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On Fear

September 3, 2012

On impulse, I turned to my friend and suggested that we rent bikes. I have no idea what prompted me to make that suggestion. The minute I managed to climb on the monstrosity whose engineers assumed that most of its riders would be at least six feet tall, my heart sank. What was I thinking? The fear grew and became a menacing demon that cackled as I, to the heavy cajoling of my friend, shakily maintained my balance and navigated in the midst of the traffic in central London.

It’s a the kind of enormous stress that may seem disproportionate to the task at hand. But due to an emotional setback I went through recently, I’ve been experiencing high anxiety that transitions without warning into crippling despair, a severe vulnerability to even the slightest hints of darkness in the world. Where some may see an opportunity for a new challenge and a thrill, I felt as though I was being slain from the inside. As if to test my limits even further, one of my few close shaves with a parked car included one against a driver who shouted out one of the most severely Islamophobic slurs I have ever been subjected to (at least from someone sober).

My internal world became a grotesque horror show. My best friend, realized the extent of my fear and consoled and encouraged me, pointing out that how big it was in my head, how it was consuming me. We finally made it to the docking point, and as my feet touched the pavement, my legs turned to jelly, and my mind slumped.

As I lay in bed later, reliving from that strange, strange episode whose memory is so severe it seems like a nightmare, I recalled a story a shaykh told us about a bad day he was having which was made even worse when he was driving with his family and was pulled over for speeding. Even then, he said, as frustrated and angry as he was, he rejoiced in God’s ability to put him in this situation, to make him feel these things in such magnitude.

I also recalled reading an incredible piece about finding ecstasy in depression and the writer’s realization that depression was his experience of being close to God.

The shaykh’s story and the article fit together, like two pieces of a puzzle from a new, distant, unconstructed corner of my being.

There wasn’t much relief to my fear. This is not a story where I triumph and pull through and become stronger. It’s an anecdote of pure, hard agony.

Usually one hears about religious people losing their faith when they ask: “Why, God?” or “Why me, God?” and receive no answer, or an unsatisfactory answer. For some reason, I never asked that question. It never made sense to me to ask that question. So I ended up taking an alternative path, one where I don’t ask, but still need to a way to understand what is happening to me.

So instead, I now find myself thinking: “I see you, God. I see you as a whole, I see your attribute as the one to be feared, as the powerful. I feel your mercy and love, yes, but sometimes, I must also see this. I see all of you.” And it helps to know that there is a possibility that it is bringing closer to Him. I suppose it’s the way you feel closer to someone after seeing their dark side, their imperfections. Except it’s better, because you feel closer to the Originator of all things, including all fear-mongering elements of the earth.

I’m not pushing myself to recover from this surreal brush with fear because this isn’t something to recover from. This isn’t something that is meant to be enveloped in Allah’s more gentle and merciful traits. As the Merciful, He may choose to give me that relief. But perhaps I’m not meant to find relief. Perhaps finding relief would be missing the whole point of whatever I am going through.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Leah permalink
    September 3, 2012 2:10 pm

    I think there are a bunch of situations in life that no matter how hard one tries, one finds it difficult to express gratitude to G-d for putting them into that situation. It does not mean there is no powerful lesson in that struggle, most likely there is, but whenever I see tragedy, genocide or a major loss, I may be bad but I am not thankful. I just summon all my resources and go through whatever I need to go through.
    I welcome fear in my life. I think fear is a powerful protection mechanism if used wisely. whenever I feel a gripping fear, I sit down and think: why? what are my risks? how should I proceed? I don’t step back, but I don’t rush forward either. I respect fear as it shows my limitations. There are many things I have been able to work through, and now I do them with ease. There are many things I am unlikely to ever do.
    I was taught how to swim by being thrown in the middle of a river (literally). Sink or swim approach. Many people deal with their fears in the same way. I simply wait for a moment to strike against fear, when I am the most powerful. I often win.

    • September 11, 2012 9:28 pm

      Wow, you’ve presented some difficult and fascinating issues here. I was once asked by an agnostic how I can be grateful for my situation in life if it comes at the expense of someone else’s wellbeing. I don’t view things that way (That guy had an economics background, go figure!) but I understood what he meant. So I think along with thankfulness comes responsibility. It makes no sense to rejoice in jeans someone in a sweatshop slaved over, that kind of thing. This doesn’t relate directly to what you said about genocide, etc. but it did get me thinking.

      I think welcoming fear is a level I now aspire to. I’m definitely not there yet but hope to be. And it’s interesting that you point out that fear makes one aware of her limitations; we’d all think we were invincible otherwise, and an excess of that would of course mess us up!

  2. September 6, 2012 1:19 pm

    That sounds terrifying! I’m terrified of bikes with motors though so yeah.

    I was told an interesting anecdote / example once about fear. An advisor / friend I had in university said to imagine a box cut in half diagonally. One half is occupied by you, and one half by fear. Unless you push back every once in awhile, she said, and try things you wouldn’t normally, fear will end up pushing you into a tiny corner of your life. So even though it might be absolutely terrifying, it’s training yourself in a way to trust in yourself (and in God, I suppose) to keep you safe. Kind of off track, but I thought it was an interesting way to think about it.

    • September 11, 2012 9:22 pm

      That is such an effective metaphor; I love it. The secret to creating positive thought patterns, I once read somewhere, is to employ drastic imagery. I’ll definitely be using this one!

