial, plus the threat of eternal damnation for the lazy” [The Guardian], and running after profits and material indicators of ‘success’, so as to (attempt to) fill gaps in meaning, and towards objectives of personal status and existential ‘legitimacy’. Do these phenomena sound familiar to you? Of course they do! Just take a look at the ways of the world around us!
As Muslims, though, we must learn to be Muslims. Our purpose, meaning, honour, and success come from Allah, as a direct consequence of bowing before Him, and not before the abstract idols of any of these capitalistic ‘workaholic’ models.
Within our considerations of work, I think we must ask ourselves: is this occupation Khayr for me? Is it Deen-friendly? Is it something I truly enjoy? Am I working in moderation; am I balancing it well with my other responsibilities and such, e.g. with giving time to my loved ones (who are constantly, with time, growing older/old), and with nurturing a good home?
It is true that working forty hours a week (and this is just a nominal number. Because I do often have to take work home with me, too) is not for everybody. And this is okay. I do not know if it will always be for me. Maybe, in the future, I will work ‘part-time’, at least at certain points in my life.
The key lies in seeking and pursuing whatever is most Khayr (good) at the time. For example, if work becomes a little too stressful one week, it is okay to take some time off and away from it all. This adage is something I have, for a while, known, but two weeks (I believe?) ago I was reminded of it, when I came home from work, more tired than is normal for me, on Mondays, and I left everything I had ‘to do’ downstairs, and simply went upstairs and relaxed, away from it all. For, what is the point of ‘work’ if it is not Khayr for me? If it eats away at goodness; if it, as a different example, begins to negatively affect my relationships with my loved ones?
And, ultimately, these well-needed rests result in better long-term relationships with our work. [The next day, I had been able to complete my tasks more happily and efficiently.]
I do not want to be a person who is ever simply ‘busy’ for the sake of being busy. And, for my work to have true ‘meaning’, I must always consider it against the backdrop of life at large. I already know what the purpose of my life is. In my work, there shall be Khayr, if I turn towards Allah throughout it all, far more so than to any considerations of salary [that age-old remark about how teachers do not get paid enough, here!] or of societal praise and recognition.
Remember Allah, and remember your Divinely-ordained rights and responsibilities (including those you have with regard to your family). Remember that ‘work’ ought not to be the beating heart of your life, and that Deen, family, health, are far more important. Let work be ancillary to them.
And explore; [come to] know yourself. What is good for you; what is not so good for you.
An example of a rather interesting academic/professional journey, I think, is YouTuber Subhi Taha’s one:
The ‘work’ part of life is not, in actuality, experienced as a series of tick-box accomplishments and such. From your (the experiencer’s) point of view, ‘work’ will not be a trail of LinkedIn updates. And ‘career stages’ are not merely transitory experiences, whose sole significance is to get you from A to B. This is life, and these are, at present, true parts of it!
You will wake up in the morning, do what you do, have breakfast (hopefully with a loved one or two), travel to work (whether by car, by train, by bike, or – if you work in Greenwich, for example, or in certain parts of Bangladesh – by boat). You will sit, surrounded by your colleagues. Talk about the news, or about your home life, or about the work you all have in common. Follow your work timetable: a meeting here, a lesson there, your lunch hour. But timetables certainly do not account for everything: they are only outlines, inherently liable to change. You do not know what each day will bring.
You do your job; try to impart Khayr onto others, and upon yourself. Our relationships with Allah, and with others (our work ‘superiors’; the people whom we serve – students, or patients, etc.; our colleagues) and with our own selves (being challenged, learning, developing, enjoying). This is what work ought to be more deeply considered in the context of. Oh, and nature! No place is a good place without some incorporation of the natural world. An orchid plant, or a bonsai tree. Or a tree to sit beneath, during your lunch hour, sometimes. Or maybe, just maybe, if you are fortunate enough, you have access to an actual cave. Sigh. A girl can dream.
This life is a test and the life of Muhammad (SAW) is our ‘exemplar paper’ to follow. He had been a statesman, a prophet. Muslim, father, husband, friend. Human being: he would tend to his own household duties, such as mending his own sandals and garments. He would climb that mountain, sit within that cave, and he would reflect.
Also, there may come some points in your life when you need to, or decide to, take some time off working. Maybe, to spend some more time with your children. Or maybe, you get a bit sick. You take a ‘year out’ to travel. Who knows? Life is, at once, so vast and so small.
What is the core of yourlife? Why is your work Khayr and important? And are you beginning things with ‘Bismillah’?
“Like sands passing through the hourglass, look around you: these arethe days of our lives.”
The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself ten minutes – timed – to write about whatever comes to mind, based on the topic. You cannot go over the time; you cannot stop typing beforehand, either. And you cannot go back to edit [save for grammatical errors, etc.]. I challenge all fellow bloggers to give this a try [or, if you do not have a blog, try it on paper – maybe in a journal]! Include ‘ConciseCompositions’ as a tag for your pieces, and include this block of writing at the end of them. Have fun writing!
