Blogroll lost!

Well, I was playing around with the theme of my blog and was trying this new one out and realized that for some reason, all the blogs on my blogroll are now gone.  Ahhh.  I haven’t been on here in a long time so I don’t even really remember offhand who I was following!  So – if you’d like me to follow you, please comment here and I’ll check you out!  Thanks all. 🙂

Update: it seems that my blogroll is still there in my settings, but it is not visible for some reason.  Anyway if you want me to follow you, let me know.  And in the meantime I’ll try to figure out how to get my links and blogroll to show.

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Patterns

puzzle pieces

Much has happened in the past few years, and as I have been looking back and reflecting on all the events that have occurred, lessons I’ve learned, thinking about where to start with my blog, the major, overall theme that jumps out at me is patterns.  I can categorize nearly everything into a pattern of some sort, things that have happened before might have had different forms, different faces, different details – but the underlying story is the same.

As human beings, we are all creatures of habit, and thus we all have patterns and certain ways of doing and thinking about things.  Our patterns are formed when we are babies and throughout early childhood, when our impressions about the world and the way things work and who we are are being created and solidified.  Habits are often passed down from generation to generation, as our early habits are formed through our interactions with our caretakers – our families.  Children in families grow up to have their own children, and they pass down the same habits to them – and so it goes.  These habits are mostly unconscious, yet deeply ingrained and rarely challenged.  Everyone around us behaves a certain way, and that becomes our ‘normal’.  In our minds, this is how the world operates.  Those who don’t operate in the same way are seen as outside the norm and strange.  Some of us may dismiss those people and not take the time to consider why they behave the way they do; we don’t give them any importance and simply forget about them and move on.  When we don’t allow ourselves the time to reflect on the basis for the behaviors of others, we cut off any opportunity for growth and positive change in ourselves.  We stay stuck in our ingrained, unconscious habits and patterns, and continue to encounter the same problems, the same difficulties, the same people, our entire lives.  Nothing will ever change.  We keep thinking if only this person would stop doing that, if only people could understand me, if only the world weren’t so messed up, if only other people didn’t have all these problems… But the truth is, when everyone and everything around us is flawed and problematic, the reality is that the problem lies in YOU.  If, for instance, you find yourself always ending up in relationships with people who treat you badly and don’t respect you, the problem is not them.  The one thing all these relationships have in common – is YOU.  The question you must ask yourself is not what is wrong with them, but instead, what is wrong with me?  What is wrong with me for allowing and tolerating such behavior?  For not standing up for myself early on and walking away when the red flags first began popping up?  Why did I continue to hang on?  Why do I not believe that I deserve better?  And on and on the questions go.  It is in this kind of reflection, reflection about the self, that change can occur and we can truly begin taking steps to stopping unhealthy patterns once and for all.  We must stop looking at others, and start looking inside.

It is sometimes said that like attracts like.  It is also sometimes said that opposites attract.  But, the truth is that neither are really the case.  Newton’s law states it best: for every action, there is an equal or opposite reaction.  What that means is, whatever you put out there will attract its match in return.  If you have low self-worth and don’t believe you deserve to be treated well, that is exactly what you will get.  You will get others who don’t think highly of you and who will not treat you well.  Your psychological and energetic state will draw in your match.  When relationships fail, the last thing to cross our minds is that we were well-matched… but the truth is, you were.  You were the exact match for each other at that point in time; the matching piece of the puzzle.  A good match doesn’t equate a healthy match; it simply means two people fit the needs of the other, healthy or unhealthy, conscious or unconscious.  One thing I’ve heard therapists and life coaches often say is that relationships are a dance.  It takes two, and each of you dances in a specific pattern that fits exactly the pattern in which the other person dances.  It is not an identical dance, you are not doing the exact same moves at the same time for the same reasons – rather, it is a symbiotic, complementary dance.  And then relationships fail because one partner changes and the dance no longer works; it falls apart.  Relationships also fail if one partner becomes aware of the dysfunction and no longer wants to continue in it.  However, too often that person does not look at their role in the dysfunction, and continues on with the same patterns and will eventually end up in yet another dysfunctional relationship.  That particular partner changed, but the patterns – the source of the dysfunction – did not.  That is not to say we should continue on in dysfunctional relationships or continue to tolerate inappropriate, disrespectful, or abusive behavior.  Rather, we should look inward to work on changing our internal patterns, and the relationship will reveal itself and work out in the way that it is meant to.

