My Advice to My One Year Younger Self

This post was inspired by this questionnaire: 50 Important Questions To Ask Yourself As 2016 Draws To A Close

If you could go back and give yourself a single piece of advice on the first day of 2016, what would it be?

I’m not going to lie about it, friend. This year will challenge you. People you hold dear to your heart will abandon you, hurt you and make you feel smaller, one after the other. You will start to believe that being truly intimate and connected with someone just isn’t meant for you, that you need to bury your desire for loving friendships and instead start drinking a lot of coffee, get a netflix account and stay home, night after night, feeling miserable. And you know what? That’s fine. You’ve tried so hard these past months, to make more friends, to put yourself out there. Go ahead, stay home, lose faith for a while. Winter has come to your heart.

My piece of advice would be this: don’t be ashamed for the feelings you have for other people, for the love in your heart, for the desire to get closer. It’s true that you will be disappointed many times, that you will feel unlovable and disgusting, that you will wish you could just stop feeling altogether, that your life would be so much better if you could just stop caring about people who don’t care for you. I know. I understand.
But don’t be so hard on yourself: you are a living, breathing human being. You were born with the need to love and be loved. Your heart is stronger and more magnificent than this. Most importantly, don’t hide your grief, don’t push it away. Your grief is there to help you work through your depression, to help you heal. It’s ok to grieve all the people who touched your life in any way, to say goodbye to them and to be sad about it. It’s ok to be sad, full stop. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. At the end of 2016, you will come across a wonderful book which makes all these things crystal clear to you.

My wish for you, dear friend, is to feel the sting of your loneliness, to be fully present with it, to embrace it like a mother would embrace her beloved child. It will transform you and you will not die. Make some time for your precious emotions each day, and just let them show up exactly as they are. It’s ok. You are ok. Your body is stronger than you think. Hug it sometime. Cry as much as you need. Stay home as much as you need. The people who truly matter will still be there. Grieve the people who don’t care for you, and no matter how much it hurts, let them move away from your life. It’s ok. Grieve. Grieve. Grieve.

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Meeting The Child Within

ed886ab376896d9b864d9f297022df17I enter into a small, badly-lit room. It’s warm there, cosy, almost oppressingly so. The fireplace is burning, there is steaming tea on the table and the shutters are down, even though it’s a beautiful day outside. A small child is sitting on a comfortable chair, reading. She hasn’t noticed my presence yet. It seems as if she has been sitting there forever, reading near the fireplace, minding her own business, sipping tea. There is a stack of books near her, a closet with her clothes and forgotten toys just behind, a door leading to a small bathroom on her right. Now I suddenly know for sure that she never leaves this room, that she is petrified of going outside. She has given up on life outside of these four walls. She hasn’t talked to anyone in years. Her parents are near, I can sense it, hovering like a threatening presence. I can sense the tension in her muscles because of it. She can never fully relax. She has to keep them outside.

A stab of compassion makes my heart contract and I go stand in front of her, willing her to notice me and to bask in my full attention. That’s what the books on meditation say. I have to give her my full attention so she will bloom and heal.
She puts her book down and looks at me, squinting her eyes.
‘Go away.’
I start at her harsh, hostile tone. Doesn’t she know that I’m here to help?
‘But-’
‘Go away, you’re creeping me out. I know your type, looking at me, seizing me up, searching for my faults so you can mock and criticise me. I can’t stand it! GO AWAY!’ Her voice turns into a roar, her face contracting with pain, her eyes blazing with wild hatred.
I take a step back, not knowing what to do. Why isn’t she grateful that I’m here, giving her the love and care she so desperately needed as a child? Why does she push me away?
I instinctively know that if I try to approach and disregard her wishes, she will attack me. She will kick and scream and throw burning wood in my face.
As my annoyance increases at this unruly child, it hits me that I have turned into my mother. I have turned into a high and mighty adult demanding affection from a helpless child. I have taken society’s expectations with me in this room and have decided what’s best for her without listening to her story, to why she’s here in this room in the first place. This was never going to work.
So I sit down on a chair in a far corner, asking her if this is ok. I can tell she’s uncomfortable.
‘I don’t know. What are you doing here? What do you want?’
‘I want to be your friend and help you.’
‘I don’t need any help. I’m fine. Please stop looking at me.’
I look down and say nothing. I have to respect her wishes, but I’m not giving up on this precious little child.
‘I’ll be here if you need me. You don’t need to change or do anything differently.’
‘I know I don’t need to change! And I’m fine!’
‘I’m not giving up on you.’
‘We’ll see about that. You have abandoned me plenty of times in the past. Why should I trust you now?’
‘Because I’m trying. And I’m sorry for all the times I hurt you. You deserve better. You deserve to be happy and free and comfortable exploring the world. But nobody has taught you how to do all those things. It’s not your fault.’
She stares at me for a second and picks up her book again.
‘Close the door behind you when you leave.’