A friend is someone who holds your breath. Friendship. It is such a wonderful thing. If you are blessed enough, in this life of yours, to have at least one amazing friend, then you are truly blessed indeed. How awful would it have been to be alone – without friendship – in this world?
A friend is someone who looks into your eyes, and understands. Friendship is sacred, even if, these days, we often act like it is not. It takes things like trust and effort, yes. Humour, love, adventures. Sometimes just sitting in silence, enjoying one another’s company.
You are indeed who your friends are. Well, you are you, a separate entity. But so much of you will be dependent on who they are. They will be reflections of you, too. So choose wisely.
You know, we sometimes act as though every person we have met, whom we perhaps shared a class at school with, or whom we worked alongside as colleagues – we (or, do I mean I?) act like these are ‘friends’. But, no, I think, realistically, these are…acquaintances. They might be circumstantially somewhat close acquaintances, sure. But I think the term ‘friend’ ought to hold far more weight.
Friends are here for the best of your times. They are equally there for the worst ones. Your happiness and sadness becomes theirs, somehow, and vice versa. Friends are the family we are fortunate enough to be able to choose for ourselves; their lives become intertwined with ours, in parts. We end up sharing some of our flowers.
Okay I’ve got like twenty seconds left. I love my friends; over and over again, I would choose them. I love having good food with them. Good food, good friends. And FLOWERS. Life complete.
4 seconds left. 3, 2, 1.
The Concise Compositions series comprises a series of blog articles that are each based on a certain topic. You give yourself five minutes – timed – to write about whatever comes to mind, based on the topic. You cannot go over the time; you cannot stop typing beforehand, either. And you cannot go back to edit [save for grammatical errors, etc.]. I challenge all fellow bloggers to give this a try [or, if you do not have a blog, try it on paper – maybe in a journal]! Include ‘ConciseCompositions’ as a tag for your pieces, and include this block of writing at the end of them. Good luck!
Dedicated to a wonderful soul [you know who you are!].
You see them as the ‘high-flyers’: the happy, motivated, successful, ‘productive’ ones. The ones with neatly organised planners; a systematic revision process; smiles upon their faces for days… Mental health conditions are not, by any means, a personal failure. But sometimes, to the ones who are known as the ‘academic’ ones – the scholastic geniuses, the kings and queens of the classrooms they inhabit – depression can make them, and to a great extent, feel this way.
A number of people have messaged me regarding their personal experiences of depression. I feel honoured with the knowledge that they have entrusted me with such sensitive attestations, and I find that I can truly empathise with them, as I have been there, too. It is a rather unique thing to go through – these paradoxical parallels between academic success, and inner feelings of rottenness. Doom, gloom, demotivation, heaviness, headaches: these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think about depression.
Thankfully, many of the people who have told me about their experiences find themselves in a period of ‘healing’. I, too, Alhamdulillah (praise be to God) find myself in such a favourable state. I have had enough time and space to combat the far-reaching issue at its sources. Stress (and burn-out), unhealthy views of myself in relation to my educational statuses, and childhood traumas… these have all certainly played a part. For others too, these factors, in addition to things like financial and other at-home stresses, make for some very stressful and depressing behind-the-scenes situations indeed.
“You’ve… been through depression too?” I find myself asking certain people when they open up to me. This is slightly hypocritical of me: I know what it is like to have people question your experiences. Many people knew me as the ‘bubbly’ one, the ‘try-hard-in-the-classroom’ one, and the one that was predestined, somehow, for perfect grades. Deep down, I now know not to question other’s recounts of their experiences of the same (as aforementioned) ‘paradoxical parallel’. The ‘quietly brilliant’ ones are often the ones who have suffered the most. And I salute you, each and every one of you. Some of you have been unable to catch a break: you have many siblings you are essentially a primary caregiver for; you work part-time to provide for your family; you have to wake up extremely early to carry out all your responsibilities, even though depression pushes you down every morning like a heavy weight upon your chest. Your to-do list is an additional hefty burden that sits atop your shoulders. All the while, you may be fantasising about taking your own life, to escape all the darkness.
And, let’s face it, we paradoxical parallel-ers – we, the academicus depressus ones – have many things in common. We are the ones whom, after in-class test results are handed out, people (many of whom we do not have actual connections with) eagerly ask us, “so what did you get?” “An A*, I bet!” We wear smiles upon our faces but, when we are given the chance to decompress, the darkness reappears. Well, it was always there, to be honest. But in certain contexts, we need not pretend anymore.
I cannot truly speak as if I am an expert, for whom these issues are firmly ‘in the past’. I am on this journey too. And please pardon my natural inclinations toward a rather didactic manner of writing, but when I write to you, dear readers, know that I am also very much writing to myself.
Across these personal anecdotes that have been relayed to me, and also in light of my own rather lengthy and complex experiences (in conjunction with some bits of research I have carried out) I now know, firstly, how extensive the general issue is. This is a hidden epidemic, but an epidemic nonetheless. And I know about what some of the crucial contributing factors are; how we can go about truly healing – and not just artificially (i.e. with here-and-there spa days, and the like).
