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: Struggling with Salat

In my last post, I mentioned how feelings of insecurity and inadequacy about being Muslim have led me to struggle fiercely with salat. Salat is this elusive thing for me: sometimes I have it and I feel good about it, other times I cannot bear to think about it, other times I just feel guilty about it. In that respect, it is always on my mind. Perhaps that is also the reason why I feel exhausted by it, even when I am not even making my prayers. I have had a few periods where I was committed to salat, but the majority of the time I am engaged in a tug of war with it. Often times, I do not talk about this struggle, as it is the biggest source of my insecurity and feelings of inadequacy, and I am so uncomfortable admitting weakness.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about salat and trying to figure out the root of my struggles. In the beginning, when I first reverted, I went from 0 to 5 prayers a day immediately. I kept it up for a week or two, but it petered out. Later, when I tried to figure out my emotions about it, I realized that transitioning so quickly made me feel fanatical. I was adding this foreign act into my life, and it was taking over my day, and I felt unsteady. I heard the voice in my head asking if this was really something I was going to do – could do – five times a day for the rest of my life. For several months my salat was sporadic. I might pray fajr before I got started with work for the day, and maybe ‘isha before I went to sleep. But by no means was I consistent. I felt really out of place with salat, and even after I had all of the prayers and surahs memorized, I felt like I had no idea what I was doing.

I recognized when I was making excuses for not being able to make salat, and also recognized how weak my excuses were. “I have work,” I would think. Except nothing is ever so pressing that it cannot be paused for 10 minutes. Yet, I found myself so engrossed in my laptop and watching my prayer notifications flash and fade throughout the day. Even though half of the time I am frustrated with the work I am doing, or mindlessly scrolling through social media to procrastinate that work, I felt it was ‘too important’. “I do not want to do wudu,” I thought. It felt like such a burden to perform wudu, to get my hair wet, to wash my face, that I avoided doing it. “There is no time,” I would reason, even though salat only requires a small amount of time, and it is a minuscule offering for the gift and opportunity to live through each day. I hated that even upon realizing how lame my excuses were that I still could not overcome my mental and physical obstacles to salat. It weighed on me and continues to, heavily.

Eventually, the specific excuses died away, as with time I fully rationalized that they were flimsy. Eventually, I realized my issue with salat was that most of the time, I just did not want to do it. It took longer to figure out the “Why?” for that.

More recently, I have been able to get to the root of my issues and salat. It has not been a pleasant process. My apparent inability to do the basic thing that is required of all Muslims stings me every time I think about it. As a perfectionist, I often chastize myself for not being ‘better’ at being Muslim. I look at my salat struggles as a deep blemish on an imperfect fruit. It adds insult to injury.

It has become an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy. I feel inadequate and insecure about my reticence toward salat, and that metastasizes as me feeling like a ‘bad’ Muslim. When I feel like a ‘bad’ Muslim, I see no point in performing salat. “What is the point,” I think, “of doing this if I am no good in the first place?”

It seems so simple, honestly, written out. But dealing with the devil in the dark recesses of your mind and soul is terribly complex.

But in coming to terms that it was a question of insecurity, and the inverse – a lack of confidence – revealed a lot to me about my mindset and what it means for my relationship with Islam. I have been aware that, as a compulsive perfectionist, I tend to shy away from tasks or activities I feel I will not be able to succeed at. I avoid situations where I might be setting myself up for failure, or looking weak, or seeming confused. And Islam has become a massive hydra of exactly that: activities and tasks that I am not sure I am going to be good at.

In February, I was consistent with my salat for an entire month, even making up prayers when I was traveling. And at the time, I do remember feeling incredibly connected to Islam and secure in my faith. I am not sure why after February things fell apart. Perhaps it is getting out of the habit for a week every month that does me in. I thrive on routine but interruptions set me way back.  Perhaps I got scared to commit. Perhaps I did not trust myself to keep it up for the rest of my life, and I did not want to set myself up for failure. Perhaps I felt an absence of God’s love and support at the end of the month and I stopped.

That aspect – feeling God’s love and support – brings up a tangential issue. Rationally I understand the God I was raised with in the Christian tradition is the same god as Allah. But I still see them as different sides of the same coin, which may be fair seeing as how differently each doctrine conceptualizes God’s power and relationship with followers. In the Christian tradition, there is a profound emphasis on God’s never-ending love and compassion. You are already saved; you are already forgiven. The conversation was always positive. (I recognize that this may have been different if I was raised in a denomination that emphasized the ‘fire and brimstone’ a little more.) But with Islam, despite the emphasis on Allah being the Most-Merciful and the Most-Compassionate, I still feel like there is a fear and punishment element that was not there in Christianity. And I do not respond well to it. This is partially where I feel the futility of my salat the most: “If I am probably already going to hell because of my inconsistency or inadequacy with being Muslim, why bother?”

I have spoken with my Muslim friends about the fear and punishment element, and they confirm there is a greater emphasis on the wrath Allah could rain down on those who disbelieve or go against the religion. They were raised knowing full well what terrible thing awaited them if they did not meet their religious obligations. I do not remember hearing or reading much about Hell when I was going to church, but it is a frequent topic of conversation in Islam. While I absolutely love the duality and balance of Islam – I think it is more practical and realistic and beautiful – I do struggle with feeling like I am compelled to do something because there is an ‘or else’ attached to it.

