By Yoginder Sikand, New Age Islam
It isn’t, or so I’d like to believe, simply by chance that you encounter a complete stranger who, just from the way he or she is, profoundly touches you and compels you to rethink the way you are handling your life. Maybe such encounters are arranged by God, and that they are His way to tell you something that you really need to listen to. That—who knows?—is possibly what led me to an amazing person I’ll call ‘Tina’ some weeks ago.
You wouldn’t guess the horrors that Tina has been through from the way she comes across—vivacious, bubbly, amazingly positive and blessed with an infectious laugh. It was only late into our conversation, when I told her something about my past that continued to unsettle me, that she shared with me bits of her own story. It wasn’t to seek pity or to show how brave she was to have faced terrible odds that she spoke about herself, but simply to assure me that I wasn’t at all unique in having a troubled past, and that my past wasn’t—contrary to what I wanted to imagine—half as horrible as many others’, including hers.
Tina was born in a wealthy family, and was raised to become a consummate hedonist. “My father hated religion,” she says, “and we had none of it at home.” She went to one of the supposedly ‘best’ schools in her town. The education she received was geared to churning out brutally brainwashed kids, whose principal aim in life was to ‘make it big’ and to become ‘great achievers’—which is to say, to amass as much money as they could. That was the major aim of life, so she was trained (like almost everyone else processed through the same ‘modern’ education system) to believe. Religion or God counted for nothing to her. They were all ‘old-fashioned housewives’ tales’, as far as she was concerned.
On graduating from college, Tina managed to wangle the job of her dreams—as an airhostess in an international airline company. It provided her just the sort of ‘glamorous’, jet-setting sort of life that she had always pined for. She spent years zipping in and out of cities across the world and staying at the most expensive hotels. And, in the process, she totted up a sizeable bank balance.
But, then, tragedy suddenly struck. One day, when she was in the Middle East, she rang up her mother. No one answered the call, however. Later that day, she tried calling again, but again no one picked up the phone—and the next day, and the day after that, too. Panic-stricken, Tina took the next flight back home.
Tina rushed to her mother’s apartment and pounded at the door. As she had feared, she got no response. She called out to her neighbours, and, together, they broke the door down. As she stepped inside, she found her mother’s body, thrown on the floor, perforated with stab wounds. She had been murdered several days before, and her body had already begun to rot.
Tina collapsed in a heap, cradling her mother’s head in her lap.
“That day was a major turning point in my life” says Tina. “I hated myself for not being at home with my mother when she needed me most. Had I been there, instead of chasing my dreams of becoming rich and famous flitting about the world—which I then thought was what life was all about—I might have saved her life. You won’t believe how searing the guilt was. I almost went mad.”
Tina plunged into a prolonged and painful depression. Things got so bad that she just couldn’t move her legs and arms. She was almost completely paralyzed. The doctors diagnosed it as some sort of arthritis caused by severe trauma. She had, of course, to quit her job, which, for years, was what had provided her life meaning. She lay in her bed in the hospital ward, tormented by guilt, memories of her mother and fears for the future.
“But, one day, I turned, finally, to God. I realized He was there, that He was the only one who could help me. I was too exhausted trying to save myself, working on my own. I realized that I had no option but to leave everything to God. Since then, I’ve never looked back, and my life is completely changed,” Tina went on.
God’s ways are mysterious, far beyond our limited human comprehension, Tina explained. Everything that happens—including her mother’s gruesome death—has a reason behind it, and, ultimately, all things happen for the best, she continued. Nothing—not even a leaf falling from a tree—happens but in accordance with God’s will. Suffering is a means that God uses to bring people back from heedlessness, and it, too, is part of God’s plan for us. Sometimes, we are just too stuck in our ways, too self-willed and obstinate, to turn to God without being prodded by a dose of suffering. “The trauma I suffered brought me back to God and totally changed my life. I gave up all dreams of riches and fame, and now want to spend my remaining years to serving and loving God and realizing my true self.”
Her firm faith is what drew Tina out of the depression that nearly killed her. “I forgave my mother’s murderer, just as I hope God will forgive me for all the wrongs that I have done,” she said.
It wasn’t quite the appropriate time to have a detailed theological discussion with Tina. But, as she went on, I came to identify closely with her understanding of God. It seemed to resonate with an understanding that I wanted to know wasn’t something that only I held—or, rather, desperately wanted to believe to be true. Tina’s God was beyond all religious or sectarian labels, and she didn’t identify herself with any particular religion. Her God wasn’t contained in a church, mosque or temple—she hardly ever visited such places, she said. “God’s everywhere—in your heart, too,” she said. “Do you think you can imprison Him in, or limit Him to, a building made of stone and mortar?” She didn’t believe in the need to perform elaborate rituals or ready-made prayers in a mechanical way. “I have long conversations with God. I speak to Him throughout the day,” she explained. “I tell Him what I need, and ask Him for guidance. I don’t have to perform any rituals like a robot to please or flatter Him or to communicate with Him. He understands the language of the heart.”
Tina’s God was everywhere—inside every being, too: that was what His being Omnipresent denoted. Recognising His omnipresence meant for her seeing Him—the One—in all creatures, in every human being, animal, bird and plant. Serving Him meant serving all creatures, in whom He was contained. And that was precisely what took up much of her time and energy these days. She led regular meditation sessions in her home—free of cost. She spent two days a week volunteering at a centre for HIV+ people. Recently, she and her friends began getting together to cook for the poor, going about their town once a week feeding people living in slums and on the streets. “In serving living beings, you serve the God who lives within them,” she explained. “That’s one way to get over the ego, the only, but enormously deadly, barrier between you and God.”
Recalling the horrors that Tina has been through is profoundly sobering for me. My misery, which, for some perverse reason, I once loved to recall, rehearse and revel in, pales, I now know, into insignificance when I think of hers. Would I have been able to respond as she did to the situation she was confronted with? Would I have been able to be as forgiving, as courageous, as large-hearted, and, above all, so passionately and fully devoted to God as she?
I know what the answers are, and that’s why I think Tina is so specially blessed. But, let me not be too harsh with myself: Maybe I'm blessed, too--for having been able to meet her.