Gentle Reminders from Ramadan

A bit of context

I grew up in a Muslim family. Though I don’t categorize myself as faithfully religious, I do practice many of the traditions and customs of Islam because they hold personal meaning and align with my values. Observing the holy month of Ramadan is one that has been a constant since grade school – one that I look forward to each year, and try to practice humbly when the time comes.

For me, it is physical meditation; a palpable practice of mindfulness, compassion, gratitude; it is community, connection, solidarity; a delicious juxtaposition of control and surrender. Ramadan also has a knack of kicking my propensity toward big / random / abstract thinking up a notch. So, naturally….

On to the Lesson(s)

Many of us have the luxury of knowing this during our month of practice:

Fast all day; abundance awaits at sunset.

Last night, my mom & I had our first Iftar of 2012 (1433 Islamic calendar). About halfway through, we exchanged a “wow, my stomach kind of hurts” sentiment. The irony of this was not lost on either of us. That this came from having too much, too fast, not yet 15 full minutes removed from an 18-hour day of abstaining from all food and drink… a sort of growing pains, if you will. We were now aching a similar ache — but for a very different reason. Cue head-shaking.

On the menu: Spinach, cucumber, tomato & baby shrimp salad; Rice noodle & veggie soup; Mixed fruit (peach, mango, kiwi, cherry, raspberry) & yogurt; Apple slices with cheese cubes. Dates (not pictured). Water. A far cry from the traditional Bengali-influenced Iftar we’ve historically had.

I will never forget my mom telling me once, years ago (this is the 90s, people) about the realities of many of the beggars in Bangladesh. About how sometimes after fasting all day in the sweltering heat, all they have to break their fast with is a  glass of water (not Vancouver-sparkling-clean, either); maybe some rice or lentils or some bread, if they’re lucky. There is no clock ticking down to “GO”, letting them know the instant they can dig in to the feast within arms’ reach. No 30-day countdown until “things go back to normal”. I heard this sitting at the Iftar table: warm and safe, hungry and waiting.

(Aside: I’m so grateful for my mother being such a vivid and impactful storyteller. She somehow intuited that my sister and I were in humble — rather than self-centered “I’m so hungry, CAN’T THAT CLOCK TICK ANY FASTER?!” — mode, and delivered those few powerful and sobering words that shaped the way I try to live my life to this day.)

Last night, I was feeling guilty about my abundance, my luxury, my relative gluttony. There I was, too full to eat everything we’d prepared for ourselves, knowing that in that instant, poverty and food security – local, national, global – were very real issues for countless others. Knowing that this was not just a far-away, “them” problem; knowing that for some it doesn’t end when Ramadan does. Knowing what it can feel like, and then easily being able to move on to the other side, like a visitor… a poser. I dwelled on the guilt for awhile. Turned it over in my head. Then I stopped, and re-framed.

This is privilege, in all its glory – the simultaneous blessing and curse. Acknowledging this, I chose gratitude over guilt.

Stepping back to a global big-picture: I could easily be living a very different life. Considering the sheer chance-filled & arbitrary nature of the major decisions that shaped my family’s trajectory, it’s kind of a wonder that I’ve landed exactly where I am today. It blows my mind on the daily.

I think we’ve all been in those situations when, no matter how badly we want to change the it (or the world), in that instant we just can’t. The only thing we can change is ourselves – how we think, feel, act. My guilt in that moment was not going to feed those without access to food (it could act as a motivator for future action, but that’s another topic). The only thing it was doing was robbing me of fully appreciating the gift I’m living. In that moment, in choosing gratitude, I chose acceptance. (I hurry to add: this is not the same thing as complacency.)

I understand that my fortune is privilege, is opportunity, is obligation. My struggle is in seeing my own place on the spectrum of inequality, in negotiating empathy and compassion with circumstantial powerlessness. My struggle will always be in remembering this momentary discomfort that connects me to the daily stories of millions. These are just some of gentle reminders Ramadan affords me.

The biggest loss last night wouldn’t have been the unfinished food; in that moment, it would have been my not learning from my blatant little brush with over-abundance, my not appreciating right now. This is my life, my reality (and I ain’t afraid to show it…) – I am ridiculously blessed, and I know it.

Humbly, ~ H

The big dots of the post

We want (or feel we need) much more than we actually do. Life is a constant dance with the concept of enough.
That saying “Poor little rich girl” holds such diverse meaning; struggle and fortune can be physical, mental, emotional, ethical.
We’re so damn fickle sometimes.
Gratitude seems to have this magical ability to make the current moment perfect.

Have you re-framed something in your life recently? Chosen gratitude over something less giving? Changed yourself when you couldn’t charge out to ‘save the world’?
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