“We tend to see the world in binary terms—sinner or saint, angel or devil—but I think life is much more nuanced than that.”
—Judy Smith, Good Self, Bad Self
The “Healing in Solitude” reflections offer a glimpse into the heart of Umm Zakiyyah, as she continues her emotional healing journey during the social distancing lockdown amidst the coronavirus epidemic. Each journal reflection represents a “new day” in her healing journey and/or a new day in the mandatory isolation of social distancing. The following is Day 3:
Today the stillness of social distancing is revealing that at least some of the restlessness that I’ve been unable to calm during this forced “alone time” with my soul is the untold story inside of me. It’s the story of my emotional and spiritual journey—in full.
It’s true that I’ve been suppressing so much of it for years, but it’s also true I’ve been sharing bits and pieces of it for years.
Isn’t that enough? I ask my restless heart.
I feel overwhelmed at the thought of saying more than I already have. I know that I have a right to, and I know that part of me has a need to. But I also know that this doesn’t mean that I must.
Or does it?
In my mind are flashes of memories that I’m afraid to fully confront. The slander. The public humiliation. The dragging my name through the mud. The promise to ruin my life.
And the fulfillment of that promise—with glee.
And the fact that at the head of this character assassination was someone I loved, trusted, and respected more than life itself.
I recall the initial confusion when life as I knew it began to fall apart. But at the time, what was happening to me was so disconnected from what I was used to that I didn’t even fully process what was going on. I suppose some would call this denial, and others would call it shock. But I don’t see how I could be in denial about something that I didn’t even realize was a possibility in my world at the time. It would take years for me to understand that this really was a deliberate campaign to tear me down.
And still, even with this painful realization, it made no sense. Why would a well-respected prominent spiritual leader be so angry at a twenty something girl for doing nothing other than worshipping Allah the best way she knew how? Yes, he had taught her so much about life and the soul. But wasn’t he the same one who always advised his students to put God first? Why then shouldn’t this injunction apply to me?
Or did he see himself as God?
Another Unknown Path
My heart wavers just a bit as I stare at the unknown road ahead of me, the one that was hidden from me on the roadmap within. I wonder if I have any strength left in my soul to, yet again, take a single step. My first journey was much more than a thousand miles, and I wonder if this one will be too. But from where I’m standing, all I can see is a path of seemingly endless winding roads and hidden detours—and more darkness than light.
You’ve treaded an unknown path before, I tell myself, and you can do it again.
But I feel the wavering within.
The anxiety is clutching me—not so much due to the unknown of the path ahead of me, but due to the known of what has already past. Because even if every step I take on this unfamiliar journey will be only as painful as the path I walked before, I fear that my legs just don’t have the strength to support me anymore.
Then I think of an inspirational quote I read some time ago: So far, you’ve survived 100% of the days you thought you wouldn’t, and that’s pretty good. And gratefully, I find that this recollection brings some calm to my restless heart. I can’t remember where I first read it, or even who said it, but the memory of it helps me now.
Because I no longer know how to suppress the story locked in my soul.
But with the help of God, I’m determined to try.
I just can’t imagine treading another unknown path. Again. And being slandered and publicly humiliated. Again. And enraging those whose claims of love are merely one-sided transactions wherein I’m the only one being asked to silence my soul.
So I stay silent. Because I’ve seen the beast behind those eyes that claim love. They promise to destroy every bit of me should they learn that I uttered a single word—even in the privacy of my home—that they dislike. They imagine themselves to be protecting some phantom legacy of “our people.” In their phantom legacy, disturbing truths are suppressed, and beautiful lies are embellished.
So I leave them to their beautiful lies.
And I choose the restless silence of my soul.
The other day a compassionate loved one shared with me some lyrics of a song I’d never heard before called “Quiet.” They felt the words mirrored the path that I was destined to take in this world: I can’t keep quiet. For anyone. Anymore.
The words of the song moved me. But they scared me even more.
