Overwhelmed With Gratitude

I recognize that for a time, a lot of what I wrote about on this blog was to some degree negative. I did not mean for it to be that way, and it certainly is not entirely reflective of my experiences, but sometimes the hard and thorny things stand out more noticeably and demand more attention than the easy, smooth things. I think it takes longer for the good things to really sparkle in our minds sometimes; it takes more effort and time for us to come around and appreciate them.

I have been thinking a lot about the concept of being overwhelmed with gratitude. Suffice to say, I am a person that feels uneasy when things are good: I tend to operate better when there is something to be fixed, or improved, or some modicum of instability to navigate around. It keeps me sharp, and it helps me to feel like things are real. When I get too idealistic, I lose sight of reality and set myself up for disappointment. When life starts to get too good, I start waiting for the other shoe to drop. I have gotten better at quieting this mindset but it is persistent.

In the last couple of months, life has been unpredictable. There has been a lot of stress, mainly due to a volatile job situation and a complicated relationship dynamic. Both, in their own ways, exacerbated my already-tenuous relationship with Islam and being Muslim. I had a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head and a lot of doubt. I frequently felt lost and adrift, hence the blog posts that centered more on the struggles of being a secret revert and the feelings of insecurity and inadequacy that came with it. A central theme of that time was a general lack of confidence in who I was, or what I was doing with my life.

Before, I felt tremendous pressure not knowing what kind of job I wanted, or if I was even going to be able to find a job, or how I was going to survive in the increasingly untenable one I have. I felt stressed while my relationship tried to weather the difficulties of the pre-med track and dating in secret. I felt stressed about not being a good Muslim. It was perhaps the beginning of an existential crisis. It felt like nothing was on solid ground – not at work, not in my heart, not in my soul. But I could not stop, or give up, or crawl into a hole and hide – as much as I wanted to. Life demands forward movement, however small and incremental at first. And that is what I did: I applied for jobs as often as I could, – even though rejections made me doubt everything all over again – I waded through the brambles and tried to untangle and heal the problems in my relationship, and most importantly, I took the internal pressure off of myself to be a perfect Muslim. It was my own choice – my own triage – but I recognized that for me personally, the most critical element of my mental well-being, and the things that everything else hinges on, is having a different job. It takes up the bulk of my day, and I need to have something that makes me happy and fulfills me. I need something that will get me out of the house. I need something that will allow me to go to the masjid for jummah. Worrying about my daily prayers went to the back burner. It is what I needed to do to make it through. My rationale is that with a new job and the mental stability that follows, I will then be able to better commit to Islam.

In the last few weeks, there has been a marked turnaround in how I have felt about life, and even having put Islam on the backburner, I am finding it is resurgent nearly every second of my day. Taking the pressure off eliminated the negative feelings that so often cropped up in my head. Taking the pressure off allowed me to reconnect to the quiet voice of God that exists within my heart, and hear it clearly, without pretense, for the first time in a while.

I think we are all guilty sometimes of wishing God would just let us be in charge of our own plans for life. Certainly as type-A as I am, I have been guilty of wishing God would just let me do it because I promise, I know exactly what I am doing. So it is incredibly humbling when plans do not work out, or plans take on a different form than what I expect, and when somehow despite my best attempts to make everything just right I come up short – things still turn out okay. To me, this is one of the beautiful aspects of believing in God and in a higher power, and with that a higher meaning and reason for your life: everything is happening for a reason, and sometimes the reason is clear, sometimes it is not, but there is always an underlying purpose. There is an undercurrent bringing you toward where you are meant to go. It is also humbling to believe that God has a distinct and important plan for you, and that He cares, and that He is always somehow overseeing the vast array of chips and dominos and chutes and ladders that are falling and moving and changing direction and ultimately make up the trajectory of your life. I think I am humbled most by things almost always mysteriously working out because I am so convinced I am the only one who is capable of making good plans – I am doubly impressed, floored even, when God shows that He is the Most-Capable, too. 

