October was not a fun month.
After an interfaith peacebuilding trip in Nigeria, I returned with a stomach bug that so kindly kept me company over the next several weeks. The significant portion of my Master’s thesis had yet to be written. The guy I’m kind of interested in doesn’t text back and instead sends indiscernible messages. Back-to-back rejections for jobs I made the final round to left me wondering what I was still lacking to make it to that finish line of an offer. My excitement for possible opportunities was swiftly replaced with a sinking heart when seeing that line we all know precedes rejection: “Thank you for taking the time to submit your materials…” A weak attempt, even if sincere, to soften a blow that will hurt no matter what.
The breaking point occurred when I was asked to photograph an event for an organization I had previously assisted in this capacity and enjoyed doing so, only to receive a call on the subway into the city, just hours before the event, informing me that they decided last-minute to go with another photographer. Left with nothing in that moment to look forward to or lean on, I didn’t stop the tears from falling. It was not the first time I cried in public, and I can’t imagine it will be the last.
As I sometimes do in hard times, I turned to Facebook to share these back-to-back rejections and to ask my online community for advice. I do this for two reasons. The first is to learn about the practices of others which may help in my own situation. The second reason has a more communal purpose. Social media can be an emotionally toxic place that leaves many feeling like others have picture perfect lives with no struggles, no pains, no imperfections, no failures, no setbacks. Cognitively, we may know that this can’t be true, but scrolling by smiley photo after smiley photo and success story after success story, and comparing such ideal lives to the imperfections of our own, it can feel like everyone else has something we are missing. I can’t count how many times I’ve been on that side of the screen. My posts in which I openly share my struggles and seek support are an attempt to mitigate that toxicity.
I received many messages of advice, consolation, and support, though one acquaintance commented, “God is not a toy that will respond to our selfish desires. If we don’t follow His guidance and rules, we experience failure and turmoil due to our own unfaithful actions.”
This is, indeed, one way to frame a relationship with our Creator. As a Muslim who graduated from a Catholic college, it is a position I hear from Muslims and Catholics alike. His interpretation is a popular one in both communities, and there is plenty of room for theological diversity. Amid passionate disagreement, I remind myself that God intended for such diversity to be a manifestation of His mercy; to challenge it, however, is fair game.
It is not my acquaintance’s faith or sincerity that I question, but rather his framing. Practitioners and scholars of conflict resolution maintain that how we frame realities is a choice we make regarding what we wish to emphasize. How we frame realities is often a reflection of our own spirits, temperaments, and goals.
I prefer the framing of a dear Catholic priest and mentor:
“You have every right to feel abandoned, duped even, and – as the prophet Jeremiah (chapter 20:7) put it – betrayed. Yet He remains. I have no doubt of this. In the darkness and misery, He waits, weathering our doubt, fear, rage, and indifference, only loving – unwavering, unchanging. He can survive all we throw at him, and will throw nothing back – no harsh words, threats, or blows. It’s what St. John of the Cross called the dark night, the experience of losing sight and even awareness of God, fearing that He does not exist or if He does, does not care. He counsels gentle care of oneself during this night, and fidelity to the ordinary: prayers, virtue, kindness to others. The darkness will end, and when it does, our sight will be all the more acute and far reaching.”
I believe that it is theologically problematic to assert that if one does everything he or she is “supposed” to do in accordance with their tradition, that it is impossible for one’s prayers and pleas to remain unheard or unanswered. Such a theology can transform dangerously into accusations that we or others are suffering because we are not a good Muslim, or a good Catholic, or a good person. That is vindictive theology. I do not see it having a place in Islam, which places God first and foremost as ar-Rahim (The Most Merciful), nor in my understanding of Roman Catholicism, which places the willing sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross as its core embodiment of Mercy and of Faith itself.
One of the paradoxes of religious diversity is that those who share a particular theology across traditions – such as the one Fr. Guido and I share – have more in common with each other than they do with fellow believers of the same tradition who profess and practice a different theology, such as the one of my Muslim acquaintance. That is something worth paying attention to and, more importantly, acting upon and building relationships and working with the religious “other.”
For as long as I can remember, I have always told myself, when going through the most painful, grueling moments of life: “you must get through this so that you can share this moment with others feeling how you are feeling now, so that they may have hope that they, too, can flourish beyond what they believe is possible in their dark night.”
That goal underlies this article, my future articles as a State of Formation fellow, and my philosophy as a writer.
Saadia Ahmad is a graduate student studying Conflict Resolution at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She can be reached at email@example.com.