Monday, July 30, 2012

The Paths to Respect

(Sunrise from the top of Mount Batur, May 2011)

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. Inspiration often arrives in unlikely places, but almost always at the bookstore, and I have serious difficulties in reading just one book at a time. I recently picked up the new anthology of short stories, Love, InshAllah about the secret love lives of Muslim American women. In the imminent rush to read the book, I inhaled it instead. Yes, it has generated much controversy. Yes, it’s about all types of loves and intimacies. Yes, it’s about all types of self-identifying Muslims. But at the very core of each story is a woman’s search for her place in the world, and that’s what makes it such an interesting book. One particular story that stuck with me ended with this quote: There are as many paths to God as there are people on this Earth.

A few days after finishing the book, I attended a leadership discussion with The Leaf Network, an organization supporting community and social action projects, where we reflected on the importance and difficulties of staying true to yourself at the intersections of faith and leadership. One of the speakers, also at the end of his talk, which focused on staying true to faith, said the same phrase as above: the number of paths to God is the number of people in the world. In two very different contexts, within a few days of each other, the world was handing me this idea to contemplate, and so I must.

In its vastness, it’s sheer size, and the number of people on it, our world is anything but uniform. It is anything but narrow. It is anything but a straight line from point A to point B. I like to imagine that when the author and speaker said the phrase above, they meant God and Love to mean the same thing because, in my mind at least, it’s one and the same. So what is this path they speak of so fondly? The path to Love is, I believe, a journey inwards. A quest to define what exists within (which reminds me of another favorite book, The Quest for Meaning). And as each one of us looks inwards, reflecting on the life that is outwards, we are each bound to come to realizations that are very different from one another. With that idea in mind, I am naturally confused by those who want to define an ideal, ultimate, or universal path in life. How can there be one type of path, one idea or goal of a path, that somehow applies to every one of us? When did we start focusing on building such narrow paths with such high, limiting, borders?

The point here is simple. Assuming that only one type of journey will lead 7 billion people to one goal is not only unrealistic, but also unforgiving. It makes zealots out of well-meaning people and builds our walls higher and higher against each other. It is high time we recognized that each person is on a different quest, journey, and path. Whatever the ultimate goal is - Love, God, power, success, wealth, compassion, or any other - there truly are as many paths to it as people who are trying to get there. Each person needs the time and space to find and create their own while realizing that it will be completely unique and different from any other person’s. So while we come to recognize these different journeys, we must also learn to move beyond tolerance and into the realm of appreciation, celebration, and respect. Because once we truly understand the concept of respect, mere tolerance becomes such an ugly idea. The paths are many and all are beautiful so let’s celebrate differences and respect individualities.

(A version of this article first appeared on the SpeakOut website)

Parisien Stranger

(Monsieur Eiffel, June 2012)

So many stories to tell about Paris I dont know where to start. Perhaps the end is as good a place as any other.

Just as I was walking into the train departure waiting area in Paris heading back to London, I look out of the window down onto the street outside. We’re only about one floor up and it’s a smaller street. A young man and a young woman are sitting on a step smoking. The man happens to look up right at me just as Im looking down at him, and then, he smiles a big smile and waves. It takes me half a second to register that it’s me he’s waving at and so I smile back and wave. Im sure my smile was too big but he kept smiling up at me anyways.

This is why I love strangers.

Melanie Nind

Melanie Nind took us on a small private tour of the back streets of Oxford after our official tour guide proved ineffective. She talked about hoping the weather will be nice in Southampton this summer so she can go swimming in the ocean a few times. She must be in her 60s. Healthy, vegetarian, quiet, funny, serious. Professor of sociology I believe, and a researcher to boot.

I remember thinking very clearly, I want to be like this woman when I grow up. Calm, dignified, respected, humble, down to earth, with sensible shoes, living near the beach, and working at something I love.

This was at the ESRC conference a few weeks ago in Oxford and Ive been thinking about the impression this woman left on me ever since.

I wrote down a new goal today: to grow into a dignified, respected woman who has achieved something that has positively impacted others in the world, who radiates peace and is filled with contentment.

In sensible shoes.

Professor Abbott

I met Professor Andrew Abbott of the Chicago school of Sociology at the 2012 ESRC Research Methods Festival. I was sitting having breakfast at the large dining hall the morning of the last day of the conference at Oxford University and there was no one sitting in the two seats in front of me. Long tables all set together to encourage interaction. He came and sat diagonally across from me, said good morning, and proceeded to take out his own croissant and pain au chocolat from a paper bag. He offered me a slice. He said he couldnt be this close to the best bakery in Oxford and not have some, so he went over there this morning and bought this. Maison Blanc. I said thank you and promised to go over there myself later on the day. It rained. He was a great storyteller.

We chatted and he told me a few stories. I was very quiet for some reason. After having attended the Lyrical Sociology morning session with him the morning before, I knew I was in the presence of someone very intelligent. And very peaceful for some reason. Perhaps it was his age, even though he wasnt that old.

He had a 'valley girl' student. "Like oh my God Professor Abbott!" He even imitated her voice and hand actions. She was in his class and was doing fine but then one day emailed him and said she wont be returning to the fall semester as she has to undergo chemotherapy. His valley girl had cancer. Professor Abbott told me he sent her an email every day during her radiation with a job posting in each. "What do you think of being an air travel controller?" Anything to keep her going, he told me. But anyways, she was a valley girl with cancer, but she was still a valley girl. She came back the next semester. I was sitting with a master storyteller.

The point he was trying to make was that we have to question why we shy away from being critical of someone’s work just because they have some sort of condition, that they often can’t help, for example AIDS or cancer. We fear that people will think we are criticizing the illness or the person themselves, when indeed we are critiquing the work constructively.

The only point that came across to me was that I was not only sitting with a master storyteller, but with a master teacher as well.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

~Robert Frost, 1915