There have been people wondering about life and its purpose for about as long as humans have had intellect and practiced its use in a leisurely manner. Theories have fluctuated from purely physical in nature to metaphysical throughout the centuries and across cultures, in ways that can probably be explained by our constant disillusion with our lack of perfection. Each one of us, I would like to think, goes through this phase of wondering about our own particular life, and why we are here and then, often, when we don’t find answers we look beyond ourselves and look at others to find such answers, sometimes we can look beyond differences and identify a path that suits us, other times we might get caught up in them and perhaps even fall into perpetual judgement mode (ie: nobody’s perfect, so why should I be?). Some find their answer in religion and others continue searching their whole lives, never quite satisfied with the answers they encounter. One could philosophize about the purpose of life in general, of the human presence and what each one of us is expected to do to fulfill his/her duty or we as a whole should do not only to guarantee the survival of humanity, but also to improve our existence and that of our offspring and beyond. Many theories have been brought forth and many variants are being practiced by people everywhere, with varying degrees of success and/or enthusiasm.
I have known people of dozens, if not hundreds of cultures, languages and religious affiliations and have found affinities with each one, and have noticed this internal struggle to a certain extent in most, if not all of them. I do not expect to have answers, not because I haven’t found any, but because I believe each one of our paths and natures and, consequently, our answers are different and, like everything else in life, they change with us and our surroundings. We have to adapt to what is around us, we may have been born Queens and find ourselves refugees in foreign lands, longing for something we can never recuperate. We may have been born into the most miserable poverty and somehow manage to work our way to satisfying not only our own material needs, but those of our extended families as well, finding great joy and satisfaction in what we do. We may have thought we would become influential lawyers or even judges and end up deciding to put all our studies and careers on hold to care for our families, and find out that motherhood, if done responsibly, is much harder than we ever anticipated. We may have thought we would be crushed under the pressure of life’s stresses and disappointments, instead we flourished in ways we never would have even dared to dream of. Life is full of unexpected turns and turmoils, joys and sadness, and how we deal with each one, paves the path for our continuation.
I was born into a middle class family, with a hard working dad and an astonishingly bright mom, who put her promising University career on hold when my dashing father swept her off her feet. She taught me the love of books before I could even read a single letter, she spent time crafting with me before I could even hold a pencil or handle scissors, she taught me to upcycle before that was even a word, she listened to my invented stories and made up fascinating endings with me to entice my imagination beyond my immediate perception. She answered my questions, she questioned my answers and took the time to hear every song, every tale, every excuse I ever came up with and she made sure I had a full tummy when I went to school, knew how to tie my shoe laces and tuck my shirt in. She went out of her way to ensure we had a connection with her culture, which was so far removed from where we lived, and would tell us about the news emerging from her neck of the woods and ancient stories she had learned from her mom. She even managed to get her Nation’s newspaper delivered to our home and got an illustrated copy of traditional stories so we could see pictures while she read the tales to us. This was decades ago, long before internet and way back when a holiday half a world away would cost nearly a whole year’s salary.
I appreciated this, but never as much as I do now, raising my kids a world away from my own cultures, where although we have skype and wikipedia, a holiday across the world costs about half a year’s salary, and given that the other half is going towards our kids’ schooling, it takes about as long as it did 30 years ago to be able to actually touch our loved ones and see the places with our own eyes. The irony is that I left my home young in order to find myself and pursue my studies and be able to sustain a lifestyle that would not keep me away from my family for as long as my mom had to stay away from hers. I pursued my studies as far as they go, and excelled, and absolutely loved everything I learned from every Professor and Teacher I had the honor of studying from, but I also knew that if I ever had kids, they would come first. I found bits of myself in my mother’s community, I found bits of answers in the literature I studied (and I have always had an affinity for literatures that dealt with identity in its various manifestations), I found great solace and serenity in religion, I found an amazing partner and friend in my husband and then put everything on hold when I had kids.
My personal development came to a dramatic shift; all the literary theory, the Islamic fundamentals and fiqh, the history, psychology and philosophy that I so loved and cherished were shelved, literally and almost completely, to focus 100% on how to be the best wife and mom I could be. I subscribed to the best journals in the country on parenting, I devoured all the information that crossed my line of vision, I invested all my time taking every course and reading everything I came across that would make me a better wife and mom; nutrition, toddler play, child development, child psychology, family dynamics, family structure in Islam, raising morally strong kids, boosting kids’ IQ through talk, music, play… you name it, it has crossed my line of vision.
Now, more than ever, I understand my mother. Now, more than ever, I can relate to the importance of sharing, belonging and making meaningful connections beyond our immediate surroundings. Now I know why it was important for my mother to read her Nation’s news, now I know why she would rather read Glooscap’s story a hundred times rather than pick up any old story book she would find at the grocery store. Now I know why she encouraged us to be friends with our Baha’i neighbors and our Protestant neighbors, and our strictly Catholic neighbors. I appreciate why she always welcomed Jehova’s witnesses and Are Krishnas in for tea, despite being an obedient, devout Catholic herself and religiously observing Sunday Mass with all of us. Now I understand that it’s not enough to be and to do, you must have a feeling of belonging, you must have a purpose, and it doesn’t matter if your purpose is the same as mine, or if you belong in the same groups or share the same ideas, what matters is that you do share and that you do make connections because this is what allows us to grow, to expand our horizons, to look beyond what is immediately available to us and dream bigger dreams. To go beyond our enclosures is surprisingly satisfying because we learn that we have a lot more in common at our meaningful chore than would ever meet the eye. To allow for the possibility of something new isn’t to reject what you have, it’s to embrace it and feel comfortable enough with it to be able to share it and in so doing we can appreciate and understand it in so many, so much more intricate and profound ways, than we ever could have imagined sitting in the comfort of our own solitude.
A friend recently shared a story, which I will briefly summarize to you here: A group of esteemed academics, who studied together, after years of pursuing their careers meet again at a revered and now retired Professor’s home, and all they could manage to do was complain about the stress and dissatisfaction of their busy lives. The Professor listened carefully and then offered them all a cup of hot chocolate, which they all eagerly accepted. But he didn’t pour it for them, he provided a wide variety of cups and a jug of hot chocolate and invited them to serve themselves. They all picked the most luxurious, most expensive, most beautiful cups and filled them with hot chocolate and then began looking at each other’s cups to see if they had made the right choice. To their surprise, the Professor confessed that this had been a simple representation of how they view their lives: concentrating on the look of the cup, rather than on drinking the hot chocolate. This is eerily similar to another story my sister quoted in a recent blog of hers on Zen, in which students searching for answers came from far and wide to consult with the Zen Master, who no matter what they said or how far they had come, invited them to have a cup of tea. The moral? Settle, mellow, dig in, carpe diem, live the moment, find your chore, center yourself, and you will find it, and when you do, share it.
Who’s up for a cup of tea or hot chocolate right about now?