A Letter to Myself

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What an eventful year.

So much has happened since beginning this tradition. I have met so many great people, had life changing experiences, and learned a lot of things the hard way. This year has been filled with excitement, change, fear, sadness, frustration, euphoria, grief, anticipation, envy, pity, empathy, shame, wonder, appreciation, confusion, enlightenment, pride, and love.

Let’s get straight to it. Here are my insights about the year past.

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  1. Practice being right here, right now

I have picked up and dropped so many forms of art and habits. When I couldn’t pay attention in my night class, I decided to become a master knitter. Later on, I bought an adorable turquoise helmet and started riding my bike to school. For a New Year’s resolution, I stretched my legs and started a 30 day yoga class. What do all these things have in common?

I quit.

When I didn’t have a luxurious 30 foot scarf after two weeks, I quietly placed my yarn in a basket and told myself I would try again later. When I didn’t have toned Serena Williams quality thighs, I locked my bike against a fence and told myself I would try again later. When I couldn’t hold the same positions as the experienced yoga instructor, I rolled up my mat and told myself I would try again.

I am not a habitual quitter. But I noticed that when I don’t reach unconscious, ridiculous expectations of activities, I quietly make a decision to quit. I am, however, a perfectionist as well as someone with extremely high expectations for myself. And I also noticed that I rarely enjoy the activity as much as what I envision will be the end result of the activity.

So I believe it’s time for a paradigm shift. Instead of doing things because I believe something will come of it later, I will participate in activities that I enjoy doing. And for the record, I enjoy knitting, biking, and yoga. What I was not enjoying was the moments during the activities. I fantasized about the future when I should have been enjoying the present.

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  1. Talk less, Speak more

I know what you’re thinking but it’s not a typo. Let me explain. If you ever have a conversation with me, you’ll probably notice a lot of “uh-huh, uh-huh, wooooow” from my end. This is because I want you to know that I am an active participant in our conversation and I care about what you have to say.

But earlier this year, during my training at Aurora, I did something totally unlike me. I did an activity where I was forced to listen to somebody speak for 2 full minutes without nodding, smiling, participating, or in any way interrupting the other person. My jaw was so sore from the strain of clenching tight and my knuckles were white from gripping my seat but goddammit, I did not say a word. At first, I thought it was just a cruel form of torture. I mean, what’s the point of a conversation if I can’t participate? But what I soon realized is my day is littered with meaningless words.

Moments of natural silence in conversations are filled with “Yeah, so anyways, I was like saying…” I could’ve use those moments to compose my thoughts and consider the meaning of my words. I could have used those moments to allow my partner to elaborate on their opinions and perceptions. I could have used those moments to breathe. To close my eyes and take a break.

We are so worried about that tiny moment of quiet that we say whatever it takes to prevent the possibility of an uncomfortable silence. But silence can be just the thing to take a conversation to the next level. It can allow for someone to gain the confidence to share something deeply personal. It can be what someone needs in order to continue the effort of being present. Most of all, it can be golden.

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  1. Do not rely on other people for validation

Sometimes when I feel truly at loss with my standing in the world, I like to imagine a world full of me. My neighbor, the president, my mailman are all just a “bunch of me”. And then I think of a bunch of me trying to judge me, tell me what to do, or feign superiority. I get angry! “Who do I think I are?” I might say to myself.

Then it all makes a little more sense. Most people do not know what they’re doing. They’re faking their purpose, jobs, parenting, leadership, and/or ability. But we don’t notice it because we are so innately obsessed with our own lives. So it’s easy to imagine how little we know, how bad are at what we do, and how truly lost we are.

But the truth of the matter is we are not alone. No one knows what they’re doing. But the people who find happiness with the chaos of life are those who know to not control it. Life is unpredictable, as sappy as that sounds. If we spent all our nights thinking about all the ways to control it we would never sleep.

Control what you can and let God do the rest.

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  1. Trust yourself first

If you make a promise to yourself, keep it. Because if you can’t keep promises to yourself, you can trust yourself. I don’t mean improbable or highly unlikely promises, what I’m talking about is the little things we can do for ourselves every day. If I promise to help my friend with an assignment or do a favor for a co-worker, I can trust myself to keep it. But why is it that the promises we make to ourselves are the first to be broken?

I propose we treat ourselves with the same respect we afford the people in our lives. If I promise myself 10 minutes of self-care each day, then why shouldn’t I trust myself to do it? Maybe pumping iron or kicking butt in Booty Bootcamp makes me happy. Why shouldn’t I keep my promise to do it? Just because we are doing something for ourselves does not make it selfish. If anything, it’s in the interest of everyone who loves you for you be happy, healthy, and hopeful.

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  1. Learn to say sorry—and mean it

Last year, I had a falling out with a good friend of mine. We both thought we were right and the other had wronged us. We ended up not talking for months. I wasn’t too worried about it though. We had been friends since childhood. There was even a period where we hadn’t spoken or seen each other for years (not on purpose, of course). I figured the dust would settle and we would soon forget why we were even mad in the first place. So when I reached out to her a while later and she hadn’t returned my calls, I knew something was up.

I went to see her one day and things were not the same. I apologized, even though I still felt like I was right, for the sake of our friendship. But it turned our fight was just the straw that broke the geel’s back. I found out that I had been acting in a really hurtful ways towards her. It was so obvious after she had told me and yet when I said/did hurtful things, I didn’t even see them that way at the time. I was wrong.