The Tyranny of “Love Yourself”

Does any of the following phrases sound familiar?

“If you could just love yourself, your life would be so much better.”
“If you would practice self-love, you would not attract these kind of toxic relationships.”
“The key to success is better self-esteem.”
“Love yourself by eliminating any negative thoughts or feelings.”

All these statements might have a kernel of truth in them, and at first glance they are meant to be inspiring and motivational. But are statements like these, urging you to grow a better self-esteem and always be positive, genuinely helpful?

If you are like me, your New Year’s resolutions almost always include things like “have more confidence” and “love myself more”. And if you are like me, after the first few weeks of trying to be positive and confident, you fall into a hole of icky feelings and hateful thoughts like “You? Lovable? Successful? Who are you kidding? Just give up now before you embarrass yourself.”

And is it really a surprise? We have been taught by the hype of affirmations and new-age spirituality that loving yourself should be a breeze. That growing self-esteem is just a matter of repeating a few “loving” sentences a day and banishing negative thoughts. Seriously, what’s so hard about that? Why is your life still a mess? You must be failing at this easy task. Try harder, silly.

The problem with these insidious messages is that we adults are not an empty slate. Some of us have been indoctrinated since our earliest childhood with the message that we are not ok, that there is something wrong with us, that expressing our feelings is improper, that in fact we are so worthless that it’s ok for our parents to use violence against us to get us to behave. We have never learned how to process our emotions in a healthy way because there was no one to teach us. We have never learned to love ourselves because our parents didn’t truly love us or only loved the parts of us that they approved of. The other parts of our souls were shamed out of us, banished to rot in some dark cellar of self-loathing.

Children have no choice but to adapt. To them, parents are godlike. In order to survive and to ensure that their primary caretakers will continue to take care of them, they have to mould themselves into something lovable, something that the big adults will continue to feed. So when their parents tell them “don’t be such a nuissance” or slap them for expressing the feelings which are so hard to control, or mock their anger or give the impression that the child is a disappointment in any way, the child will not think “hey, these people are rude and mean, they shouldn’t treat a vulnerable, helpless toddler like this”, but “mummy and daddy are right, there is something terribly, terribly wrong with me and I should learn to hide who I really am”. This is not a conscious thought-process, it happens before children even learn to speak.

Now tell me if it’s easy for a human being who has spent his/her whole life abandoning the child within and creating a false self out of necessity, because he/she knows no other way of being, to suddenly stop and grow proper boundaries/self-confidence/ a healthy dose of self-love overnight? The tragic truth is that there is no self to begin with.  How can you know who you are if you never received permission (first from your surroundings and then from yourself) to explore your inner life in total freedom? Would you expect someone who’s never even seen a car to suddenly know how to drive?

Telling someone to stop having negative thoughts is just another version of “you are not ok exactly as you are”. No wonder we end up with a giant hangover of shame trying to follow this positive thinking craze. Why, thank you for telling me to love myself more, I really haven’t tried that already a million times. And when you say “yourself”, do you mean the part of me that is shiny, unbreakable, flawless, and always confident? Yes? Would you know where I can purchase said part? Oh, I just have to buy this life-changing book? Follow this overpriced workshop? Oh boy, what a relief! Thank god I don’t actually have to deal with myself!

Can we please forget the message that it’s supposed to be easy? Can we unlearn everything we’ve heard about the badness of negative thoughts? Or that it’s possible to be happy every moment of the day? Can we please, please, for the love of God, put an end to this utter nonsense?

 

 

It’s Hard to Grow Up.

starry_night_over_the_rhoneIt’s hard to grow up and to notice that happy ever-after does not exist. For a long time I refused to grow up, and that’s why I believed in things like God and the power of your thoughts and life after death. Now I think it’s all a sham really. There is so much beauty, yes, but there is also so much death and suffering. How can I believe that the universe works in my favour when children drown and innocent men and women are burned alive, stabbed or otherwise victimised with blind and spiteful violence? Where is God then? Oh, but of course the universe will help you find that new house! Because you are special, and so important that the universe will let a child starve so it can help you find your new dream home!
Can I still believe in some kind of magic? I honestly don’t know. I want to pay attention to the blessings I do have, but I can’t for the life of me understand what I did to deserve them and why other people go hungry and are obliged to roam the streets. Where is the notion of justice in all this? Is justice a concept which we humans invented? And should I just close my eyes and shut my ears and thank the heavens that I’m not one of them?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who has ever struggled with these difficult questions. So now I want to look for allies, for people who have lived these questions in a sincere way and have not settled for easy, unsatisfactory answers. I don’t want to settle for magical thinking, I want real, raw honesty. Maybe there are no answers to be found, and that is fine. But I long for companionship on this lonely, sad road called life on earth, with a beating heart that belongs to nature, which is both beautiful and terrible. I will not be distracted anymore by petty romance, or by trying to gain other people’s approval. I’m done with that bullshit. I need to be real and I need to find thinkers who were real.