So the last few weeks have been steeped in this mindset. Going from the beginnings of an existential crisis where everything seemed wrong, impossible, and uncertain, to right now where I have two strong jobs (God willing) lined up, my relationship is healthy, I just returned from a beautiful vacation – I am truly overwhelmed with gratitude. Even before I left for vacation, I found myself feeling guilty because things were too good and I felt like I did not deserve a week away on a tropical island. I was, and still am, waiting for the other shoe to drop. But with that said, I am trying to not be negative about it – I am trying to not respond to blessings with harshness and cynicism. I am working on being more mindful in the moment of the blessings before me, whether they are small things like a sunny day after a torrential downpour, or an interview that went spectacularly, or a quiet night at home with the person I love, takeout, and Netflix. I am trying to be more effusive with my gratefulness. I am giving that inner voice that recognizes God’s gifts a bigger platform. I think a part of this is also allowing myself to feel like I deserve good things – though that admittedly is a more uphill battle.

I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge that there are parts of this period of intense gratefulness that are difficult. I think about the things that are going well in my life, and how things have seemingly worked out so perfectly, and (especially on vacation) I think about the majesty and beauty of nature and life all around me, and I am consumed with wondering how I can ever repay God for this. I believe in the Christian tradition, there is a greater emphasis on the sacrifice having already been made so that God’s children can enjoy the fruit of world so long as they give thanks. The debt, in essence, has already been paid. In Islam, believers are commanded to continually put in the effort to ensure they are worthy of God’s eventual paradise. Theirs is a debt that is never completely satisfied, only until death and God willing, in jannah.  I am still struggling with my daily prayers – I think it is accurate to say I am on a hiatus right now – but I think about the sheer magnitude of God’s blessings toward me and everything around me and it leaves me feeling microscopic, and how could my meager attempts at salat ever come close to being enough? Here is where I end up getting back into that cyclical perfectionist’s curse: why bother doing it if it is not going to be good, or perfect? Better to just not try at all. I get stuck here feeling like I either have to be a 110% perfect Muslim for the rest of my life, or I am just doomed and should not bother. Is the other shoe soon to drop because I am not always the kind of Muslim I should be? How do you find a balance between ‘perfect’ and doing your best when everything is on the line? This is the question I am grappling with at the moment.

I suppose, ultimately, it is better to be overwhelmed – and therefore cognizant – of blessings and things to be grateful for then unaware or take it all for granted. I feel Islam has taught me in a more powerful way than Christianity ever did to consider the depths of God’s creation and ability all around me, day in and day out. I am constantly humbled. I suppose coming to this realization and understanding of God’s might and bestowing of blessings upon me might be the first step in my deeper relationship with Islam, while the rest, like coming to terms with how to properly and adequately show my gratitude and live according to the principles He envisions, will come in due time. How ironic that even in one’s personal journey with religion, sometimes our own plans are not sufficient nor proceed the way we envision or think are best – indeed, God always knows best.

Finding Balance: Jeykll and Hyde

This is going to be a really intimate, personal series of posts. I feel I need to caveat them and reiterate that I am happy to be Muslim, I have no regrets, and that it still feels like the right decision for me. But this process has been so difficult – mostly navigating the mental struggles that come with being a revert, and a secret one at that.

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I have often felt like I am the only one going through this strange situation, and that I must be doing something wrong to have it never feel quite right. In the age of social media illusions, it seems like other reverts I know online are so put together and solid in their beliefs – and of more interest to me – they have this ability to live as a revert to Islam so authentically, so casually. It *seems* easy for some people to live comfortably in this major decision they made, transitioning quickly to hijab or even feeling secure enough to show their face on the Internet. I do not feel that, and it makes me wonder why my path has been so difficult and unsteady. I desperately want my relationship with Islam to feel easy and natural, but it does not.  I should be able to be open about my religion and my experiences, but I hold myself back. I deliberately keep the Muslim side of me hidden away. The Jekyll and Hyde aspect of me being Muslim feels critical for me to protect, even though I am realizing how damaging it is. Keeping the Muslim me separate from the other part of me is a habit, but it is making coexistence ugly and impossible.