Now that I’ve begun to take a critical look at myself and my life and have seen the clear patterns neatly tying everything together, I am astounded at how obvious it was all this time – and yet I never saw it.  I was too stuck in them; they were so deeply ingrained and a part of what I thought “normal” was that I never once questioned them; I never took a step back and really examined my patterns and habits.  It’s also amazing that now, after discovering this about myself, how clearly I can see the issues of others all around me.  It all comes down to patterns that were imprinted upon us during childhood.  So simple… and yet, the hardest part is seeing our own patterns, seeing ourselves as we truly are, and our central role in the problems that plague us.

Breaking the Silence

Hello all, and sincere apologies for my very long silence.  The past few years have been extremely stressful and exhausting.  My job has kept me overworked, underpaid, mentally exhausted, and completely burned out.  That combined with issues in my personal life, I have had no energy to even think about anything else.  My hope is to brush off the layers of dust that have collected on my blog and begin updating it with all the various thoughts and reflections that have passed through my mind all throughout this time.  So much has happened, so many realizations – it will be hard to go back and track everything, but at least there is a plethora of material to draw from!

I’m finally enjoying a break between semesters for the first time since taking my job – we’ve had to work through all the breaks previously.  We’ve been granted faculty status (finally) and now have a real vacation.  This is the first time I’ve had more than a few days off at a time, and is the first time I haven’t had to worry and stress over lesson planning, grading, and work-related issues since I took this job!  I hardly know what to do with myself.  Thus far I’ve been too worn out, both physically and mentally, to do anything but lay around.  Hopefully my brain and vigor for life will begin to come back.

Anyway, I’ve got a few posts in mind, so be on the lookout for those coming soon!

Ramadhan Mubarak!

Salaam alaykum and Ramadhan mubarak to all my brothers and sisters in Islam!  I pray that Allah will make the long hours of fasting easy for you and give you strength to get through these long, hot summer days (for those of you in the northern hemisphere!). 

Ramadhan is a month in which we abstain from food and water to not only purify ourselves physically, but also to constantly remind ourselves to work toward purifying ourselves spiritually.  In light of that, I have some goals in mind for this month that have become apparent to me recently.

Goal 1: Speak up with a smile. 

I’ve recently been mulling over my concept of “being nice” and have concluded that perhaps my definition is incorrect.  Since childhood, thoroughly ingrained into my mentality is the Christian standpoint of “turn the other cheek” and “if someone takes your cloak, give him your shirt also” (Matthew 5:39-40), and therefore now instinctually don’t defend myself or stand up for myself when dealing with others – instead, I just let it go.  But, what happens over and over again is that people, acting on instinct, respond by just running right over me and crossing boundaries without hesitation.  I’ve realized that as social – and imperfect – creatures, we are constantly bumping up against each other, so it is completely natural to bump back in order to maintain your position and standing with everyone around you.  If you offer no resistance when bumped, and instead easily fall down, people will simply step right over you and continue bumping into everyone else.  Thus, naturally – and Islamically – we need to assert ourselves and hold firm when others push up against us.  Islam is very specific about upholding the rights of God, of ourselves, and of others.  We must uphold our own rights.  If we don’t, no one else will.  Someone once told me that a mo’min (a believer) might let it go the first time something happens, but not the second time (which falls in line with the English saying “fool me once shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me”).  In reading the Quran and listening to lectures, I’ve been noticing that indeed it is true – prophets and upright companions were regularly met with resistance and would usually SAY something in response.  They weren’t rude, they didn’t have an attitude, they calmly spoke the truth.  Essentially, my concept of being nice or polite is simply ignoring and avoiding conflict.  Defending myself and pushing back is not something I ever associated with religion or as something “good”; I associated it with being dramatic, concerned with trivial matters, and rude.  Thus, my current project is attempting to change my mental definition and actively put it into practice.  Assert myself, speak up – but with a nice facial expression and calm tone of voice.  I need to gracefully look after my rights, while taking care not to tread on the rights of others –  A delicate balance which requires great attention and skill. 

Goal 2: Use good words

As a Christian, I would never utter swear words or even the words that represent swear words – my family was very strict about this (for instance, we also couldn’t say crap, heck, or dang), so even in college I continued to refrain from bad language.  Despite prolonged, humorous attempts from friends to get me to say some of the less offensive words, I refused.  Yet, due to linguistic awareness (that words are given power and meaning by the society that uses them and are not inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good’, but are simply means of expression) and the decreasing grip that Christianity had on my life, I began letting some of these words in.  Yet as Muslims, we too should refrain from using offensive words and should keep our speech clean and uplifting to others.  If we use certain words, people automatically associate certain qualities or characteristics to us that we wouldn’t want to be known for, and we certainly wouldn’t want people connecting those associations with our religion!  So, while I still don’t use such words around others – mostly to myself – I still want to make a concerted effort to get rid of them and replace them with something more fitting and appropriate to who I am. 