Over the years, I’ve let pieces of my story out in hiccups of pain and anxious hesitation, but only when the agony of suppression allowed me no peace.
Yet even then, I knew it was only a partial release.
I hid the raw details of my story from the world and kept the most painful parts of it locked inside.
I covered up names and places and altered descriptive traits, desperate to find release in a partial truth-telling that I hoped would help heal the wounds on my soul.
But I didn’t realize that this partial truth-telling would also bury parts of me.
The Pretty Box
It’s true that I find healing in truth-telling. But it’s also true that not all truths need to be told.
Besides, I’m not fully convinced that my story is one the world wants to hear. People like stories wrapped in “pretty boxes,” where everything has a clear label and can be filed neatly into a predictable category in their mental shelf. Good or bad. Righteous or evil. Saint or devil. Right or wrong.
They don’t like the messy in-between.
It’s true that this messy place of uncertainty—and of wavering between darkness and light—is the space that every human being navigates each day. But when it comes to hearing other people’s stories, especially when it involves wrongdoing or abuse, the world somehow needs a pretty box that tells them, “This person is really, really bad, so hate them,” and “This person is really, really good, so love them.” Then they smile in contentment after reading the story, and feel good about themselves for hating the bad guy and loving the good guy.
They don’t like it when the bad guy and the good guy are one and the same. This is especially the case when it comes to stories of wrongdoing or abuse in spiritual environments. I suppose the clear distinction between the evil of the devil and the goodness of God in scriptural contexts leads religious people to imagine that the same clear distinction must exist in worldly contexts of religious people themselves.
But it simply doesn’t, no matter how badly we want it to.
Our Need for a Villain
“He’s not a villain.” Till today these four words keep coming back to me, even though it’s been a couple of years since I heard them. They were spoken by the arbiter appointed by the Muslim organization I worked for at the time, and they were spoken immediately after I poured my heart out to her, sharing how the head of the organization had wronged me and broken the terms of my contract.
But apparently, she valued the “pretty box” with the neat labels on it more than she valued me or my rights. So when I finished telling my side of the story, she immediately declared who the villain was not. And since there were only two “characters” in this particular story, that didn’t leave too much guessing regarding who the villain actually was.
That this happened in a well-respected organization known for its spiritual work worldwide reminds me why, at least for now, I choose to keep so much of my story locked inside. It’s scary when you realize that merely speaking up to say, “I hurt” is enough to earn you the villain label and your name being stashed away forever in the dark “pretty box.”
I don’t want my name to live forever in a pretty box labeled “villain.” And I don’t want my name to live forever in a pretty box labeled “saint.” And despite all that I’ve suffered at the hands of those who’ve wronged me, I don’t even want my name to live forever in a pretty box labeled “victim.”
My story isn’t about pointing fingers at villains and pinning stickers on me the saint. It’s about a spiritual refugee trying to find her way home, and how along the way, some hurting souls were so lost themselves that they thought her journey threatened their own. So they saw it as their “divine duty” to push her off the road, and then drag her back to where they felt she belonged.
The problem is we want stories of dhulm—inflicting harm, injustice or wrongdoing—to be monster stories, I wrote in my journal the other day. We want to believe that abusers, oppressors and wrongdoers are evil, corrupt people, who are dead set on harming or destroying others for mere personal gain or sadistic pleasure. While some stories of dhulm certainly are of this sick nature, most are just stories of complex, broken human beings whose unhealed wounds kept them from controlling their internal demons when the ones who loved and trusted them needed compassion and emotional safety most.
But I doubt anyone would believe my story anyway, so I’m keeping it locked away deep in my soul. There, it doesn’t need a pretty box or a neat label—except the one that says “my truth.”
You don’t have to struggle alone. Let’s work together: uzuniversity.com
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of more than twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. She recently launched her “Choosing To Love Alone” series via UZuniversity.com to support struggling believers seeking to nourish their emotional and spiritual health.
Join UZ University now.
Copyright © 2020 by Al-Walaa Publications. All Rights Reserved.