I’m not sure this blog fits me anymore, as my beliefs have changed a lot, but on the other hand I’m an organic being who changes every day, and why should I deny my past? Should I start a new blog just because I’m not as positive, spiritual and idealistic as I used to be? I’m still idealistic in a way, in that I have strong feelings about how the world should be, but I’m not at all sure anymore about if this life has any meaning, a terrible thought which I used to flee at all costs, as my blog testifies. If the new things I write don’t resonate with you, feel free to unsubscribe. Inspirational quotes just don’t do it for me anymore as they used to. I do hope that I will always retain a sense of light in the darkness, even if the night does seem very dark right now. It’s been an interesting journey and I feel like I’m questioning every assumption I’ve ever had, which I consider a good thing, even if it’s often painful. Although I find it very hard to believe right now, I do feel like I’m not done with the concept of God or a deeper reality, and I probably never will. But you will not find any easy answers on this blog, or any kind of certainty about anything.

It’s scary for me too.

If You are Not Part of The Solution, You’re Part of The Problem

So apparently a lot of people these days have an opinion on Islam. Because they follow the media and have read a Qur’an verse here and there, they consider themselves experts and spout their intolerant, hateful opinions as if what they say has any value to contribute. It’s always “amusing” (although not really) to discover the extent of their ignorance when questioned.

So yes, everybody has a right to their opinion these days, but if you can’t prove that your opinion is a genuinely informed one rather than your intolerance, self-righteousness and “there-is only-one-truth-and-that -is-my-own” worldview masquerading as substance, then I don’t want to hear it. You are part of the problem of violence, intolerance and extremism the world is facing today and I’m more interested in people who are part of the solution.

So what is an informed opinion? If you answer the following questions in the negative, you have more reading and research to do, I’m afraid.

  • Have you read the Qur’an front to cover? Have you compared different translations? (Because of course you are aware that reading a translation is reading an interpretation and that’s why Muslims only consider that you have read the Qur’an when you have read the Arabic original.)
  • Have you read Fazlur Rahman’s Major Themes of the Qur’an?
  • Have you read an (objective!!) book on the biography of Muhammad and the historical context of the Qur’an?
  • Have you talked to an actual Muslim and listened with an open mind to what he/she has to say about his/her faith?
  • Do you know what tafsīr is? (Dare I ask, have you read some?)
  • Do you know the sources Islamic fiqh or law is based on? Are you aware that it’s based on more than the Qur’an alone?
  • Are you aware that there is an enormous ḥadīth corpus or narrations about the Prophet’s life that inform Muslims about how the Qur’an should be interpreted? Do you know how Muslims separate authentic narrations from weak ones?

I better stop here before I become too demanding. I think it’s clear that most people who have very strong opinions on the subject can’t even answer ‘yes’ to one bullet point and that is tragic. It’s tragic because terrorist organisations like IS want people to be misinformed, Muslims and non-Muslims alike, so they can use this growing enmity between them for their own selfish purposes. The more hostile the Western countries treat Muslims, the more they can convince some of those banished Muslims to join their ranks. If you think you are opposing IS by hating Islam and ignorantly slandering it, you are very sadly mistaken. You are playing right into their hands.

Gethsemane

The grass never sleeps.
Or the roses.
Nor does the lily have a secret eye that shuts until morning.

Jesus said, wait with me. But the disciples slept.

The cricket has such splendid fringe on its feet,
and it sings, have you noticed, with its whole body,
and heaven knows if it ever sleeps.

Jesus said, wait with me. And maybe the stars did, maybe
the wind wound itself into a silver tree, and didn’t move,
maybe
the lake far away, where once he walked as on a
blue pavement,
lay still and waited, wild awake.

Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be a part of the story.

– Mary Oliver, Thirst

Is stepping outside of your comfort zone a luxury?

