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)