The early years: For me, and for many others who face similar struggles, academia used to be a source of joy. Nursery, Reception, the early key stages… school was simple. You went there; you excelled at the work you did; you went home, without giving any of your day’s scholastic activities a second thought. School was a place of creativity; novelty in terms of world-related discoveries; a place in which you could excel, almost effortlessly. What has changed, since then?
Early traumas: Now, almost certainly in temporal coexistence with the joys of school, there may have been some emotional traumas that you faced, as a child. Most people – 99%, perhaps – have faced childhood traumas. They are practically inevitable. A traumatic experience is defined subjectively to the individual; it refers to any distressing experience that resulted in a shift in your thought and behaviour patterns. Sometimes, the human mind suppresses its various traumas; they rise to the surface at a later, rather inconvenient, date…
The emotional residues they leave in their wakes can affect so many thoughts and behaviours that we find ourselves mindlessly succumbing to, today. These issues need to be resolved at their core. But since actual time travel is impossible, more mental forms of time travel will have to suffice. Therapy and the like. We cannot change what happened to us, but we can change what we do about these things, from here and now.
Class: I would say that class is a major contributing factor to this issue. I am not saying that it is impossible for wealthy upper-class individuals to be classified as (to use my earlier neologism) academicus depressus, however there seem to be trends that indicate that the issue mainly affects working-class students. Various factors likely contribute to this – financial pressures, lack of available at-home support, numerous domestic stresses, and more. There are many factors that interact to make this whole academia thing a very individual-based experience indeed. With all due respect, some may have much support available for them in the form of university-educated parents, and financial ease, daily home-cooked meals served to them, and so on. Others have siblings to take care of; entire houses to clean; meals to cook; have to always be at public libraries since there is little space to study at home… We need to be mindful of this, and we need to come to view ourselves as well as others on a more human level. We need to give people – and ourselves- perceptive justice, rather than perceptive equality.
Familial Circumstances: And, on the broad issue of at-home factors, familial circumstances and such certainly come into play. The thing is, you cannot really look at people and be able to tell what is going on within their households. You do not know about the familial pressures that are they are being subjected to every living moment: the pressures of being the eldest son, for example, of a, say, single-parent immigrant household… You do not know about some people’s extremely emotionally abusive extended families. Or about the grief some people are still going through, two years after their beloved grandmother passed away. You may not know about the stresses that many second-generation immigrant students face, since education is a source of great economic and societal anxiety, in the eyes of their parents. The bottom line is this: you do not know about the stories of others, unless they tell you about them. Likewise, people do not fully know you. Success is a very subjective and individualised thing. So is struggle. Let there be perceptive justice.
Gender: Boys don’t cry. Especially not about school, surely? Well, the truth is, depression does not discriminate against one gender or the other. And boys do cry. Are they not human too? Collectively, we often expect males to be inherently ‘alpha’ – always egotistical, always winning… We erroneously assume that they do not have the capacities to form potent emotional attachments to abstract things like their academic profiles. The truth is, just like girls can experience childhood emotional traumas, and how we can possess warped self-images and such, boys can suffer from depression too. They may be high-flying academics; they might be the boy who sits silently at the back of the class, who smiles at everyone. Suffering from academicus depressus does not equate to failing as a man (or a woman) or to failing as a student, or to failing as the child of ambitious immigrants… It means this: you are human. You are hurting. And there are things that need to be fixed, beneath the surface of it all. The numbers and letters on your test sheets can wait for a little while; your entire being – mind, body, and soul – can not, really.
Reframing academia: What does academia mean to you? We have to be honest with ourselves. Is it very enjoyable to us anymore? What must change in order for us to regain this sense of wonder and joy we once brought with us, through the school gates? The truth is, the modern world has commercialised – marketised – the entire experience. Parents anxiously hire tutors for their children; are deeply disappointed in them if they slip up at school. We see ourselves as academic brands; we compete with each other, subtly albeit relentlessly, and so do our parents, through us; we need to secure certain degrees, in certain subjects, at certain institutions, in order to succeed in this grand game. We are often prone to forfeiting our humanity, in order to be ‘productive’. Look at how we venerate this label. “How are you today?” often gets unfavourably metamorphosed into “How productive have you been today?” and “Did you get enough sleep last night?” often becomes, “How many hours of work have you done today?” We have come to see ourselves as grade-getting, qualification-acquiring, productive machines, (LinkedIn robots; our purposes here are to wear constrictive suits, and to walk around networking) as opposed to being holistically human… This is a Rat Race, and most of us find ourselves blindly running in it. There is some distant promise of… cheese… somewhere, maybe at the end. But for now, we must…sacrifice our humanity and just keep running (?)
