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Yesterday afternoon was lovely. Or at least it should have been. The weather was sunny, warm and breezy and a co-worker invited me to lunch at a nearby Greek cafe.
For me, the conversation was novel, centered mostly on ways of passing the time. I heard about movie marathons and addictive video games. About junk food and beer, and even about the joys and perils of online pornography(!). People are strangely blunt, I find, but this may be because most of my friends are Muslims, who wouldn’t dream of discussing matters such as these.
As often happens, I nevertheless became immersed in this discussion, and began to have a taste of how this other person lives. Just as a person can get caught up in another person’s excitement or sorrow, I was swept into the monotony of this person’s life. The emptiness and boredom I sensed, or perhaps imagined.
Real or imagined, it had grip on me as I walked silently back to my home, a few blocks away.
Suddenly a tidal wave of emotion swept over me, and I was engulfed by utter despair. I couldn’t imagine any purpose to life, and or any means by which to pass the time all the hours of the day. I couldn’t think of a reason to live at all, and my despair deepened. Briefly, it felt impossible to escape.
I don’t remember ever being overcome by negative emotions like this in the middle of the day, though it happens sometimes at night. I wake up in some dark hour, overwhelmed by some outsized sense of anxiety and horror. I don’t know why it happens but I’ve talked to others, and I know it happens to them sometimes too.
But in broad daylight? On a sunny afternoon?
The world is empty. I realized that a lot time ago. I was once caught up in this world, trying to find that elusive happiness and contentment we’re encouraged to pursue. It never came. Not until I realized that the world is nothing more than a means to Allah. The more conscious I became of Allah, the less I was preoccupied with the world. The process was so gradual, it was almost imperceptible. This shift took years..
Hell is losing consciousness of Allah, however briefly. This is what I realize now.
Allah says if you take a step toward Him, He will come running to you. When I remembered this, I took comfort in His presence, and felt the deepest sense of gratitude. Rescued, without ever leaving the sidewalk. I had never skipped a step, and no bystander batted an eyelash.
I’m writing this but I really can’t express this experience properly with words. Words don’t capture the essence. Worse still, I’ve realized there is no one around to tell. No one will listen.
I feel profoundly lonely, but not because there are no people around. There are people everywhere. There are usually at least a half dozen visitors in my home every day, but I feel disconnected. Alone in my thoughts.
How hard it is to get people to really listen? To really talk? To have a deep conversation? I don’t know about anyone else, but I find it hard to get people to put down their smart phones and pay attention for more than 30 seconds. If you can really talk, uninterrupted, for even a few minutes, it’s an amazing success. It’s almost as if everyone has attention deficit disorder these days. Is this because of information overload? Are people overwhelmed by a sea of information?
Maybe it’s always been this way. Except that I remember when it wasn’t, many years ago.
Someone in my circle of friends recently told me these memorable conversations I recall were a feature of the “intellectual dynamism of youth,” which we all surrender somewhere along the way. Maybe that’s part of it, but can’t be the whole story. First because I’m surrounded by “the youth.” I take in stray teenagers the way some people take in stray cats. These kids don’t sit around having deep conversations over cappuccino and vanilla bean scones. It’s hard to get them to focus for more than 30 seconds on anything that isn’t a video game.
Yet I can still have deep conversations with people of all ages. I just have to be willing to venture to some peculiar places.
A few months back, at the Greek cafe where I had lunch yesterday, I was sitting alone in a booth, staring out the window, fighting back tears. An observant waitress came to ask me if I was okay. I invited her to sit and she did for a while, and we talked. Really talked, and I started to cry. She hugged me, and put my head on her shoulder, where I rested for some time. A strange scene to be sure, but I felt a genuine connection.
Before that, the deepest conversation I had was with a Christian chaplain who prayed for my mother when she was dying, and before that it was with a homeless heroin addict I found on the street in a shady part of town, begging for food.
People on the fringe, the downtrodden and forgotten, are not so preoccupied with worldly things. They may be chasing a meal. No one likes to go hungry, but they live on the razor-thin edge, where their vulnerability isn’t obscured by the comforts of life and a false sense of security. You can sit with them beneath a shade tree all afternoon, and discuss the meaning of life. There are no smart phones or video games, and no one is in a big rush to get somewhere for no particular reason.
They will listen to you. Really listen, and they actually care if you’re sad. They will tell you their whole life story, if you’re willing to listen.Their kindness and generosity, and the goodwill they engender, reminds me of line from a poem by Jose Marti:
“With the poor people of this earth, I cast my lot; With the poor people of this earth, I throw my fate, for the brooks of the mountains please me more than the sea.”
Among them, there is no worldly illusion to distract us from His presence. A homeless person will love you and you will love him, just for the sake of Allah.