I’ve thought about adding a few more goals, but I think these two will be more than enough to keep me occupied!  It’s easy to type something out, but much harder to act on it every single moment of every single day.  I pray that God will help me in my efforts to improve myself, and that He will help all of you as well to work toward self-improvement and giving to others during this blessed month.

For more on specific rights in Islam: http://www.iec-md.org/IECE/religious/treatise_on_rights.html

Forgiveness and Respect

Although I’ve written on this subject before, I find myself still continuing to regularly grapple with forgiveness and respect – for myself. 

Earlier today a friend posted something from a Christian site that I found to be very powerful and true for all of us, regardless of religion – or lack thereof.  It stated:

“true respect for another comes from self respect. True love for another comes from self love.   True forgiveness for another comes from self forgiveness.” 

How true this is.  We can’t actually connect to others or have any impact on others until we first deal with ourselves.  Jesus (as) is reported to have said in the Bible that we must take the plank of wood out of our own eye before we can comment on the speck of dust in another person’s eye.  But, in order to begin that process, we must first see ourselves honestly.  Prophet Muhammad (saws) said the one who knows himself knows God.  What does that mean?  It essentially means that knowing yourself opens the door to understanding the world around you and all that is in it.  You must truly know yourself before you can know others, and most certainly before you can truly know God.   

My friend also commented that she found the advice timely as she had been “beating (herself) up” over some past sins that God had long forgiven.  Her thoughts resonated with me because I often do the same thing.  Past sins and mistakes sometimes come hurtling back, hitting me like a runaway train, paralyzing me with shame, fear, and self-loathing, leaving me incredulous that I could have ever done such a thing. 

Yet I often wonder what role our past sins and mistakes should have in our lives.  We should not forget them altogether, because then we may not remember the pain and anguish we suffered through the experience, and the important lessons learned may quickly fade.  We may also find ourselves back in the same place again because we failed to keep in mind the small, seemingly inconsequential steps we took initially that eventually brought us to that horrid place.  Yet in contrast, if we always think about our past sins, we may render ourselves unable to pick ourselves up and move on, paralyzed by the shame and self-hatred.  In essence, we can’t forget our past but we also can’t get lost in it.  It’s a difficult balance to maintain.  

Further, if we lose ourselves in our past sins, we’ll be unable to forgive ourselves, which means we won’t be able to love ourselves, and certainly not respect ourselves.  And if we can’t do that, we will have great difficulty in doing that with others in a way that feels genuine and real to the other person.     Yet, if we easily forget our past and dismiss it quickly, self forgiveness, love, and respect may be shallow, and perhaps not even a conscious process, which may eventually lead to not being aware that we’ve messed up in the first place.  Our ethics with others may be superficial as well; fleeting, changing, insincere.  We will quickly find ourselves repeating the same mistakes over and over, either wondering why it keeps happening, or perhaps simply accepting it as an uncontrollable way of life, part of our personality or environment.  And eventually, some may become completely unaware that they’ve done something wrong, and others may even begin to boldy defend their actions as something good.  

As human beings, we have a tendency to block out the bad things and remember only the good.  Think back to your own childhood or to any fond memory.  Chances are, it’s a warming, glowing, positive memory – with nothing negative clouding the view.  In fact, maybe someday you’ll look back on this moment in time right now with fondness, completely forgetting all the hardship and agony you may currently be facing!  So, it appears that we should actually make concerted efforts to remember the shameful, sinful things we’ve done and struggle retain what it felt like and how we got there – because otherwise… we’ll quickly forget. 

A careful balance is necessary though, because if we go too far, it will be difficult to hold our heads up high, speak with any confidence, or even feel worthy to have friends or other relationships.  Ali ibn Abu Talib (as) encouraged us to look at those less fortunate than us.  This doesn’t mean only financially, but in all other aspects as well.  If you keep your sights set on the big picture, you’ll have a more accurate view of yourself and how you fit in with the world around you.  Chances are, you aren’t that bad.  And even if, in the worst case, you ARE that bad, more than likely you aren’t bad in EVERYTHING in your life.  You probably have something not so bad, or perhaps…. even something good. 