Rest: The truth is, we all need to take a lot of time (spent consciously resting and healing) so as to actually rest and heal. Exit the Rat Race, if only for a little while. True resting involves absolutely shutting off all notions of work from these racing, relentless minds of ours. If you are Muslim, for instance, I would recommend spending an entire day at a mosque. Just chill, read, pray, read Qur’an, sketch… Rest. You may well wish to do this in a natural setting, or even in your bedroom. Put all considerations of work away. Go to the planetarium, and watch the stars be magnified… Do something enriching. The world will not end if you do not manage to sit down and ‘bang out’ three hours of work today.
Working smarter, not harder: I remember, in GCSE season, religiously watching YouTube videos produced by ‘academic YouTubers’, and then I found myself embracing some of their habits and such. They seem like healthy, good, habits, when presented in the form of edited and lighthearted video clips. Eight-hour (incremental) study sessions, for example. It started to give me anxiety if I did not manage to study for six to eight hours on any particular day, during exam season. I now realise, however, that it is truly not about working ‘harder’ in terms of hours and intensity. It is more about working ‘smarter’ – making each hour really count… and taking heed of such things as the ‘Parkinson’s Principle’, which dictates that work ‘spreads to fill the time you allocate towards it’. So, if you allocate an entire day to get a task done, the work will ‘spread’, and you will not work particularly efficiently. A lot of precious time may be wasted. Rather, it is, according to this principle, better to go about your usual ‘real-life’ activities: breakfast with a friend, a nice bike ride, followed by some free time to draw… and then a dedicated two-hour slot to complete the work-related task at hand.
Being ‘the best’: Many of us are attached to this obsession with ‘being the best’. We think that if we are not Number 1, we are… nothing at all. This is, of course, a rather unhealthy idea to possess. And such convictions are usually rooted in childhood – in constantly being called a “child genius”, and from forever being complimented on our academic performances, and so on. School, grades, academics… these became defining factors for us; a source of tender validation from well-meaning adults. But now, we find ourselves unhealthily attached to them. And what a vicious cycle this produces: unhealthy attachment to academia leading to damage to our health and general wellbeing, which, in turn, affects how well we are able to perform scholastically, and so on, and so on… The aim, I think, needs to be re-engineered: from the aim to ‘be the best’ to the aim to just be excellent. Do they sound like synonymous concepts? Well, being the ‘best’ entails one’s goal being to outdo all others; to achieve the best grade possible. Achieving excellence would entail bringing focus and flow to each task; focusing more on the given task, and being content and careful while carrying it out. Excellence is not about sacrificing everything for grades. It is about bringing about extremely good functionality to all parts of life – nutrition, sleep, academia, socialising. These things, generally, interact with and affect each other.
Our relationships with the past: Temporally, the present is all that can be fully experienced, well, here in the present. And yet, our tyrannous minds taint our presents – these gifts – with recollections of yesterday, and of last year, and of things that happened a decade ago. I know it is not easy to instantly ‘let go’ of it all; these things now hold permanent places in our psyches. But we can work on healing our relationships with our pasts. Again, I would recommend journalling for this: journalling helps us to ‘see ourselves’, in a true light. Write about your experiences, as well as any remnant emotional states and such. Now, we are going to take a two-pen (and, hence, two-perspective) approach. One pen colour will represent the problems – the bad memories, the resulting feelings and thoughts, the seemingly endless detrimental cycles we find ourselves in … Ah, but the other colour will represent solutions – more comforting thoughts, the rational truths that combat the irrational falsehoods that an anxious or emotionally protective mindset tends to generate… For example, an issue of yours may involve ongoing childhood emotional abuse from your older brother. Maybe he was prone to calling you “ugly” and a “loser” very often. Now, and especially since you may have had seen him as an accepted authority figure when you were younger, you may hold the remnant belief that you are these exact things that he told you you were. I want you to take the second pen, and write about the truth. Why did he really say these things? Was he projecting? Perhaps as a result of your parents always pointing out how well you were doing at school, while he was failing? See, insults are usually dished out as a result of the transmitter’s personal insecurities… Another example: maybe you did not do particularly well in Year Twelve. And this prevents you from having hope for Year Thirteen. With the second pen, consider telling yourself that your circumstances have changed: the issues that you had been facing in Year Twelve have (hopefully) been resolved, or have simply changed, now. The determinant factors have changed: you are older now, more wise, more mature. You change all the time. To stubbornly see yourself in light of how you previously were – how you previously saw yourself – is irrational!
If your past experiences involve something like extreme abuses, seeking professional therapy would be a very good idea. But journalling can also be quite useful with this, too. This may sound very strange (and lame, even) but it is possible to communicate, via journalling, with one’s child self – with five-year-old, or six-year-old (and so on) you. One pen colour can be current you. The flashbacks you get; the emotional hurt, and so forth. The other colour: child you. And a third pen: current you, again, but a more mature and reassuring form. A version of yourself that has grown; that has the benefit of hindsight now; that is able to truly and rationally and empathetically comfort a little child – your child self – the first colour.