3ff3f9fd5ff3e9ddcbb837c4ee803140Ah, the comfort zone. The place you are not supposed to hang out much of the time if you want to be happy, or so internet quotes and motivational articles claim. You are supposed to take risks and explore new territory, not sit at home and keep on doing the same things you’ve been doing since forever.
I feel very ambivalent towards this notion of stepping outside of your comfort zone. First, it implies that you actually have a comfort zone, meaning you live in a country where there is peace, financial security and food enough for everyone. Second, that this comfort zone has become so tedious and permanent that you now need to step outside of it or die of boredom and stagnation. Which makes the whole concept a motivational speech for spoiled people. Yes, I said it. We all need to think more about how much we have to be grateful for, because the majority of the world population wish they could be in your place, in your boring and oh-so-routine comfort zone with the I-phone and cable tv.
Not only that, but if you’ve been a victim of any kind of trauma, suffer anxiety attacks, are highly sensitive or feel profoundly unsafe in the world for whatever reason, you might actually welcome the idea of an anxiety-neutral place where you feel completely at home, where nothing changes and “where your uncertainty, scarcity and vulnerability are minimized” (definition of Brené Brown). Why can’t we have that place to go to and take shelter? Why are we almost shamed into having to go outside of it and live an extraordinary life? What if I want to be ordinary and justwell, safe? What if my ordinary life is already more than I ever expected to have?

I realise it’s probably a question of how you define your comfort zone. But if we use a bit of logic here, the moment your comfort zone becomes uncomfortable, for example by staying in an abusive relationship or a job you absolutely despise because you think the unknown might be worse, is the place you are at still your comfort zone or does your comfort zone actually lie outside the life you are currently living? Surely these situations would give anyone a lot of anxiety and other painful emotions which are usually not included in the definition of what a comfort zone is.

I’m most certainly not against people challenging themselves or working hard to achieve a certain goal. But do you really need to quit your job to write that novel? Do you really have to burn all your bridges in order to start a new business? Do you really have to invest all your money and take such a big risk? You can have your passion, but not that dangerous sense of entitlement. In a world where people get cancer, die of starvation, are violently tortured, murdered, bullied and enslaved (and not because they are thinking negative thoughts) you are not owed success or an income to live on just by taking a huge risk. It might happen, yes. And if it does, good for you. But be smart and have a safety net, that seems like the most loving thing to do for yourself to me. And above all, remember that if you are safe, healthy, have enough food and clean water and a roof over your head, you are already blessed beyond measure. Never, ever forget that.

I cannot endure one moment without You

My Beloved,
By Your leave and unceasing attention
my  heart continues to beat.
I cannot endure one moment without You.
You are my hope, my saviour.
There is only You to turn to.
How exalted are You, how infinite and
far-reaching Your glory.
I love You with all my heart.
How rich is Your beauty, how heavy
and all-encompassing Your mercy.
Words cannot describe Your majesty.

I believe in You, in Your power, wisdom,
fierce and gentle love.
You sustain me and I’m grateful.
My Lord, only You can heal my wounds
and grant me the safety and connection
I so desperately seek.
I turn to You with all my heart.
Please save me from my despair and depression.
Let me know love and belonging.
If you do not help me, love me and forgive me
I will certainly be among the lost.
Help me to bloom and thrive, dear God. Please
help me to be happy & grateful and to do
good in the world.

Amīn.

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The Messenger

My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.

Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still not half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,

which is mostly standing still and learning to be
astonished.
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,

which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.

– Mary Oliver, Thirst

What’s wrong with being ‘passive’?

Make your ego porous. Will is of little importance, complaining is nothing, fame is nothing. Openness, patience, receptivity, solitude is everything.
-R.M. Rilke

Throughout the years, I met a few people who actively disliked or criticised me because they thought I was too ‘passive’, too little involved, too stingy with my opinion. Yesterday, after a meeting, another person asked me why I was so ‘passive’ and gave so little feedback. I answered honestly: I didn’t know that much about the subject, I preferred to listen and learn for now.

It’s like our society expects us to be instantly capable, to be instantly competent and confident in whatever you choose to undertake. If you’re not, fake it until you make it.
After a lot of hurt trying to be like that and fake it, I’ve given myself permission to be a student of life and to be honest about that: I’m here to learn. No, I don’t have an opinion yet on the subject, please check in again later. Without this permission, I’d be scared to undertake anything at all. Why would I? I’m not instantly competent. I am learning and that makes me vulnerable. If I can’t hold the space for myself in this vulnerable position and defend myself against people who want to wrestle an opinion from me before its time, it would indeed be harmful for me to try anything new.

It’s in my nature to be observant and to process things before actively talking about them. This seems to really irk some people, mistaking it for laziness or disinterest.
But I also know that I do have opinions on subjects that really matter to me and that I would give them if that particular subject came up. It’s not my fault if you judge me on subjects that interest you, but don’t have much meaning for me (yet).

I don’t look at it as being a passive person, more like someone who, in Rilke’s words, is “patient toward all that is unsolved in the heart” and who “lives the questions”. I understand that this might not be what our culture really values right now, but I admit that I don’t really care. This world is desperately in need of balance, of patience, waiting and gestation next to constant action, productivity and noise.

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