You might think that you’re the only one you know with this particular situation so you have no one less fortunate to look to, but in that case, I would suggest looking online!  There are forums on every possible subject imaginable in which people, strengthened by the anonymity the internet provides, share their stories and experiences with more honesty and detail than they ever would in real life.  Reading the accounts of others is eye-opening.  If you still don’t find someone in a worse situation than you, at the very least you’ll find someone who is similar to you, which helps to make you feel not so alone, and – not so bad. 

So, we can’t forget what we’ve done… but we can’t let it destroy ourselves either.  As Hussain ibn Ali aptly stated, “Moderation is wisdom.”  And so it is.  Balance, moderation… this is the wisest – yet most difficult – path.

Trials and Tests

Once again, it’s been a while since I’ve posted.  There are numerous reasons for my silence – the same reasons as always: too busy and too stressed from work and health problems (which inshAllah will get better soon).  But, on a related note, I wanted to cite a few verses of Quran which are constantly on my mind, especially during these trying times:

Do people think they will be left alone after saying, “We believe,” and not be tested?” (29:2)

“Be sure we shall test you with something of fear and hunger, some loss in goods or lives or the fruits of your toil, but give glad tidings to those who patiently persevere, who say, when afflicted with calamity, “To Allah we belong, and to Him is our return,” they are those on whom descend blessings from Allah, and mercy, and they are the ones that receive guidance.”  (2:155-157)

I memorized the first verse when I first converted, as I knew that I would be facing a long, difficult journey ahead of me.  I realized from the beginning that I would be tested – and indeed, I have been. 

Too often, people look at trials and hardship as the result of God being unfair – in fact, some even leave religion altogether because they don’t understand how a fair God could allow such things to happen to innocent people.  Yet, what they fail to realize is that life in this world is not the end all, ultimate destination.  Rather, this life is a test for our placement in the eternal world of the hereafter; it is a transitory, temporary phase of existence.   

The reality is that our current life sucks.  It’s incredibly difficult.  For hard-working, sincere, “good” people, it’s usually even more miserable, with hardship after hardship; it seems they never manage to get a break.  For the careless and self-absorbed, they seem to get off easy; life is fun and effortless.  But actually, life in this world is like the kind of test in which you answer one question correctly and you are automatically upgraded to a harder question, and if you get it wrong, you’re downgraded to an easier question.  In the end, you get the score you deserve.  The only difference between this test and real life is that in life, God is there helping you along the way, showing you the steps to take, and in fact, giving you all the answers.  But some of us are arrogant and want to do it on our own.  Still others would rather not be taking a test at all and instead just play around and not take it seriously.  Yet the inescapable reality is that we all are in this test, whether we like it or not. 

Life tests come in all shapes and sizes.  As in the aforementioned verse, we can be tested with our financial security (hunger).  Or with the lives of those around us (family, friends) – or with our own lives.  Or with a loss of our possessions, or despite all our hard work and best intentions, being blocked at seemingly every turn.  In tests like these, some people put their faith in God and rely on Him more as they realize that their sustenance does not come from our material world, but from God alone.  Yet others turn away from God during hardship, blaming God and feeling sorry for themselves for being given such an unfair life. 

Tests can also come in the form of blessings and ease.  Not only does God want to reveal (to ourselves) how we react to hardship, but He also wants us to see how we respond when things are going well.  Some people are grateful and thank God continuously for the blessings He’s granted, while others forget God and attribute their success to themselves alone. 

Why do we have tests at all really?  Especially since God already knows the state of our hearts?  Well, even though a teacher can generally get an idea of how a student will do even from the very beginning of the class, the student still needs to go through the coursework and various assessments so that they will know that they got the grade they received because of their own actions.  Not because the teacher liked them or didn’t like them; rather, their grade is based on actual proof and evidence of their performance.  Likewise, on the Day of Judgment, when our final ‘grades’ are revealed, we will be unable to argue that it was unfair – our actions will be unfolded and replayed before our own eyes as clear proof.  We earned our final grade, fair and square.  And in fact, God is more merciful and loving than any teacher could ever be – He gives us numerous chances to start over despite how often or how badly we mess up, and He even went to all the trouble to give us all the answers via prophets and holy books.  So if we still end up getting a bad grade in the end, despite all the invaluable assistance and support we’ve been given all along the way, it is truly fully and thoroughly deserved. 

