By Roshan Shah, New Age Islam
24 April 2016
One way of looking at life is to think of it as a school that extends, quite literally, from womb to tomb. Life is a life-long process of education that provides us with innumerable potential educative experiences, each of which can teach us something valuable for our spiritual evolution.
At every moment of our lives, we are faced with a particular situation. Each such situation is a ‘class’, as it were, for us to learn from. But that learning can happen only if we seek to discern what the situation we are faced with can teach us. Just as we can sit in a class and learn nothing at all if we choose not to pay attention to what the teacher is saying, we can pass through life not learning anything if we fail to pay attention to what the experiences we pass through can tell us. To learn from these experiences, we need to take the time off to ponder on the valuable lessons every one of them, no matter how insignificant they might seem, can teach us.
The lessons we can learn through the myriad experiences that life affords us is no mere theoretical learning, limited to knowing more facts. Rather, it is a form of experiential learning that can impact on our very being, shaping not just what we know but how we are as persons. Responding meaningfully to every situation we are faced with in life can help us grow in wisdom and character. In this way, we can evolve spiritually and thereby fulfill the purpose for which God has sent us into the world.
Now, I don’t say that my responses to the situations I face are meaningful all, or even most, of the time. Yet, I think that sometimes they are, and this often happens if I take the time to reflect on them instead of rushing through life unthinkingly. Each time I do so I arrive at amazing discoveries about myself and the world and learn important lessons that can, if I take them seriously, help me become a better person.
Allow me to share one such learning experience I had the other day, when a report on a website about a good-hearted man in a town that is facing an acute water-shortage caught my attention. This man, a school teacher, the report explained, has been giving away some 10,000 litres of water every day to 300 families and charging them nothing at all for it! Amazing, isn’t it! God bless him!
I was so overwhelmed by the story that almost immediately, I sent the web-link to it out on my e-mail list. I wanted as many people as I could reach to hear about this incredible man. I love sharing positive stories with others, and this one was so brimming over with good news that it called for the widest possible publicity!
A few hours after I had emailed the story to my friends, I stepped out of the guesthouse where I’ve been staying for the last couple of days. Just then, I saw two women coming my way. They were daily-wage workers. They were looking for water, they said. There was no water in the tap that they generally used. They had been working in the scorching sun for much of the day, doing back-breaking labour, and they were probably very thirsty. They may have wanted water to have a bath, too, after spending hours in the sweltering heat. It was getting close to dinner time and they probably also needed water to cook.
Now, I had stored some water in the bathroom, and I could easily have got more had I needed to. Yet, even as I listened to those two thirsty women and understood how distressed they were, it didn’t strike me that I could share some of ‘my’ water with them. I may not have parted with all of it, but I could easily have given them some—just a bit, enough for them to quench their thirst. But even that thought didn’t cross my mind, although just a few hours earlier I had read and exulted in the story of that generous man who has been giving water to several hundred families every day!
How Very Ironical!
I shouldn’t be too harsh on myself, though. While I didn’t think about offering the women some of ‘my’ water, I did try to be helpful—by telling them that they could inform the watchman to switch on the pump so that the tank from which they drew water could fill up. Saying that, I went back to my room, but soon after, I was assailed with the realisation that I had been extremely petty. Maybe—I can’t remember now—the story of the man I had read about earlier that day flashed in my mind and it struck me that if he could do so much to help people desperate for water, I could have done at least a tiny fraction of that. If he could share 10,000 litres of ‘his’ water with 300 families every day, couldn’t I have shared half a litre of ‘my’ water with just two people, and that too just as a one-time thing?
I realized that what I had done—not sharing any of ‘my’ water with the women, but only giving them free advice—had been very wrong. I was ashamed at how self-centred I had been. I was struck by the irony of it all—about how I had energetically gone about advertising the story of the man who was so generous with ‘his’ water, but at the same time had not thought of even sharing a mug of ‘my’ water with those two thirsty women. I felt awful about myself. So much for my pretensions of being a do-gooder!
I rushed out of the room, hoping to meet the women and make amends for my pettiness. I wanted to tell them that they were welcome to take some of the water that I had stored. As my luck would have it, I spotted them going towards their shack. They had managed to get water from somewhere, they excitedly explained.
Even though I was glad that the women had managed to get some water, the guilt of having been being mean and stingy lingered on. But with God’s grace, I got the chance to make amends for my hypocrisy a short while later, when the water that the women had got proved inadequate. I knew now that it was time for me to act. I said to the women that they could take some of ‘my’ water—not all of it, I hurriedly added, but some. We had a good laugh about that as they entered ‘my’ bathroom and happily went about filling their water-pot! Although I asked them to stop when their pot was half-full (fearing that otherwise I might have no water for myself), the burden of guilt that had tormented me lifted and I felt happy with myself for what I had done.
Reading the story about the man and, shortly after that, my encounter with the women were major educative experiences for me. From them I learnt some valuable things about myself. I learnt, for example, how I can instinctively be very selfish, but also helpful, too. I learnt that doing good isn’t quite as easy as talking (or emailing!) about it and that it requires effort, often going against the urgings of the ego. I learnt that if we err—which we are bound to every now and then—we must seek to make amends as soon as possible. I also learnt that every situation we face in life provides us with the potential to respond positively and thereby grow spiritually.
That day’s experiences underscored for me the need to carefully reflect on the situations that we face through life so that our engagement with them can turn them into a means for our inner transformation. In this way, I learnt our response even to an article we read or a thirsty person whom we meet and share a bit of water with can help us grow spiritually and thereby move towards fulfilling the ultimate purpose of our lives.