NB: traumatic experiences are very subjective. We need to try not to belittle others’ traumas. What they suffered from trauma as a result of, you may think you would have psychologically responded differently to. But they are not you; you do not get to dictate to them whether their ongoing resultant suffering ‘makes sense’ or not.
Our relationships with the future: And, of course, in addition to the unfavourable relationships we may have with our pasts, we may also experience a great deal of apprehension with regard to the future. What if I don’t succeed? What if I do succeed but then find myself still unhappy? What if… What if I don’t get into that course I really want to get into? What if, what if, what if. It’s enough to drive us all insane! Worrying about our futures does nothing to benefit them.
“Forever is composed of nows” – Emily Dickinson
The future is composed of ‘nows’.All we have control over is this very moment. Oh wait, that moment’s now gone. Now, this one. No, wait, this one. Time moves on so quickly…
All we can really do is tend to the things we actually have control over: our moment-by-moment decisions. What arises from them is not directly up to our current selves… If you are a theist, the outcomes of the decisions we make out of our free will is contingent upon God’s supreme will. If you are not a theist, well then, life is intrinsically chaotic and unpredictable. So why bother trying to predict, even negatively? If anything, negatively predicting can bring about numerous unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecies…
Emotional health: Physically, humans are more or less water-based beings. When we have too little (or too much) water within our corporeal systems, various aspects of our bodies suffer. Metaphysically, we are also emotion-based beings. When our emotions are in a state of chaos or crisis, various aspects of our bodies, minds, and lives suffer massively. What is it that is persistently harming your emotional health? Could it be your relationships with certain loved ones? Certain bad habits? There are myriad types of issues that can prove extremely detrimental to one’s emotional health. Many people who excel academically are also chronic over-thinkers. An absolute recipe for disaster, if you ask me. But we can flip this around: we can make over-thinking benefit us. Let’s over-think about solutions! Anxiety is a type of creativity, so, rather like how our minds tend to be creative when it comes to our problems, we must try to be creative in thinking up good solutions. The questions and problems are within you. So are, I think, given the right amount of time and thought, the answers and solutions.
Reconnecting with our true selves: During my extended period of darkness, I really think I lost that necessary sense of self-connectivity. I really needed to reconnect with my true self. Something that helped, with this, was hanging out with – offering to babysit – some of my little cousins. Children are wonderful, especially in how they do not give a damn. They simply wonder, and they have fun. Consider this: who were you before, and during, the prime age of seven? What did you enjoy doing, back then? Drawing, perhaps? Playing football? Writing? Swimming? Were you loud and outgoing? Were you quite introspective; a fan of quiet time? Helping your aunt with baking? It is highly likely that this is all indicative of that true self that you must begin to reconnect with. Work can wait a while. Your true self yearns to be rediscovered!
Romanticisations and Gratuitous Degradations: It is not your job – was never your job – to live up to others’ romanticised versions of you, nor was it ever your job to work towards disproving their degrading remarks and ideas about you. They are speaking and thinking from a very personal perspective – through the lens of their own worldviews, insecurities, experiences, and more. And people talk too much, and judge too much, anyway. So if they want to see you as the ‘academic girl who never fails’, let them. If they want to see you as the ‘square boy who only reads and does not know how to have fun’, let them. All that matters is how you view yourself. And if you want to be that person – the happy person who waltzes into the classroom or lecture theatre, binders in hand, work completed early, then know that you can grow into becoming him or her. It will likely not be an overnight thing, but life is a giant game of (spiritual and otherwise) self-development. Failures, wallowing, jumping up, succeeding, failing a little again… This is life. Human life. You are human.
People will always speculate; judge; generally think things… I know it can be hard – heck, it can even be conducive to an extreme crisis of identity – if you have always been known as the ‘academic smart one’ and then to witness yourself decline, in this sense. Bad mental health, for example, causes bad grades and demotivation, which also puts negative pressures upon your mental health. Another vicious cycle. Let’s disrupt it, right here, now and for all. You do not need to maintain a facade of being ‘okay’, just to appease these people’s expectations. This is not good for you. You need not cling to others’ perceptions of you in order to ensure a solid sense of identity. The best, most solid forms of identity are the ones that are self-arising, and self-regulating. On any given day, a person (person A) may think you are the smartest, most wonderful person alive. The next day, A may think you are the definition of stupid and undesirable. You must know who you are, in order for this to have no effect on you at all. A is looking at you through their own eyes. We must see ourselves through our own eyes.