  3. September 11, 2012 2:15 pm

    I’m sorry to hear that a complete stranger shouted something terrible at you. Riding a bike is terrifying when the bike doesn’t ‘fit’, and you’re amazing to have made it through traffic on such a bike.
    As for high anxiety and the plunge into despair– just wanted to let you know that you’re not alone. There are ‘triggers’ everywhere, but what sets people apart is how they cope with the stressors that come their way. Coming from a secular/atheist background, I find it fascinating how tapping into spirituality can help turn those negative feelings into something positive/productive. Or how it changes the way people perceive these negative feelings.

    • September 11, 2012 9:21 pm

      Thank you for the kind and supportive words, Alex. It’s true, everyone has some kind of thorn in his or her side. Maybe I was lucky in that I faced my crippling fear head-on! It’s perhaps more than most people can say.

  4. October 28, 2012 6:35 pm

    Hi. This is the first time I am reading your blog, after I stumbled across it on the Brass Crescent Awards page.

    First of all, well done for receiving such a prize. May God help you to use your writing to achieve the best for humanity and the best for yourself, inshaallah.

    I think you have a nice style of writing and I was particularly intrigued by this post because I think I went through a type of ‘depression’ last year during my first year of medical school, which I write about in my own blog.

    I also read the blog-entry which you refer to in your piece about finding the ecstasy in depression, which I found quite fascinating because I am trying to come to terms with the idea of finding ‘happiness’ or a state of bliss within moments of hardship, anxiety and stress.

    But what I can relate to most in your writing is the idea of not actually triumphing and “pulling through” but to become closer to Allah. This is an idea that I am starting to come to terms with Alhamdulillah. All my life I have aimed for a certain aim or an objective, but it was like I could only picture the goal in my mind, and when I was on the long and arduous path to achieve the goal, I would struggle each time I faced an obstacle because I thought it would be enough to dream big and only focus on the dream itself. What I failed to realise, is that as much as the result is important, it is really the effort and striving along the way which is the most important. In fact, one would argue, that the result (in this dunya) is not that important since it does not matter what we eventually come to achieve here, as long as we have TRIED to achieve our best and put our 100% effort into the task, we should then have the confidence that the result lies with Allah. This outlook takes into account that obviously some things are beyond our control, such as times when we might have tried our best but we still fail, which is what happened to me during some exams I sat last year.

    And you say that it made no sense to you to ask questions such as “Why, God?” which is something that most people naturally do when faced with fear, and I certainly did last year too. It shows a certain level of courage to not ask these unnecessary and irrelevant questions, because let’s face it, this thing (whatever it may be) is happening to us and that reality is not something we can run away from. Now we can choose to a) curl up into a ball and become miserable or b) attempt to change the situation to the best of our ability. Often in the past I would choose a) because my situation seemed hopeless and I felt helpless, but at really low points in your life when you feel like you have nothing to lose, I suddenly feel this strength in me to reach out and try and do something to become better.

    This point was made even clearer to me this week when a friend (who was feeling quite low herself) asked me “Do you ever wonder, what if we go to hell?” This friend was a practicing Muslim herself and believed in God, but I said to her that some questions are unnecessary and pointless to ask. Asking a question like this would provide an excuse to be lazy and not try our best to achieve our ultimate goal in the next life, which is Paradise. Also, when thoughts like this enter our mind, they hinder our ability to be productive and carry out some of the important tasks we have to do, such as studying and completing assignments, when we have such worries lingering in our minds.

    I apologise for writing so much and forgive me for taking up so much of your time if you have managed to read all the way to this point. I just wanted to finish off by saying that I felt compelled to respond to this piece because I feel the lessons I have learnt over the year are similar to what you refer to, especially in your last few paragraphs. And I love the part where you say, “perhaps I am not meant to find relief”, because I do not think we ever find everlasting relief in this dunya, only temporary bursts of relief because this life has been designed to be difficult to test us. But just because we do not find relief in this world, does not mean that we do not try to seek relief. I think a true believer is aware of the transient nature of this world, but this short-lastingness instills within them the desire to make the most of the time that they have to prove to the creator that they are worthy of achieving the best ultimate reward.

    I hope some of my reflections above might help you too with your struggles. Please feel free to read my blog (http://under-the-stethoscarf.blogspot.co.uk/) for some more insight into the experiences that led me to draw these conclusions. I wish you all the best for the future and hope that you attain that relief in the next life inshaallah.

    • October 28, 2012 7:26 pm

      Salaams, and thank you so, so much for engaging so deeply with this post. It means a great deal to me that you took the time to share your reflections. May Allah reward and bless you.

      I am intrigued by your experiences and feel that your realizations mirror mine. Life and this dunya indeed constitute a journey, and ultimately deen and God-consciousness is about being mindful of that fact, of not getting too caught up in what happens later. Even those who are too fixated on heaven or hell are guilty of being too future/results oriented. It really does make no sense to be fatalists just because our ultimate abodes are pre-destined.

      Also, Isn’t that Psychology Article today amazing? A man who is undoubtedly incredibly pious and close to God was so severely tested. His story remind me of the Prophet Ayub (PBUH), whose story has the most personal meaning for me.

      I really love the sophistication of your thinking, especially as so many Muslims seem to give into the simplistic black-and-white idea that if we are depressed, we are being bad Muslims, and if we are happy, we are doing something right. That couldn’t be more wrong. Trials and tribulations should be seen as favours from Allah, as a means of returning to Him, even if those means is a deep depression that requires medication. I’ve actually reached a point where I feel sorry for people who haven’t felt deep, lasting despair. How can you find deep joy in the blessing of a beautiful day if you haven’t experienced a terrible one?

      I think your understanding of the human condition will make you an excellent healthcare practitioner, InshAllah. I warmly wish you the very best of luck with medical school and hope you succeed in every way.

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