More likely than not, you have contemplated what the meaning of life is. If you’re like me, you’ve probably had moments when life has felt absolutely pointless. Where is it all going? What’s the point of all of this hardship and toil we go through to continue living day-to-day? If you’re a Muslim, this answer should be easy. Islam is the meaning of life. Being a Muslim is your life’s purpose. I told myself that repeatedly, but my clouded heart and mind couldn’t embrace it.
When I got to about the third year of working full time I just felt like I was running in circles. It was Groundhog Day for me. Work, get paid, pay bills, buy stuff, rinse, repeat. Spend more and more. You climb up the corporate ladder looking to make more money and become more important. With time, I slowly started deteriorating. Even though I got married to my best friend and the man of my dreams, got the job I had worked so hard for – it wasn’t enough. I was still down, I was still spiralling.
I remember at my first job, I had to stay late one night and saw that many more senior colleagues had not left and it was normal to work that late very often. I quickly realised that I did not want to progress to that level if it meant I would be stuck in the office till 9pm+ every night. It was weird for me, up until then I was a career woman. I decided on a profession and was determined to make it happen. I expected that I would work hard and rise up in the ranks, as many people do. I imagined getting to senior management. I kind of just assumed that’s where my career would naturally lead to. It was my 10-year plan.
To my surprise, it dawned on me when I started working – no, actually. I do not like this. I was an ambitious young woman when I started university. I wanted to be someone. I thought I was special and unique. Despite being a Muslim Middle Eastern woman, I would defy the odds and make it to the top. It would take years of hard work, but I was convinced I could do it. Then all of a sudden I realised, I don’t actually want any of that. I don’t want to be a senior executive. I don’t want to be a trailblazer. I don’t want to be a CEO. So I found myself in a quarter-life crisis (yes, it’s a thing!).
If I didn’t have my ambition what else did I have? I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. I was under 30 and I had already achieved the big goals I had worked so hard and so long for. Why did I still feel unfulfilled? Why did I feel lost? It took me a long time, but I eventually figured it out. When I read the task for Day 10, it made me reflect on that journey and how far I’ve come.
ACTION: What will you do to feel part of something bigger?
I realised my identity and reason for being rested on a house of cards which suddenly toppled over. Whenever I introduce myself to people and talk about my background, I usually start with my job. After over 10 years of defining myself by my career goals, I was faced with the fact that I don’t care about having a career anymore. I realised there were other things in life that were more important. I just wanted to put my head down, get my salary at the end of the month and enjoy my life. It was hard to do at my job, it demanded so much more of me. I missed dinner with my husband often. He was always so proud and supportive of my career, but I still felt guilty all the time.
The more I got sucked into my working life the further I drifted from my religion. Islam is a big part of my identity. It’s been one of the few constants in my life, along with my culture and family. That said, I don’t consider myself very “religious”, but I am practising. I don’t wear the hijab, I’m not the best at keeping up with my prayers but I fast and I believe strongly in Islam. I don’t drink and I give to charity. Islam informs a lot of the things I do and the way I act.
Islam has brought me comfort in my darkest moments. Once I fell into this hole, the meaning of the “deen” (religion) and “dunya” (material world) struggle that Muslims face became very clear to me. We have to strike a balance between both. It’s something that’s casually thrown around (“deen over dunya”), but I never really stopped to think about it in detail.
I started realising that if you tip too far in the direction of the dunya you can lose your way. It seems obvious, but you don’t realise when it starts happening. The struggle is about controlling your attachments to material things. As a Muslim, the meaning of life and the reason for being is to serve Allah and be a source of good in this world. I knew this and understood this, but it was hard to accept and incorporate into my psyche.
I had become obsessed about my job, my family, my things, my reputation. My anxiety clouded everything in my life. Once I started therapy and I truly examined myself, I understood that the more attached I am to worldly things, the worse my mental health becomes. I have started my journey to strike the right balance again but it’s been hard, I’ve fallen quite far so I think it will take me a long time to get back up.