Underachieving at school: Some people have the issue of ‘underachieving’ at school: not getting the grades that their parents and teachers expect of them. Being unable to motivate themselves, and so forth. The truth is, this issue cannot be solved cosmetically. You cannot succeed on the premise of pretending to love school, simply to appease people – even if said people are your own parents. Ask yourself, what do I really want? And how can I get this? Academia – university degrees, post-grads – is not for everyone. But you are, by no means, a ‘failure’ if you choose to reject this more ‘traditional’ route. This is your life! And some people’s skills (e.g. being able to comprehend and absorb textbook information) are not the same as other people’s skills (e.g. being able to produce amazing lifelike art, within minutes). This world is a very cosmopolitan one, brimming with different career paths, opportunities, skill sectors, and such. And, perhaps, in order to truly succeed and achieve contentment in your life, it is necessary for you to disrupt a few expectations, and to disappoint a few people along the way…
Self-comparison: Isn’t it funny how practically everyone compares themselves to others? The boy or girl you perceive to be the smartest, coolest, most attractive person in your class may covertly compare themselves to somebody else in the class; perhaps even to you. The fact of the matter is that people tend to be rather harsh on themselves, but quite generous when it comes to others. We see of others only the surface; we see of ourselves, well, everything. Nobody is a Greek god or goddess who does everything right, who never needs to relieve themselves in the bathroom… and just because you do not see another person’s flaws, it does not mean that they do not exist. Likewise, just because you choose to – or happen to – focus on your own flaws, this does not mean that this is all there is to you. In the game of academia, this is a personal journey. In the game of mental health, this is also a personal journey.
Moving forward: Now, it is time for action. And by action, I do not mean working for fifteen hours a day. I mean being rational; considering the facts of life, and of the professions we are aiming towards and such, as well as our own feelings. What must we do to go forward, and to be kind to ourselves, and to produce meaningful work, and life-based improvements (and so on)? Which habits must we work on resolving? What are we addicted to? Studying? Social media? Binge-eating? Netflix? How are we going to work on resolving our core emotional frictions, which give rise to all the rest of it? Counselling can help; journaling; fasting; scheduling weekly coffee dates or phone calls with a certain friend; choosing a certain weekday to exist as a ‘rest day’… Ultimately, although professional psychological help can be of immense benefit (for instance, you may need some medication, in the short term, to regulate your body’s stress response system while you solve the other issues in your life) you are the only human being who knows yourself as well as you do. If you are a theist, definitely also ask God for guidance. But, chances are, you already know, somewhere, deep down, what will help you. It may involve taking a gap year, or a sabbatical. It might include creating comprehensive checklists, and scheduling all the revision you will do (while being moderate with this!) and promising yourself that you will do fun, relaxing things in your free time.
There are so, so many things I know I need to work on. Spending far less time on Instagram and Twitter, for one thing. Relying far less on other people’s validating comments about me, for another. But often, these things we find ourselves mindlessly doing and relying on are undoubtedly coping mechanisms. But it is never the wrong time to begin. And, if you trip up and fall, it is never the wrong time to begin again.
At the end of the day, you have the moon. Gorgeous, indifferent, reliable, luminous Mr. Moon. And, if you are a theist, you also have the One who created him. Ultimately, academia is a nice part of our lives, but it is not life itself. And, likewise, depression is an unfavourable part of our experiences of ourselves… but it does not define who we are.
I think, absolutely, that the most important thing here is introspection. Asking meaningful questions of ourselves. What is the root cause of my academicus depressus? How has my relationship with academia changed over the years? Why? How has my relationship with myself changed over the years? What am I doing well? What were the ingredients that ensured my contentment back in childhood? And how can I re-introduce those same principles and activities into my life, now? What can I do better, for myself? What unrealistic standards do I find myself succumbing to? How can I be kinder to myself? Which emotional traumas do I need to mentally resolve? Where do I feel most at ease? How can I alter my routines and living environments to help me with this? What can I build on in terms of my spiritual health? And my psychological health? And my physical health? And my social health? Finally, what might my next academic and professional steps be? And so on, and so on…
Claire asked: “Hey Sadia! Love your blog… it’s so insightful and aesthetically pleasing I’m currently in my second year of A-Levels and I didn’t do so well last year. I was wondering whether you had any tips on how I could get my act together before the big A-Levels themselves. Thanks x”
Hi Claire! Thank you for visiting my blog, and for leaving such a lovely comment.
As you might already know, I’m also in my second year of A-levels, and if I’m being completely honest with you, I feel a bit lost myself this year- I feel overwhelmed, both with my intense academic workload, and with life’s goings-on in general.
But I do have some tips that, hopefully, we might both be able to benefit from.
Firstly, I think it’s important to choose to focus on the here and now. Past failures should not be dwelt upon too much; what matters is what you do from this point onwards. I guess you could come to see it as quite comforting that AS-levels are no longer a thing, as first year doesn’t really count for much anymore.
You might have moments where you worry that you will not have enough time. You might regret not ‘starting’ earlier, but it might be comforting to remember that, ultimately, the examiners who mark your papers won’t know how much time you spent revising. All they will pay attention to is the marks you pick up.
So how can you make sure you pick up the right marks? In my opinion, the art of studying (which I definitely need to re-master, mainly by following my own advice) can be simplified and seen as the product of three things: understanding the content, creating good notes, and then doing exam practice.