I have always been averse to people knowing my business. I have always been cagey with friends or family about personal things, preferring to keep things private and close to the chest. Friends in college would laugh when I would suddenly disappear from parties, or slink in halfway through, without really answering where I was going or where I had been. When I lived in the Middle East alone for a few months, I relished in the raw power I had each day to come and go wherever as I pleased. I like not having to answer to people; I like being the sole decision-maker. But I recognized where that was getting me into trouble: I was so restrictive with details it was obvious to those around me that I was not willing to let them into my life, and that makes it difficult for people to want to be friends with you or trust you with their life. That hurt me because, despite my evasiveness with others, I actually yearn for deep friendships and connections with people, and would do anything for them. So I had to adjust and became more open and willing to share (within reason).

But this is also why I struggle with not being as vocal or open about being Muslim as I want to be. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I would have no problem if someone figured out I was Muslim and asked. In that instance, I feel as though I would be able to control the narrative to some extent, through talking to them and explaining the decision. One of my biggest fears is someone getting the wrong idea, and knowing there could be people out there with a twisted view of me becoming Muslim upsets me. Islam is horrifically misunderstood as it is, and to be a white revert who works in national security who happens to be dating a Muslim guy gives way too much fodder for speculation than I can even handle. Still, even for myself, I suppose it is the act of admitting I converted, of being the one to blow my cover, that also gives me anxiety. I view my conversion to Islam as arguably the most private, intimate, personal thing I have in my life, so my natural reaction is to keep it away from prying eyes and gossip. It is sacred. And finally, there is a control aspect: if someone were to find out somehow, without my consent so to speak, exposing who I really am, it takes the control away from me.

Despite this, I have not kept my entire relationship with Islam a secret. I have told a few people that I converted. I did not fast in secret during Ramadan. I have tried to be open about things to the extent I feel comfortable doing so. But it is not enough. I feel so strongly this division between the ‘original’ me and the Muslim me, and it feels as though the two are incompatible. My friends who were born Muslim have learned in a way I envy how to grow up and become the persons they want to be, with different interests and personality traits, while still being Muslim at their cores. I feel like I grew up and figured out who I was, then added this attachment onto myself that does not seem to be meshing the way it should.

I feel like to be a ‘good’ Muslim, there are certain things I have to change about who I am at my core. Then I feel like these traits or feelings that seem at odds with Islam are somehow ‘wrong’ – except they are me, and I grow frustrated trying to figure out how I am supposed to make both work. This struggle is exacerbated by the fact that I have an extremely Type-A personality; I would even argue compulsively perfectionist. I feel a compulsive need to be ‘perfect’ at Islam – but it is literally impossible. When I inevitably fall short, it erodes my confidence as a Muslim. When I honor the ‘original’ me, I feel guilty for shirking my duties in Islam, even though I have no desire (nay, I refuse) to radically change who I am. I need balance and I do not know how to find it.

I recognize there will always be some back and forth between these two versions of myself – but I let this feeling like I *must* have everything together set me back. As my confidence as a Muslim erodes, I feel less and less connected to Islam. I feel less like reverting was something that was meant to happen and more like I am stumbling along, lost, and not really sure if I made the right call. Being a revert by default brings an enormous amount of insecurity and doubt. Not only do I fret about how I will be perceived by the Muslim community, but also about how my family and friends will receive me, how I will ever gain all of the knowledge I am supposed to, and perhaps most significantly, whether I am legitimate.

These feelings, of insecurity and inadequacy, are crippling. It is one of the reasons why I have struggled so fiercely with salat – though I will save that story for another post. In short, when I do not feel confident, I start to question what the point is of me trying to be a good Muslim. I am a perfectionist – which most of the time is a positive thing – but the ugly side is not wanting to do something if I do not feel like I can do it well. That is where I am at with Islam more often than not. This is why Qur’an 94:5 speaks to me: Verily, with every hardship comes ease. I may feel the pain of each and every shortcoming now, but inshallah eventually I will get to a point where I learn how to overcome them and be at peace with myself and Islam.

I need balance between ‘me’ and the Muslim me. I need to figure out the right way to honor both – to uphold my responsibilities as a Muslim while remaining true to who I am. I need to let go of my need to control everything; I need to let go of what is beyond my control. I need to learn how to be okay when both sides of me are not perfect. I need to understand that an imperfection on one side does not threaten, nor negate, the other. I need to figure out how to be me and Muslim at the same time.