Since starting therapy, I have found a lot of parallels in therapeutic practices and Islam. The type of therapy that works best for me is Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (commonly referred to as “ACT”). It uses mindfulness and acceptance strategies to increase “psychological flexibility” or resilience (which I discussed in a previous post). One of the processes in this type of therapy is “Cognitive Diffusion”. It involves looking at your problems and feelings objectively, from a distance. For example, instead of thinking “I am stupid” you train yourself to think “I am having the thought that I am stupid”. With enough practice, you learn to take a step back which allows you to better control your feelings and reactions.
I found this process to be very similar to reducing attachment to the dunya. To do that, you have to remember that material things in life are just that: “things”. There is a higher purpose, a higher plane to reach. Thinking that way reduces your emotional reactions to worldly problems. You remember that life is temporary and there is no reason to tear yourself apart over trivial things. There’s no reason for the sadness and the worry. As my mom always told me when I was young, “this too shall pass”.
Islam helped me see things a lot more clearly and understand the concepts and techniques I was using to make myself healthy again. After about 3 years of regular therapy and medication, I am in a much better headspace and a lot closer to who I think I was before all of this happened. Even just six months ago, I wouldn’t have had the guts to start this blog. Therapy has helped me connect again with my religion and gave me space to search for meaning.
Gaining mental space allowed me to see things more clearly. I realised I had lost so much of myself in my attachment to worldly things and I was just living life day by day without purpose. While the coronavirus has been a curse to the world, I will say that I am thankful for the opportunity to spend Ramadan at home and not be working, it gave me time worship and fast the right way. I finished the Quran for the first time. I reflected on my life and where I was. I appreciated everything Allah has blessed me with. I prayed for clarity, I prayed for direction.
A little while after, the idea for this blog came to me. On one of my many sleepless nights since lockdown, I was lying awake in bed tossing and turning and staring at the ceiling waiting to fall asleep. My mind was busy with all kinds of thoughts. What is going to happen in 3 months? Will I have a job? Will the world become worse than it already is?
I started thinking about how coronavirus has affected me and other people. I had been writing long emails to my friend regularly which was really therapeutic. Talking about life, asking each other for advice. I thought, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all ask someone for help without judgement? Some impartial advice for questions we are too embarrassed to ask those we know? If we don’t have friends close enough to share our awkward questions with?
It hit me like a bolt of lightning. What if I could be that person? The only positive qualities I believe I have are that I am nice, kind and a good listener. Together with my experiences with mental health and usual challenges in life, I could maybe provide some decent advice?
I felt a rush. My heart was pounding. I felt like I could do this. I had never felt like this before. I Googled furiously to see what existed out there and to see if the name was taken. It wasn’t. The next day, this blog was born.
That was a month ago. I didn’t know what I wanted to get from blogging, but looking back a month on I have created an outlet for my thoughts and feelings. I found a project I care about that I can work towards, develop and dedicate my time to. I found a purpose outside of my job. I found a long term goal. In the grand scheme of things, it’s nothing really. It’s just a place for me to rant and ramble, a place to describe my life experiences to an empty void. I originally had wanted it to be a place people could ask for some help and comfort, but I don’t think that will happen right now. It is something I’m building towards.
In addition to finding purpose, I found something else. It was one thing I didn’t expect to find: community. I have become part of something bigger.
In my quest to build my blog and find an audience, I have joined so many different groups set up to help bloggers expand their reach. I have never seen so much support and encouragement from so many people. I’ve joined many different groups and forums. People have been so helpful and patient with my silly questions and have given me so much good advice for free!
The blogging world is a grind. Whether you are doing it to make a living or just for fun (as I am), it is really hard to get your name out there. I am amazed at the free resources there are and how many people will do their best to help you reach your goals without any form of payment. Just because they want to help.
At a time when I have seen the worst of humanity, at a time when I have felt the most cynical about our fate as a human race I have also seen some of the best of humanity. I haven’t felt such a sense of belonging in a long time.
I am very early in my journey to finding self-fulfilment, but starting this blog and the writing process, in general, has made me hopeful. The community I’ve found has given me motivation. I don’t know how things will look in 3-6 months’ time, but I won’t forget how much meaning and belonging I’ve found in the last month.
It feels like the start of something exciting.
Until next time,