to the heart
when all is well
“Lol.” That was the response I received from a fellow believer whom I trusted enough to ask if I was understanding her emotionally triggering message correctly. After she “laughed out loud” at my pain, she told me how shocked she was that I would even think something like that. She also said I should know her better than that.
These words were more hurtful and triggering than even the worst interpretation of her original message (which I admit, I’d completely misunderstood). Though I’m sure she meant well and is a sincere Muslim inshaaAllah (and one I deem to be much better than myself), her words were gunshots to my heart, and I found myself grappling for spiritual life as I relived some of my darkest moments when I felt I couldn’t be Muslim anymore. I spent that night and the next day in tears and battling anxiety and self-doubt such that it was difficult to garner enough strength to even stand up and pray when it was time. That’s how bad the trigger was.
So once again, I’d fallen into that dark place that told me that Islam was not a compassionate religion that dealt gently with people’s faults and misunderstandings, but a private club with “Keep Out” signs erected for flawed and emotionally wounded people like me. The “real Muslim” never misunderstood another Muslim’s words; thus, there was never any reason or cause to ask for a clarification. In this club, feeling hurt by another Muslim’s actions was a sin, because “you should know better” than to imagine they would ever do something hurtful, even if they imagined it to be good.
I’m Not a Victim. I’m the Problem
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not sharing this story to paint myself the victim and my fellow Muslim sister the aggressor. In my view, she is innocent in all of this, even if her genuine surprise to my question wasn’t handled perfectly.
I know enough about emotional wounding to understand that there aren’t any victims or aggressors where triggers are concerned. It is what it is. If you’re still healing from years and years of harm and abuse, it doesn’t take much to incite deeper pain, even in the most innocent of interactions. Thus, if there is anyone at fault in the interaction between the sister and myself, it is I.
And by “fault” I mean the source of the problem, not the source of the wrongdoing. There was no “wrongdoing” in this interaction. It was just a “gunshot” to my heart that came from a place that I never expected (which is how most emotional triggers work, incidentally).
In other words, my emotional pain is my problem, not hers.
But the experience did highlight for me why many ostensibly “good Muslims” aren’t close friends of mine. I prefer the company of believers who know their brokenness, who know their emotional wounding, and who know their struggles. And by “know” I don’t mean that they are merely aware of their humanness and admit it out loud from time to time. I mean that they are in the habit of living in that humanness.
This means that they continuously show empathy to others instead of “laughing out loud” at their pain. This means that they take time to clarify what they meant by something instead of shifting the topic to how horrible the person is for even misunderstanding them in the first place—or to how they are such “good people” that it is the responsibility of the rest of the world to always know they’d never do anything wrong or hurtful.
But I Don’t Blame Them
I have to admit, I do understand how the emotional pain, “brokenness” and spiritual wounding of people like me can make us oddities to the world of “good Muslims.” So in a way, I don’t blame them for being shocked by our triggers and our confusion and our need for clarification on issues that the average “good Muslim” would understand automatically.
So I tell myself it’s not the responsibility of “good Muslims” to be kind, patient, and empathic with me. I imagine that someone like me might be a horrible nuisance to people like them who don’t have the human struggles that I do. I can’t imagine how it feels to be so unaccustomed to this side of human brokenness that you are genuinely shocked when you see it.
I sometimes wish I could know how that feels—to have so much spiritual and emotional wholeness that whatever faults you have never harm, confuse or shock anyone else. But my wounding makes it impossible. So I try to put “I’m sorry” and “Please forgive me” on my tongue often, as I know all too well how my own pain can inadvertently hurt someone else.
I’m imperfect in this. By Allah, I am. But I’m trying. God knows I’m trying. It’s sometimes a pathetic, almost laughable attempt, but it’s an attempt nonetheless. And it’s mine. So I’m trying to own my faulty, pathetic attempts at personal improvement without making anyone else pay for my pain. That’s why I believe I probably deserve the shock and “lol” that the sister gave me, my faults and struggles are so many. Only Allah knows the truth of my struggles, even beyond what I myself can perceive. So I try not to deny them, to pretend they’re not there, or to act like they’re easy for others to deal with. So I can’t blame the sister for “laughing out loud” at my question and confusion. If I weren’t so spiritually wounded, I’d probably be shocked by my ignorance and pain too.
But I’m on the journey of healing. I’m not “there” yet, and I doubt I ever will be, at least in the complete sense. So I’m just learning to live with the lifetime collateral damage of my pain. And I know part of this means that many “good Muslims” will never be my friends. They’ll probably never understand me, and I’ll probably never understand them.
And I’m okay with that, even if I’m deeply triggered at times by their shock at my irrational confusion and human struggles. But that’s not their fault. They just don’t understand how someone like me ended up like this.
Not Their Fault
It’s not their fault that I learned in early childhood that being a “good Muslim” meant there was always something or someone more important than me and my needs. It’s not their fault that those who harmed and abused me used passive aggressive tactics, as well as openly aggressive ones, to humiliate and shame me for my faults and sins. It’s not their fault that one of the signature traits of the “good Muslim” culture I was exposed to early on was pretending to care about you only so they could tell you all the things you’re doing wrong. It’s not their fault that many “good Muslims” I was exposed to would use cryptic, fault-seeking messages disguised as well-wishes, prayers, and inspirational Islamic quotes to tell you how screwed up you are.
It’s not their fault that I heard “I love you for the sake of Allah” more than I experienced meaningful presence and support from my Muslim brothers and sisters when I needed them most. It’s not their fault that I wasn’t on many Muslims’ radars until they felt I could do something for them, or until they felt the “divine obligation” to point out my faults and sins—or to backbite me when they disapproved of my personal choices in life.
It’s not their fault that, otherwise, I didn’t exist or matter to many Muslims.
So today, when I receive an ostensibly innocent or inspirational message from a “good Muslim” that may or may not be intended to point out my faults, I honestly can’t tell the difference between what I’ve experienced in the past and what might be innocently (and even compassionately) happening now. So if I trust the person enough, I choose to ask what they mean instead of spiraling into that dark world of confusion and spiritual pain that nearly took me out of Islam.
It’s taking a chance, I know, putting myself out there like that, letting someone know that I even have this level of confusion. But my heart tells me that I need an honest, loving relationship with my Muslim brothers and sisters, so I go ahead and give trust and emotional safety a try.
And it just cuts that much deeper when they respond with shock, “lol” or “You should know me better than that.”
But they’re not wrong, technically speaking. It’s true that there is so much that I should know much better than I do.
But I don’t. Because I’m human, and I’m flawed—much more than the average person, and exponentially more than “good Muslims.” So I can’t blame them for their shock and humor at my pain. Because I don’t know how it feels in their world of spiritual and emotional wholeness to witness someone as flawed and as broken as me.
So I’m learning to keep my distance—for their sake and mine. I tell myself we can somehow support each other and love each other “for the sake of Allah.” But we can never be real friends.
Umm Zakiyyah is the internationally acclaimed author of twenty books, including the If I Should Speak trilogy, Muslim Girl, and His Other Wife. Join UZ University to learn how you too can find your writing voice and share inspirational stories with the world: UZuniversity.com
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