Understanding the content would, obviously, entail paying attention in class… but if you’re anything like me, you might find that a lot of the things that teachers say simply do not get registered in your brain. I, for one, definitely have a habit of zoning out in lessons whenever the teacher happens to be saying something very important. Thankfully, the internet is at hand to help with this: YouTube videos can prove immensely useful for helping you teach yourself certain things.
As for the notes part of it all, I know that a lot of people try to make their notes as aesthetically pleasing as possible. If this helps you make your studying enjoyable, then by all means, do this. But ultimately, the goal is to ensure that your notes cover all the content (use subject specifications as checklists to ensure this!) in the most concise and comprehensible way possible. And once your notes are all done, you are ready to move onto practice papers.
(My personal goal – if I can overcome this winter study rut – is to have all my notes done by January, and then I will move onto constantly reviewing them, and completing past papers)
Practice papers should be completed under timed conditions, and then marked and reviewed. Pay attention to what you’ve done well, and what you might need to revise a bit more. And as for essay-based subjects, making essay plans and writing them out under timed conditions would be the way to go.
Finally, don’t worry too much: a lot of people are in the same boat as you. I would definitely recommend buying new stationery, making a study plan (allocating different topics and different past papers to different days, and spacing out your revision), and then getting stuck in with making notes, and practising under timed conditions. Panicking and overworking yourself at this point in the school year would probably only lead us to be burnt-out and less productive when it comes to exam season, so I would really advise you to take things slow and steady for now.
Make a plan, stick to it, and know that if anybody can succeed with their A-levels, YOU can!
It has long been thought that man is in prolonged conflict with machines- they are stealing our jobs, our talents, and our livelihoods. It seems that, whilst machines are becoming increasingly anthropomorphized, humans are starting to resemble robots, too. Sullen-faced, square-eyed, and excessively concerned with productivity and efficiency, it is almost as if we are sculpting ourselves to become economic goods on conveyer belts; everything is about maximising output and minimising procrastination, and schools with liberal and creative outward appearances are on the brink of becoming de facto exam factories. Students are becoming the unsuspecting victims of an academic dystopia, and our souls are paying the price for it.
Constantly being occupied with something of prudence to do has become the new norm for students; we tend to be inundated by tasks to complete, goals to strive for, and guilt to be absorbed by when our bodies insist that we need a break. With incessant advancements in technology, as well as the growing accessibility of education, the world is progressively becoming more fast-paced and frenetic, resulting in restlessness and overall dissatisfaction amongst pupils. Excuse this cliché statement, but it seems as though we are gradually declining into human doings instead of human beings.
In this game of academic and professional ‘survival of the fittest’, we are told that lacking in ambition will get us nowhere in life, which is, no doubt, true, however the present moment is not just a seed of the future, nor is it exclusively a culmination of the past. Life, believe it or not, is short. Time passes. Although, in modern society, it is highly advisable (necessary, even) to invest in the future, it is also important to focus on your own wellbeing and enjoyment, in the present. Not everything should be done with a future objective in mind; unlike with machines, the value of people is not derived from the value of what we can produce, in a given period of time.
Formal education is very demanding; every student is aware of this. We are forever drowning in oceans of to-do lists, assignments, deadlines, and worries about the future. It is essential that we are willing to let ourselves relax and have fun, from time to time. Self-improvement is dependent on the maintenance of every component of the self: the mind, and also the body.
In my view, although it has come to be a dirty word in academics, procrastination can often be beneficial. It comes from the Latin word procrastinat, which means ‘deferred till the morning’. Sometimes it is necessary to defer things until the morning, to just step away from the monsters of scholastic stress. Chronic anxiety can lead to burnout and depression- hence, as an example of situational irony, immoderate ‘productivity’ can lead to academic fruitlessness. The majority of us are living, sentient beings, not metal, unfeeling ones: we require adequate time to sleep, socialize, and rejoice in our capacity to feel things.
The obsession with efficiency and getting things done in the least amount of time possible is accompanied by an unhealthy obsession with the future, in terms of academia, careers, and other goals. An apt analogy can be drawn from this: students and career-minded individuals are climbing a gargantuan mountain, chasing one marker point after another, never quite stopping to appreciate the gifts- the remarkable view- of the present, for fear of being labelled ‘procrastinators’. They forget that there is beauty around them, not just in front of them, and they also forget that the summit itself is an illusion. The harsh reality of the matter is that we climb this mountain, and then we drop dead somewhere along the way.
As with many things, the solution is simply to strike a balance- the flowers of productivity can be nurtured alongside the flowers of enjoying a soulful and content life (yes, I enjoy using metaphors to convey my ideas). As the saying goes, work hard, but also play hard: time is a finite resource, and it is constantly slipping from beneath our fingertips, like loose grains of sand. Men will never be machines, and it is futile to place such pressure on ourselves, pretending to be something we are not.
Though we may not rust like machines, our cells are always ageing, and soon we will grow old; we will grow up, and we will yearn for our youth and its many joys to return to us, but it never will.
At fifteen years old, I have recently withdrawn myself from an intense existential crisis about my personal identity, however I now find myself entering a new phase of crisis: a career crisis, even though I have never actually had a career.