I felt like a truly horrible person. This time I apologized from the bottom of my heart and I truly meant it. All the defensiveness I had come with had dissipated. We sat there hashing over every action and word. It was like the first time I wore glasses. I took one step outside and shouted “I didn’t know trees had leaves!”

Of course those leaves had been there well before I could see them and make out their details. And the pain I had inflicted had existed well before I understood it. Regardless of if I knew what I was doing was hurtful or not, the effect was still there. Even if I had not acknowledged my wrongdoing, it wouldn’t take away the effects. The point is that sometimes we attach ourselves to this notion that our intentions are all that matter. And even though intentions are a major factor we can’t deny that people are not mind readers who have complete understanding of our actions 24/7. We’re human. We judge based on how we perceive situations, actions, words, and people.

Even if it wasn’t your intention to hurt someone, apologize. And don’t just apologize, mean it.

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  1. Don’t take it personally

This one’s a doozy. It also relates to the concept that the world doesn’t revolve around me which is not only hard to believe but downright unacceptable. I for one pride myself in being quite perceptive. But I will admit, in confidence to you, that I do not know it all. I don’t know why some conversations never take off. I don’t know why that old dude on the bus always scowls at me while I walk past him. I don’t know why some people use their phone when I give presentations.  I don’t know why I can’t connect with some people. I don’t know why small talk is so hard. I don’t know why the people who love us hurt us the most. But what I do know is that it is not reflection of my self-worth, abilities, or purpose.

Maybe that person is having a bad day. Or maybe they’re just tired. Or maybe they’re a prick. Whatever the reason, one thing remains true; I do not have to own other people’s perceptions of me. That is not my obligation.

  1. Take care of yourself

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You know how they say the grass is greener on the other side? Lies.

I was a super extrovert as a youngin’ so I when life got a little quieter, I looked back on the old days with fondness. I yearned for the days I could spend time around other people. So this year, I got my wish. I started participating on campus and meeting people everywhere I went. I found myself skipping class to go to movies with strangers. I attended functions and said yes to every invite. Every event I attended was further proof of my ability to tackle to unfamiliar. I thought that if I said no to an outing, I would be missing out on so many things. Plus, I could never tell if I genuinely did not want to go out or if I was experiencing a symptom of my illnesses. I felt like I had to prove to myself that I could do it, even if I didn’t enjoy myself one bit.

And it’s exhausting. Talking to people for hours on end is exhausting. But not just in the physical sense. When I started hanging out more often, I noticed a weird effect. The center of head started aching and I could only focus on the pain. I called it a “people headache”. I’m not prone to headaches, Alhumdulilah, but something about being around people made me physically ill. I would become irritable with anyone so I would keep to myself to stop from hurting anyone’s feelings.

But there were exceptions to this rule.

If I knew the person for a long time, I could avoid the headache for most of the day. If I really, really like a person, the people headache would set in very late. And if I was 100% comfortable with someone, my people headache would not develop. And if it did develop, I knew what I had to do.

When I get a people headache, it’s time for me to be by myself. I chose Saturday and Sunday to be my “people free” days. And I started scheduling time alone into my week. If I knew I was going out Tuesday, I made sure Wednesday was chill. I would go home Friday night and not see a single soul until Monday. I used my weekend to recharge. I would read, write, clean, cook, watch TV, relax, play with my cat, paint, or anything else I wanted to do. I just needed to be alone.

There are some people who completely understand why I need to be alone. Most people don’t understand why I need this time. They might take it personally and get hurt because they believe I don’t want to hang out with them. Some understand it to a degree but believe that if we’re doing something “fun” then that should be enough to change my plans. So I don’t spend too much time convincing others. I resort to making up imaginary plans for people to respect my time.

I’ve learned time and time again, nothing is worth the expense of my wellbeing.

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  1. Learn the difference between being lonely and being alone

I come from a family of 9. The only alone time I got was in my head. I had learned to tune out the buuq of a full household. So living on my own has been nothing short of a shock to my senses. I went from having never spent a night alone to going days without talking to another person. I felt like I was another planet. I even missed my loud neighbors.

The first few months were torture. I didn’t have Wi-Fi for a torturous amount of time so the internet could not distract me. I was unused to spending this much time alone. Everything was so quiet. I would turn on the dishwasher just to keep me company. There were many nights I couldn’t find solace in sleep. It was as if all the noise of my family had been funneled into my mind. Only this time, there was no way to tune it out.

During the day, I could feign normality. But it was night that brought out the strangeness of my situation. I felt disconnected from the world. It is human nature to want to feel loved and noticed and I was drowning in isolation.

If I was to survive, I had to reconstruct what alone meant for me.

Instead of feeling isolated and trapped, I learned to appreciate the solitude and take advantage of the company of others. If I was bored, I would have fun regardless of who could join. If I felt like going out, I would go to the movies or a museum. If I felt like staying in, I would write a passage or read a good book. I soon realized I did not have time or energy to do things I did not want to do.  So why waste it?

To my 22 year old self, I don’t expect you to have it together. I don’t expect you to know what you’re doing. But if there is one thing I want you to know by 22, it is a firm and unabashed understanding of who you are. What are your morals? Who are you? Without your titles, or your relation to other people, or your possessions, or how other people see you? Who are you?

Once you find out, stay true to it no matter what.

I expect you to make a lot of mistakes. I expect you to have a lot of failures. I want you to know that it’s okay to have both. I want you to know that every good decision I made this past year was made with fear in my heart. But I did it anyway.

Whatever you do, remember Allah (subhanahu wa ta’ala) in all things.

In the words of Eleanor Roosevelt, “Happiness is not a goal…it’s a by-product of a life well lived.”