Saturday, August 13, 2011

Ramadan Reflection: Seeing the Glory in the Struggle

"Light Breaks Over Her" by Robb North

As Ramadan shifted deeper into the summer months and began its steady approach, I noticed a familiar dread, this curdling of pent up fear, inside me. Friends and family expressed how much they loved Ramadan, how much they missed it, and how glad they were of its return--but I was finding it difficult to feel the same. Their rejoicing, public exaltation, this unbridled happiness--it was almost suffocating. It wasn't that I didn't want to hear it, it was that I just couldn't measure up.

There is this universal ache among humans, regardless of spiritual beliefs, to want to begin anew. After a period of time, whether it be a spiritual cleanse, a physical one, or a combination of both, we want to shed our old skins and start fresh, a clean slate. We hope that we can be better and we are determined to try. I could certainly relate to the Muslims around me who, with the approach of Ramadan, clearly recognized the opportunity to devote themselves to being better people. I know the kind of spiritual high that feeds this momentum, this immense, almost giddy gratitude that inspires you to do better and therefore, be better. It's this insatiable desire to strengthen and fortify a personal relationship with God--and in Ramadan, something inexplicable happens to make you want to do it.

So why wasn't I feeling it? Why was this dread, like the smirk of a shadowy friend during tough times, always present at the start of every Ramadan? Yes, there was the obvious fear of long summer hours with no food or drink--how tiring, how hot, how looong it would be. But this fear went beyond the physical hardships I knew I would face--it was deeper and more troubling:

I didn't want to fail.

I didn't want to come up short and be a big disappointment--to God, to myself. I couldn't face the guilt of knowing that yet again, I failed to accomplish my goals. That again, I wasn't as disciplined, as focused, as incredible as I thought I could be. Because in my mind, I could be so awesome. I could be kind; I could be generous; I could hold my tongue; I could give the benefit of the doubt; I could be patient with my parents; I could be understanding of my friends; I could learn more about my faith; I could get more answers; I could stand longer in prayer, in devotion, in solitude; I could be so much more than I was--it all seemed so very possible.

In reality, I fumbled and fumbled often. I lost my patience; I said more than I should; I grew tired and went to sleep instead of standing in prayer; I wasted time; I read far less than I thought I would; I grew angry too quickly; I harboured ill feelings towards others; I held grudges from long ago; I was petty and petulant, irritiable and unpleasant--I was everything I didn't want to be.

I fumbled. I failed.

How easy it would be if these good qualities, this aspirational state of being came naturally, if it took no effort. How much more accomplished would I feel if I could just do the things I wanted to do without falling short so often, with such dedicated self-destruction?

But the thing is, I didn't try to be bad. Most of the time, I wanted to do better--I tried to be better. Sometimes I came up empty. Other times, I flourished. And really, it's as simple as that: there was no perfection; there was struggle.

Arabic is not my native language. I can read it phonetically, but aside from a set of basic words that have become second nature, I do not understand what I am reading. To understand and truly benefit from the Qur'an, I read it with an English translation knowing that no translation is perfect, that no translation can fully capture the nuances of the Arabic language, that some words in Arabic simply do not exist in English, or that they require full pages of explanations to provide context and understanding. Still, I gain so much from knowing what I'm reading. It takes me twice as long to read a page, but still, I benefit.

But sometimes, I just want to read. I want it to come easy. I want to fly through the words in this Holy Book, this guiding force in my life and I want everything to zip and zap through my brain in pristine clarity. Until I am lingual in Arabic, it won't happen. I know this. But still, sometimes I simply recite. I feel the words on my tongue, I try to perfect the pronunciation of a particular letter and soon, the words stream out of me in a regulated rhythm and there is belief, there is faith, there is something that presses itself on my heart and I connect.

It is a blessing. It moves me. I am not suddenly perfect. I have not emerged sinless and purified, but this struggle with language--the give and take it requires for me to truly benefit from everything it offers--it mimics the state of struggle that is my life.

Struggle is a state of normal and it's a good place to be. Yes, my Ramadan would be easier, less scary, more bright and hopeful, if all the good I wanted to do came easily. But it would be pointless. Yoda is wrong. It's not "Do or do not, there is no try"--the juice is in the try. Or maybe he's right--and the trying is the doing. As we struggle--we set goals, we try, we fail--and bit by very little bit, we move onwards.

Fear of failure, guilt as a result of failing--these stifle our ability to grow and flourish. I wasn't afraid of Ramadan--I was afraid of what I would not accomplish. This tremendous opportunity to be sincerely repentant, to be gloriously good--and what could I do but be imperfect?

Our success lies in the understanding that struggling is not inferiority, nor is it an excuse to give up. It's difficult and laborious; it leaves you feeling unsettled, sometimes empty. But keep striving, keep going.
Imperfection and struggle are not badges of failure--they are battle scars that serve as testament to the soiled, rumpled glory that is our everyday life. There is beauty there. There is joy.

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