November 26, 2017
Assalamu Alaykum Dear Students,
I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.
With the completion of another Thanksgiving, we are reaching the end of another semester and the end of another calendar year. I started getting headaches yesterday while visiting siblings in Milwaukee because the late November winds surpassed 60 degrees. Since childhood, my system has been able to handle huge drops in temperature, but not huge increases.
I look back at the events of this past calendar year, even though we have a whole month left. We began in January, full of anxiety. Despite having passed a year since the last presidential election, he has not been impeached. Regardless of your politics, the tenuous experience that we have had under the previous two presidents has gotten even more nebulous in the past year. We began the school year in better shape than we were in in January. As we end this semester, I feel that we are doing even better.
Nevertheless, there is still quite a bit that our community members struggle with. More alcohol consumption than in the past. More drug consumption than in the past. More premarital and extramarital sexuality than in the past. More self-harm than in the past.
I am saying that if we dig deeper, we see that we have more longings than we have in the past. We have discussed in the past that loneliness is a longing. The feeling of exile is a longing. Fear is a longing. Hope is a longing. All of these are longings for God that manifest as these unique feelings, which we then try to erase with behaviors, like the behaviors above.
What do you do to fulfill your longings? Chances are that you may do some of the above unhealthy practices. Students ask me that question: “we talk to you, who do you talk to?” In some ways, it is the same question: “What do you do to fulfill your longings?” Both of these questions are asking, “Where do you find your relief and solace?”
I joke that I do not have any friends. Actually, I have a few friends that I am very close to. But I joke that I do not have any friends because almost all of those close friends -- even those who are older -- regard me as a teacher. I may sound as though I am claiming or “humblebragging.” No, it means that I have not yet allowed these friends to see me for all of my edges, in the way my siblings know me.
Thus, I feel that feeling of exile as much as each of you. We are made to feel out of place in our society as Muslims, as non-Christians, as (most of us being) people of color. Considering how deep patriarchy digs itself into our cultures, womanhood is often an exile. The non-Sunnis tend to have additional layers of feeling out of place. If you self-identify as LGBTQI, you have additional layers of exile. If you have struggled through specific tests, like the loss of a parent or child, then you might feel even more exile.
Sometimes that exile is a feeling of being out of place. Sometimes, it is a choice to feel out of place. I don’t know if it makes sense, but I do know that I find solace and relief in being myself with all my edges and contradictions. Meaning, I do not know how to be a normal person.
Peer pressure exploits the pain we feel in being different than everyone else. When I was your age, I had just as much difficulty fitting in, but at that time this separation was a source of pain. Now, it is a source of relief, accepting that there are certain aspects of my personality that I have not been able to mold, despite four decades of effort. Now, I accept that I can stop trying at least in aspects that do not involve right and wrong, or dignity.
Another source of relief and solace for me comes from learning. When I sit with each of you, I love learning about each of you. I love your stories about your lives. I love the way you share your stories. I love learning about your hearts. In that process, I am also learning much about my own self. I notice every day that each person that the Divine places in those chairs in my office is a person who is struggling with something identical to something I struggle through.
Further, I love reading. Most of you know that I have struggled with reading since my earliest years. I overcompensated by investing extra hours in my daughters, getting them to read at advanced levels by the time they started kindergarten. I also overcompensate in my own reading. In 2017, I will have gone through some 70 books, some 20 thousand pages. This does not include your papers.
This is not boasting; this is a sign of how much I have been in need of relief. Reading is a giant struggle for me. One method I have used to face struggle itself is to push myself through books. Meaning, I am so conditioned to find the completion of a book to be impossible (considering that it took me a decade to complete my first reading of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone”) that my efforts at completing a book are my efforts at conquering myself by completing the impossible. The result is not only the thrill of accomplishing these small impossibilities. There is a deep joy in learning something that gives me more exhilaration than what caffeine gives you.
The same applies to my trips to that gym down the street from campus. My trainer noted that I like pushing my limits. I am not fit, yet when he gives me two options, I always take the more difficult option. This is not because it will make me more fit; it is because it is more impossible. Then, after he tears me apart, I do cardio until I feel like I am going to collapse. If I had the time, I would go even further. It is the same thing I do with reading: I find relief in accomplishing the impossible. Perhaps it is because the moment I surpass my limits, I surpass the worldly limits that form me. Meaning, in those moments, I cease to exist. And yes, when I am on those machines, I am either reading or studying. Last week, when I was not studying the life of the companion Abu Bakr, I was studying the film “Heat” (1995).
The model of the Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him, was that when he would be hit with stress and struggle, he would go immediately into Salah/Namaz, being the canonical prayers. I used to perform the prayers for the reward of the prayers. Each time you prostrate, sins are dropped away from you. Now, I go into prayer to find relief. Meaning, I put my face on the ground for God, and then I talk to God. He gave me the struggle; I turn to Him not only to be freed from the struggle but turning to Him is itself freedom from the struggle. When I am turning to Him, the world no longer exists.
I also find great inspiration in one of the descendants of the Prophet, may peace be upon him. Ali b. Husayn, commonly known as Zayn al-Abideen, is the Fourth Imam for Shias (after Ali b. Abi Talib, Hasan b. Ali and his father Husayn b. Ali). He is also known as Imam al-Sajjad, for performing 1000 rakats of Salah/Namaz per day. In addition, each night, he fed 100 families. He taught many lessons through specific passages in the 57th Surah (al-Hadid, “Iron”); I have taught you a few lessons from the same passages. I do not accomplish anything close to what Zayn al-Abideen did, but his actions gave me some of my targets. Perhaps because they are impossible.
I wonder if I will ever fit in. Anywhere. I share this with you to let you know that you do not have to fit in either. Rather, use that pain to overcome yourself and immerse yourself in the Divine, rather than in destructive behaviors. If you can bring yourself to do that, then society will not have the power to make you collapse because you will be too busy trying hard to make yourself collapse. What holds us back from conversation with the Divine is not our longings; it is the limits society places upon us, which become the limits we place upon ourselves.
And Allah knows best.