It genuinely surprises me how often the topic of future career options springs up in daily conversation. I am habitually asked about what I would like to become in the future, by my friends, my parents’ friends, teachers, and even fellow passengers on public transport. I am a very ambitious person, and I would undoubtedly like to make something of my life by impacting the world in a positive way, but in truth, at present, I do not know precisely what I wish to become in the future. There are tens of thousands of potential choices out there, and I cannot narrow my options down at this point- I have yet to take my GCSE exams, let alone decide unequivocally on what my life will look like in ten years’ time.
The incessant questioning regarding my desired career path has led me to think about the world of work, and where I would fit into it. I have realised that our society and every single industry within it shares one particular thing in common: they each rely on human problems. Businesses exploit problems to make a profit; doctors solve health-related problems; lawyers deal with conflicts, which are a human problem. Problems are absolutely essential to the progression of our society, but society will never be perfect. As humans, we have all found ourselves in this futile search for perfection, both on a personal and wider scale. When people ask me about what I would like to become in the future, I now rephrase the question in my mind, and instead, I ask myself: what qualities, skills and interests do I have, and how can I harness these to solve a particular set of problems in society?
Ideas about my potential future career choices have changed drastically over the years. First, I wanted to be a teacher, and/or a journalist. Then, my interests changed for a while, and I wanted to become a doctor…then I was absolutely certain that I would become an astronaut…but then I developed an interesting in the field of engineering…and then (more recently) I thought about becoming a lawyer, but not one who defends criminals. Instead, I wanted to be a lawyer who would defend the human rights of civilians in war-torn areas of the world, such as Palestine and Syria. When I told my prying teachers about this potential choice of career path, I was met with strong disapproval. My teachers assured me that there were ‘better’ options for me out there- options that would make me more wealthy and ‘successful’.
Ultimately, the average salaries of people in different industries will, no doubt, be a relatively important contributing factor to the career path I end up deciding on, but for me, money is certainly not a central element. I would like a job that will be decently financially rewarding, but most importantly, I desire a job that will be morally uplifting- a job in which I feel challenged (enough to feel fulfilled) and secure and satisfied – a job that will harness my abilities and constantly stimulate my mind. In the meantime, however, I will live most contentedly in the present. I will work hard and focus on expanding my mind and bettering myself as a person.
Every British student has his or her own story to tell when it comes to the topic of GCSEs. There are the ridiculously bright, organised and perpetually energetic who jump with glee at the thought of endless hours of revision. Then there are the other 99% of the British teen population: the insanely intelligent and unique individuals who are not particularly compatible with the GCSE system of broad memorisation.
This article is dedicated to all of you: the brilliant, creative beings who have been labeled “dumb” or “lazy” due to your reluctance to sit down for hours on end, memorising an abundance of pointless information; the ones currently suffering from anxiety or depression or ADHD, so revision becomes synonymous with torture; the teens whose lives are currently too unstable for them to bear the burden of the responsibility of such a task, and, of course, the model students who suffer endlessly for their grades. I understand you, and I believe in you. You are not stupid or incompetent, and the system has failed you.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”
To any non-Brits reading this article who are wondering what on Earth GCSEs are, they are a series of examinations fifteen and sixteen-year-olds take here in the UK, across eight to fifteen subjects in total. Most of these tests rely not on creativity, practical skills or logic; they rely primarily on memory retention. Imagine having to memorise subject content (usually about three textbooks of information for each subject) across numerous subjects. Some students have to sit over thirty exams- exams that do not focus on a particular career path, but across a desultory range.
Of course, as a keen socialist, I am all for education- it is the key to success both on a personal and global basis. However, that being said, the GCSE system here in the UK is in desperate need of reform. Not only does it counterproductively dull down intelligence and creativity, it also does little to prepare young individuals for life in the real world, especially in the digital age.
The system has failed to modernise- the constructors of the GCSE system must be unaware of the existence of Google. We do not need to memorise useless dates such as when the NHS Act was introduced, nor do we need to memorise complex algebraic functions or how dust precipitators work. The education of our generation- Generation Alpha- is being placed into the hands of a group of old, incompetent, privileged politicians who are simply making it increasingly difficult for the underprivileged to succeed.
GCSE grades lull high achieving students into a false sense of security and subsequent academic arrogance (which is sometimes absolutely demolished come A-levels) and give underachieving students the false impression that they are stupid and good for nothing. The truth is, not every GCSE Physics student will grow up to become a Physicist, and the same can be said for every other GCSE subject. Everyone excels at something- whether it be painting, baking, engineering or politics- and everyone deserves to be commended for their talents, irrespective of whether or not they were able to bag 10 A*s at GCSE level.
I do not, in any way, believe that GCSEs should be scrapped altogether, however I believe they are in desperate need of reform; the British education system must keep with the times, make learning more accessible and enjoyable (without leaving students with a feeling of perpetual exhaustion and dread), and do a better job at preparing us for the future.