So if you find yourself in the midst of trials and are feeling particularly down about it all, cheer up.  God tests the believers.  The harder the test, the further along you are and the better shape you’re in.  Just like an athlete who must undergo an arduous, strenuous training regimen, or the MD student who faces rigorous, extensive testing of their knowledge and expertise, so must the believer pass through difficulty to make it to the final destination.  Of course, the testing period is extremely difficult, but the athlete, the MD student, and the believer keep striving forward because they know very well the wonderful reward that lies at the end.

Identity Crisis

My sincere apologies for my long silence – work, life, and everything else has kept me too busy to post anything. 

Nevertheless, one issue has been growing in my mind over the past few months and is beginning to take a toll on my mental well-being: my identity. 

Upon conversion, I was excited to be seen as a white American convert to Islam; I enjoyed being different and didn’t mind the curious stares.  However, as time has passed, the excitement is wearing off and I am now feeling almost desperate to be seen as ‘normal.’  It would be nice to ‘fly under the radar’ so to speak every once in a while, to fit in with SOMEONE at least.  Everywhere I go, I’m different.  Born Muslims stare at me with curiosity, and some approach me and talk to me about it, but the conversations rarely go beyond that; it seems that I’m viewed as some sort of exotic rarity that they want to pump enough information out of to be able to rush home and call their families to tell them about an American convert they met (sometimes they ask to take pictures with me so that they can show their families even)… while all the while failing to realize the seriousness of the impact my conversion has had on my life. 

Americans either stare coldly, smile kindly (or with sympathy rather), and a few (mostly women) compliment my scarf or my outfit.  And there are always some who treat me rudely, assume I don’t speak English, or believe I must be brainwashed or a complete idiot for accepting Islam.  Although the people around me from day to day are mostly polite, I find myself being held at arm’s length, despite my efforts to get to know them and move closer toward them.  

Of course, I can’t fail to mention the few true friends I have found online; kindred spirits who either share my experiences or simply are sincere and genuine enough to move beyond my appearance (most of them don’t even know what I look like anyway!).   

As a result, I find myself suspended between two worlds – the Muslim world, which seems to be something one must be born into, and the dominant culture in the American world, which seems to consciously or unconsciously reject all those who fall outside the white, Christian(ish) ideal.  I can’t really blame either one outright, however, as it’s basic psychology to be attracted and feel close to those who share similarities, and feel unsure or distrustful of those who are different.

And all the while, I have begun to struggle with my own concept of who I am as an individual as well.  I fit nowhere.  Due to my conservative Christian background, I find myself resonating more with Muslims from collective backgrounds, who value family and more traditional roles of the husband, wife, and children.  Yet my own family seems to have drifted more into individualism, living life for themselves, depending on only themselves, and thus not extending a helping hand when other family members need it most.  At the same time, I support the Islamic view of the roles of the husband, wife, and various family members (which is definitely not always the same as the cultural traditions most Muslims practice, and differs slightly from the traditional Christian ideals); I still value independence and minding my own business; I hate the nosiness and mindless (yet destructive) gossip that often accompanies collective cultures, and believe that people should be left to manage their own lives, make their own decisions, and find the right path for themselves without the intrusion or judgment from others. 

And I am so many other things as well.  I am a musician, an artist, an intellectual, an athlete, someone who is open-minded, compassionate, educated, moderate, skeptical (in that I ask questions and am unconvinced if something is not logical), hard-working, curious, and earnest.  I have a million different interests and enjoy learning about everything.  I have a great deal of knowledge about Christianity, and am knowledgeable about Islam as well.  Compared to my family, I’m a raging liberal.  Compared to most other highly educated Americans, I’m conservative – moderate. 

Yet…. none of that is evident when others only look at my scarf and the color of my skin – they simply make their judgment, and then brush me from their mind.  Of course, I remind myself that even if I didn’t wear the scarf, people would just look at my overall appearance and pass me off as X or Y and move on.  So, it’s not a question of a piece of cloth; I like wearing it and cherish its benefits greatly.  I just think it’s regrettable that it’s become an item highly marked with preconceptions and stereotypes.  Muslims and non-Muslim Americans alike see it and come to entirely different, and incorrect conclusions. 

And yet, what does it matter that others see me for who I truly am or not?  It doesn’t really… but I think it’s just the combination of being hugely misunderstood everywhere I turn AND struggling with my own concept of who I am.  I am many things, but am having great difficult to tie it all together in order to conceptualize myself as one, single individual.  I don’t expect others to fully understand me, but I suppose it’s not entirely fair to complain about it either since no one can get a clear picture of who I am until I first understand myself.