By Shamyla Tareen
At 6 years old, I had little concept of spirituality until my best friend at the time asked, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” I said hesitantly, “N-nooo.” She said smugly, “well, then you’re going to Hell!” My 4 year old brother protested and they began arguing, but I sat there miserably mute, wishing it would all go away so we could play and be happy again.
At 15 years old, I was extremely religious – praying 5 times a day, taking everything I read literally, covering my head with pride, making bargains with Allah to have my prayers answered. Religion kept me safe. One day, my little brother, in 3rd grade at the time, came home from his Christian school, run by Sri Lankan priests in Peshawar. His tie was askew. “We beat up about 10 of the Christian boys after school today and forced ‘em to say the shahada,” he said smugly (the shahada is the Muslim profession of religion.) The elders in the family laughed. I was speechless with horror and helplessness of a situation where I had no control to do anything, where the same religion that provided me with safety was being used as a means of terror against others.
At 23 years old, I was so wary of religion and spirituality. Having seen too much hypocrisy and tribal worship in the northwest region of Pakistan, I felt heartbroken by those I had trusted – people who called themselves “spiritual”- and did horrible things right after prayer. I distanced myself from most things Muslim. Then, one mid-September morning in 2001, I was awoken by the following instant message from one of my best friends: “Turn on the TV. Your people have a lot of explaining to do.” “Pretend you’re Hispanic” suggested my roommate at the time. “Don’t admit where you’re from….,” I stayed mute again, glued to the TV as the tragic events in New York City unfolded, horrified by the knowledge that somehow this heinous crime was inexplicably being tied to me in ways that I had never even imagined.
I hated religious differences. I still do. It’s painful. I’ve tried to be guided by too many people who felt they knew what was best for me, and I did the same when I felt smugly religious as a teenager. Everyone can be two-faced at times. I didn’t know where I stood– so I metaphorically lay down and covered my eyes instead.
So when I realized this month’s Happiness Project blog was “Contemplate the Heavens,” … I was floored. This is perhaps the most difficult blog topic of all, and maybe the most important. How do I even begin to explain what Happiness means to someone who’s been all over the spiritual spectrum? Well-meaning friends and family have given me their interpretations over the years. I’ve heard everything from “Being a good person is not good enough- you have to really pray and believe in the Book!” to “you know Hell is just something they made up to scare us into conformity, right?” to “Just do yoga. That will really connect you to the Heavens.” ENOUGH! I wanted to scream. I’ve been silent all these years. Now it’s my turn to talk. So I tried to focus without all the voices. How do happiness and the Heavens go together- for me?
Gretchen describes herself as “reverently Agnostic.” I would not classify myself as that at all. But I’m not religious either. She brings up a crucial point in the very beginning of the chapter: “I’d come to see that spiritual states- such as elevation, awe, gratitude, mindfulness, and contemplation of death – are essential to happiness.” Okay then. I took a deep breath. These are all across the board, human conditions that we can all relate to without fighting. A content and thankful spirit is something anyone can work on. That’s a small step I can always work towards.
As Ramadan was ending in early August, I thought a lot during this time about overcoming catastrophes, about people who have been through really tough things and came out of the darkness standing tall and strong. Refugees, Malala Yousfazi, Nelson Mandela, the three Ohio girls who were kidnapped and found ten years later, Jacqui Saburido, the young burn victim who now advocates against drunk driving. How did they not hate the Heavens or their lives? I thought about people who hurt me and cavalierly moved on. Maybe life is not a test as much as it is a gift. For that, I can find gratitude daily. I can try to forgive. I can make my own choices. I started a gratitude journal this month – one line a day, just a way to remind myself that when I want to slap the next person who irritates me that I really don’t have it that bad. It worked… I started to at least have moments where I can count all my blessings. I try to take deep breaths, stay silent for a few minutes, clear my mind for a short while, say silent prayers of gratitude (and yes, that’s really hard!)
For the first time, I allowed myself to enjoy Eid as much as I always wished I could enjoy Christmas. We did an intercultural chaand raat (moon sighting) party the night before Eid and had so much fun applying henna and bangles. We exchanged Eid presents. I disliked the disorganization at Eid prayer, but I loved that we were all together doing something uplifting. In the afternoon, the cousins and the food were amazing. It was a pretty good start to actually liking Eid, instead of always wishing it was a more fun, mainstream American holiday.
This past year, many dear people in my life have been ill. I realize everyone won’t always be around. I don’t want to waste more time being discontent. When I’m disappointed, it is so easy to tear things and people apart. It is much harder to find contentment with what I already have. Happy people help others in a way that unhappy people can’t – in a more well rounded, complete way. And to me, that’s a huge part of being spiritual.
By the time I was 18 years old, I was continuously going through a terrible time. I really didn’t know why I was alive or what my purpose was, and I had no guidance. Life was a survival game. One day, after a particularly disturbing incident, I began praying with every sincere breath I could muster, “God, Make my life useful, Please please please…” over and over again. I wasn’t even sure if I was being heard. I just thought maybe it would help to say it out loud. The very next day, out of the blue, my ticket to the US was arranged and my situation changed for good. And since that day, I’ve felt my life has been a way of helping others who are helpless, and I believe my prayer was answered.
If I saw my 6 year old best friend now, or all those third graders in Peshawar, or my sarcastic instant messaging friend, or the roommate who advised me to hide my identity – I’d tell them God is much more than what they or I can imagine. I can hear cynical people saying my experiences are not proof of anything. I can hear religious friends clicking their tongues at how cavalier I am about spirituality. But here’s my truth. Despite it all, God’s always been there, sending me a sign that it’s going to be more than alright. Evil may exist in the world, but love is more powerful.
This is what I choose to believe.