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New Year Resolutions

January 7, 2018

 

Dear Students,

 

Assalamu Alaykum.

 

I hope you receive this letter with the best of health, integrity, and Iman.

 

As we begin this new calendar year, we begin with hope for the future. We have a good practice in making the New Year a moment of celebration of hope, filled with New Year's resolutions.

 

Resolutions always start with physical fitness. I went to the gym a record number of times this past year (117 intense workouts), focused on strength training. I promise you that there is now solid muscle well-insulated under all that adipose. At least in some places. Ok, maybe just a few places. I hope to have 120 workouts this year. I hope to improve upon that with 100 additional workouts focused on cardio and endurance training, Insha Allah.

 

You'll notice that -- for me -- self-improvement plans are most successful when they involve quantifiable metrics based on action. Meaning, now I am looking at the number of workouts rather than pounds lost or inches off of the waistline. Each of the above workouts also has a set minimum time length for the routine. Once I figure out a routine of quality work for a time slot -- like intense study for 20 minutes --, then I figure out the number of sessions.

 

So, regarding brain development, last year I went through 20,900 pages of completed books, the goal this year is to increase that to 21,100, with a detailed analysis of at least 12 books, including repeated readings of a few particular books.

 

It may seem pretentious that I keep track of such things; I need to do so for the way I process. The more I can be clear about the knowns and the concretes, the easier it is to release them, and release the anxiety about the unknowns and the abstracts. And, it sometimes makes it easier to enjoy the vulnerabilities. More on this in a moment.

 

Anyways, regarding social development, I hope to be better in responding to calls, texts, etc.. from friends. I enjoy being a hermit too much; my office makes for a beautiful man-cave, as does my car, as does a dark movie theater. At first, I will try five personal responses per day. I will also try to reach out to five old friends per week. This choice of “five” is arbitrary, according to what I  believe I can accomplish. Related, I am going to try to proofread all of my communications before sending them out.

 

Regarding heart development:

 

Giving. My routine is that whenever someone asks for money, I give it if I have it. If it is an online request, then my routine is that the dollar amount reflects the year, and the cents reflect the month. Thus, donations this month would be $18.10 per request; naturally, this limits how many online requests I respond to at a time. To put it into perspective; when I started this practice many years ago, I was giving $1 at a time. Some online recipients asked me to stop because it was not worth their time; this does not happen anymore.

 

Also, I always tried to have singles and change on hand for the spontaneous requests, but have to figure out a standard giving amount. For decades it had been a dollar, but the cost of being homeless has skyrocketed because people carry far less cash now. All of this assumes the financial capability in all those moments to give.

 

More on heart development. More nighttime (tahajjud) prayers. More Qur'anic reflection, recitation, and memorization. I have not yet figured out numbers. There are a few religious texts I hope to complete in 2018. And, I'm making a list of all the people I need to forgive, and all the people I need to seek forgiveness from. I used to be a most forgiving person; I’ve noticed how jaded I’ve become in the past year and know that the seeking and granting of forgiveness will be much harder than in the past.

 

More on heart development: better as a family member. Long way to go on this one. How do you quantify this? There are some ways related to communications that I’m still reflecting on.

 

Even more on heart development: I need to reconnect with some teachers.  Last on heart development: I have to find 30 minutes a week to immerse myself in nature.

 

Now, for you:

 

Among all of your resolutions, I have one specific request: vulnerability. The most common problem of faith from students in 2017 was in difficulty facing the unknown. I request that you *resolve* to make peace with your vulnerability. This does not mean that you will cure fear, but you can reduce unnecessary anxiousness.

 

There is no point in your life in which you will not have unknowns, which means that there is no point in your life in which you will not be vulnerable. Rather, we tend to cherry pick among our various vulnerabilities to decide which ones upset us.  Most of you get hit with anxiety over graduate school admissions, which is a blessing, and you know it. Unfortunately, society has convinced many of you that if you do not get accepted into Medical School, that your life is over and you should give up.

 

There was a long period in which I went through a lot of anxiety: perhaps the first few decades of my life. It was so familiar to me to be tense that I did not know any other feeling. Most of you know that feeling; I hated that feeling. I stumbled upon a passage of the Qur'an in which the Divine is speaking about His awesome abilities and is asking the reader -- especially the non-believer -- why are you not afraid of getting swallowed without warning by a sinkhole.  (Surah al-Mulk). For me, that was a question about choices: if I am going to worry about every thing from a flat tire while driving to missing a major appointment to getting hit with a disease, why am I not worried about a sinkhole suddenly devouring me?

 

This reflection did not cure my anxiety, but did start the process which -- maybe ten years later -- allowed me to realize that I had gone through so many struggles and further decide that whenever stress hits, that "life goes on." Meaning, when struggle will hit, I will deal with it, but beyond the normal processes of prevention -- "a stitch in time saves nine" & "tie your camel and then trust Allah" -- I am not going to worry. Rather, I am going to pray: for the best of this life, the best of the hereafter, and protection from the Fire.

 

Another effort that helped mitigate my anxiety -- again, "mitigate," not "cure" -- was to cut down on procrastination. Or, to reframe this point, I did not like the feeling that comes with procrastination, so I fought the feeling by doing work in advance. Or, to reframe again: part of procrastination is that we do not admit to ourselves that we hope that the burden or problem will go away. Now, when I would be burdened with a task, I would accept that the task has to get done. Once I have accepted that I have to complete a project and that there is no escape from completing the project, the next step was to figure out small steps through which to complete the projects. Rather than wait until the last moment to complete a syllabus; I start working on it in small steps far in advance. As you can imagine, the quality of my work has improved.

 

I keep emphasizing that these steps do not cure anxiety. Some anxiety comes from matters deep within ourselves and requires extensive therapy to help find and repair. Other anxiety is physiological and requires medication. Anxiety and depression among the 60+-year-old elders in our community have skyrocketed, and a few of them are visiting professionals, while many do not believe they are experiencing anything. They compensate with anger.

 

Perhaps the biggest treatment against the anxiety, however, was failure. I have mentioned this many times, which I have failed at more things than most of my peers. Once I reached a point of maturity in taking ownership of my faults, shortcomings, and failures, I seem more comfortable in my skin than most of my peers. All of these failures -- and seeing that "life goes on" -- have made it easy for me to put myself in situations of vulnerability, like visits to the gym.

 

Then, once I was able to accept the failure as a moment to reflect, retry, or move on, it only became a true "failure" if I gave up on something I should not give up. There are plenty of those failures as well, which are topics for other discussions.

 

As I proofread the above letter, I realize it makes me look like I have life all figured out and that I am some extraordinary human being. Not even close. Nope. Much of the above was motivated by one simple desire: to not feel miserable anymore. When facing the unknown, we can choose to be miserable or not. For years, I did not realize that I chose misery. Some of you still choose misery.

 

And Allah knows best.

 

Omer M