Greetings of Peace (al salamu 'alaykum)! I pray you are well! This past weekend, our youngest son, Mido, left "the nest" to start his adult life in college. Brings back so many memories, emotions, and feelings...
I was 17 when I left home for college - and completely clueless. Growing up, my mother would always tell me, "I want you to have everything I never had." I have exactly the same sentiment as my mother when it comes to Mido, but what I want for Mido is very different from what my parents wanted for me.
My parents were college-educated immigrants from Taiwan, in pursuit of the American Dream. They wanted to give me material comfort, a good education, and the reprieve from constant financial worry. They wanted to give me "privilege." They did a good job - most of my extended family would describe me as "spoiled" from my youngest years. As an only child, my mother often had a hard time saying "no" to me. But now, looking back on my life, perhaps the most important gift my parents gave me was the freedom to think and dream beyond the material. They gave me the chance to ask, "Is this (the pursuit of material wealth) all there is? What is the meaning and purpose to all of this? To my life?"
They gave me what they wanted, what they dreamed of for themselves, and I am extremely grateful for all of their sacrifices. They did the best they could with what they had. But their dream came with a particular outlook and set of priorities - its own compass - which I also inherited. It was an internal compass that pointed to the pursuit of money, prestige, and the wholesale adoption of prevailing American values as the measure of "success." It is what many first generation families want, and for many, many years, it was my compass and my guide; my lens for understanding the world and my aspirations in it.
If you don't count Jimmy Moore in my kindergarten class (my regular target in "cootie-kisser" tag), the first boy I ever kissed was Scott Safreed, a tall blond-haired, blue-eyed senior from the "popular crowd" in my high school. In a corny, stereotypically American end-of-date scenario, after walking me to my front door, he kissed me goodnight and I thought I was going to lose my mind. It was everything my 16-year-old self could have dreamed of. Of course, it is all very painful to admit now, but back then, it was the truth. It meant the world to me at the time.
Scott was Mido's age; I was one grade younger. Tragically, Scott died later that year, shortly after his graduation, killed in a drunk-driving accident in our hometown. He was side-swiped in his own car by his friend, who was drunk and driving 70 miles per hour on a residential street after a party in our quiet and idyllic suburban Palo Alto, California. Scott's friend was one grade younger than me, two grades younger than Scott. So many lives ruined in an instant. Looking back now, all of it holds so much meaning: the choices we make, the entitlements of privilege, the fragility of life. Scott's death was a casualty of our privilege; a logical conclusion and a not-so-surprising destination by my compass.
I attended UC Berkeley with this internal compass. I avoided Asian people like the plague and instead joined a white sorority. "Why do you join a sorority?" my mother asked. Of course, they didn't have sororities in Taiwan. I couldn't answer her, but all I knew is that this is what my compass pointed to. In fact, it wasn't enough that I joined any sorority, I had to join the "right" sorority, where all the girls were white, rich, and pretty (or at least appeared so), and interacted with the "right" fraternities. I joined, I hated it, and they hated me (thank God).
So many choices. Just me and my compass. I don't know when it struck me that I was able to truly make independent choices, but the freedom to make choices was its own power. I wielded that power with what "felt" right to me. Did it make me feel good? Did it make me feel cool? Did it help me get ahead on my perceived road to "success"?
But amid all the glorious freedom, I soon learned that bad choices also have their own power. They create their own darkness. Darkness upon darkness. It took me a long while to figure out that my compass was not making me happy; not making me feel good or helping me make good decisions. In fact, I made a lot of bad decisions. That "feel good" compass took me through a lot of darkness just to leave me completely lost.
My compass did succeed in getting me to business school, but ironically, that is where I would abandon it - and all the darkness, loneliness, emptiness, and lack of meaning that ultimately came with it, despite all its promises to the contrary.
Fast-forward thirty years, and I reflect on what I wish for Mido that I didn't have at his age. I wish I had had a MORAL compass. It would have made my life so much clearer and easier and saved me from so much suffering. Yet, for all the bad decisions I have made in my life, I would not change them because God allowed them to make me who I am today. They led me to Islam - from darkness to light - and the life that I have today, for which God knows I am beyond grateful.
Just as my parents wanted for me what they did not have, I wish for Mido what I did not have - a better grip on what really matters and how to achieve it. Mido already knows from his upbringing, hopefully, that God can be his superpower if he so chooses. God knows we have tried to instill that understanding in every way possible - subtle and not-so-subtle. And, I believe we have given him a moral compass to navigate life, a sense of self-respect and dignity to make good choices, and the trust and confidence to make his own decisions with our love and support. Is that enough? Honestly, I don't know.
I cannot lie that in our secular, hedonistic, Islamophobic world, I am scared of the challenges that lay ahead for our kids. Will the taste of freedom and the abundant temptations of darkness be too much? I also reflect on whether we did enough to convey the responsibility and consequences that come from making bad choices. I am not talking about the fire and brimstone approaches or the threat of Hell; rather something far more mundane and incremental. The little things. In a recent halaqa (circle of learning) on The Book of Illuminations, Shaykh discussed the impact of sin on a person's soul. God can, of course, forgive any sin with proper repentance. But for every sin committed, there is a bit of residual darkness that remains on a person's soul. Over time, this darkness becomes an obstruction to the Divine. I imagine a beautiful lamp covered with splashes of mud. What we are learning now is how to cleanse that darkness, clean off that mud, in order to draw closer to God and the light. It begins with honesty, courageously confronting oneself, and truly owning up. My own journey with darkness and mud meant that I had a lot of painfully honest clean-up to do once I became Muslim. The only one I have heard talk about this cleansing process in detail is Shaykh - first when we were married, and now, almost thirty years later in these halaqas.
Among my last words to Mido before he headed off to his dorm was to always stay close to God. This has been my constant prayer for the last 18 years. As a parent, of course, I wish for Mido to stay clear of the mud. But as a believer, I trust and always pray that God will present whatever is best for Mido, even if it means he must get a little muddy along the way. It is now in his hands and God's.
At the very least, I believe he knows that his parents have dedicated their lives to leaving a legacy of knowledge to help him and others find their way from darkness to light - and that if he ever needs to clean off mud, we will be waiting with a clean towel in hand. May God protect, enlighten, empower, dignify and elevate all of our beloved children to the light! Ameen!
Wishing you a blessed week full of light, love, and learning! :) Look forward to seeing you online soon insha'Allah!
In Peace and Hope,