All of this is not to say I have completely ‘given up’ on Islam because it is hard. Islam is constantly pushing me out of my comfort zone. I am learning, slowly but surely, how to get over my desire to be good at everything and appear in control and live with uncertainty or doubt or the ubiquitous ‘I have no idea what I am doing’. But to be fair, much of that is still at the surface level, and while I have been able to overcome fears about going to masjid or talking about it with people I am close to, what is far below the surface has been much harder to deal with.

That is where salat is for me – leagues under the surface. Even before reverting, I looked to Islam in awe as its adherents were so committed to be prostrating before God five times a day. That commitment was absent in my experience growing up Christian. In fact, it was the opposite: my family and friends would joke about the ‘Christmas and Easter’ Christians who went to church twice a year for the major holidays. Even then, the most religious people I knew maybe went to church once a week. So I saw Muslims as what religious people should be – demonstrating their strong relationship with God day in and day out, no matter the time or the place, forgetting about worldly responsibilities or distractions for a few minutes in order to observe something more meaningful. It was a powerful and beautiful example and it always captivated me. When I saw Muslims praying, I saw their ability to transcend the trivialities of everyday life and attach themselves to something greater and more meaningful. It also looked like an intense dedication; every time I saw Muslims praying I appreciated it for what it was, but also because I wondered if it was something I had the capacity to do in my own relationship with God. Salat was how I thought religion, and a relationship with God, ought to be.

So salat, in my eyes, was always the *difference* about Islam. Over time I have come to appreciate other aspects of Islam that make it unique, like the Qur’an, and Ramadan, but salat is the original distinguishing factor. For better or worse, I view salat as the thing that makes or breaks whether you are a true Muslim. It seemed like to me, especially of the Muslims I was coming across on social media, that the difference between being a ‘cultural’ Muslim and ‘the real deal’ was whether the obligation of salat was honored. The more pious Muslims made their daily prayers a priority, no matter what. I considered performing salat the mark of legitimacy. I say for better or for worse because this perspective has indeed contributed to my own issues with salat: my many roadblocks to salat make me feel as if I’m illegitimate, which then makes me wonder if my salat is futile.

I am not sure why salat and I have such trouble. Sometimes, it is because salat is a grounding action, anchoring, and sometimes I do not feel like I want to be tethered to anything. Sometimes, I feel like I need to have the freedom and flexibility and not be weighed down. I recognize, however, the contradiction in this: the stress of my life at this moment, mostly due to a frustrating and unpredictable work situation, should cause me to seek out anything that brings stability to my life.

So that excuse, like many others that came before, does not really hold itself up. The deeper roadblock and the one that has taken me nearly nine months to figure out is the lack of a positive and confident mindset with regard to being Muslim. I know I need to go easier on myself: there are a lot of factors that contribute to my inability to be the kind of Muslim I would like to be right now. Certainly, others have done more with less, but all things considered, I do not have a lot of work with. Inshallah there will come a time and circumstances in the near future that allow me to live more authentically as a Muslim, but for now, I have to make peace with the unideal.

The mindset issue, after some deep introspection, seems to be the culprit. I questioned why I have no trouble with fasting for Ramadan, a month-long commitment some might argue is on par with salat. I have reasoned that with Ramadan, I can still generally be myself with only a few minor adjustments, and still fulfill my religious duty. Salat, on the other hands, feels more like a radical change to me. For whatever reason, during Ramadan I am always in a positive mood, whereas with salat, one has to be in a concentrated, positive headspace about Islam and being Muslim, five times a day. Simply put, I just do not have that level of good feelings on a daily basis.

Sometimes I wonder how necessary feeling “good” is to do salat. I am sure there are many people who are still able to do it even when they are having an off day or some kind of existential crisis. But salat has also made me feel worse about my inadequacies as a Muslim: because it does not come naturally to me, or because it feels like a distraction or burden itself, I view it as something that points out, glaringly, my shortcomings. So I avoid it.

This is all 100% the wrong way to handle these issues but I am not entirely sure how to navigate toward handling them better. Inspirational YouTube videos from prominent sheikhs touch on the importance of salat, or the beauty of it, or give advice to new converts, or teach them how to do prayers, but there is no advice for a person in my situation: I want to pray, I know how, but a mess of insecurity is holding me back. This is another place where being a revert can be incredibly isolating; I have yet to find anyone else struggling in the same way I am or talk to someone who really *gets it*.

Yet I am confident at some point these issues will fade away. I have mentioned a lot of my inner tumult is a product of stress related to my job, and I am certain with a new one a lot of this anxiety will quickly cease to exist. I need to be patient. I need to do my best and be okay with that. Still, salat and my struggles with it are on my mind day in and day out. I wanted to write about it to be more transparent about the nature of things I am working through. Part of working through this insecurity and feelings of not being a ‘good’ Muslim are rooted in me, for various reasons, not having a strong attachment to Islam, and I believe one of the most constructive ways for me to work past that is to really come to terms with my roadblocks and be open about them. I am reminded of a quote my grandfather lived by: “If you can get it out in the open, you can deal with it.” So that is what I am trying to do.

Note: I would love to hear from you if you are reading this and have been in my shoes or have some words of advice!