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Are Morals Best Taught in Religious Schools?

Thus reads a motion in a local debate for tertiary-level students (you can see it here). I am admittedly rather fascinated. Especially since it strikes chords that are a little too close to where the bad memories are. Are morals best taught in religious schools?

The phrasing of the sentence is, typically, completely ambiguous. Firstly, the parameters of morality are debatable – you could be referring to the basic cognitive ability to discern good and bad, i.e virtue ethics. Or you could be referring to deontological ethics, which is a measure of one’s adherence to a certain set of rules. Rules which are, inadvertently, derived from inherent ethical judgment. These rules are meant to preserve the harmony of society and the rights of every individual. Fiqh Al-Mu’aamalaat is an example of a moral code (although it is much more than that), and so is, more specifically, Adab, which is a more individual level of ethical observation.

If I might add other interpretations of morality, it is perhaps a fundamental level of consciousness whereby one recognizes the need to be mindful of oneself and others and acts upon it. As the venerable Thich Nhat Hanh said:

“Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation, social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to practicing generosity in my thinking, speaking, and acting. I am determined not to steal and not to possess anything that should belong to others; and I will share my time, energy, and material resources with those who are in need.”

Thus, to have a sense of morality means to have a sense of honour and respect – beginning, of course, with oneself. It is not merely a superficial preservation of image. It is not only to be perceived as a good or prudish person, but to recognize that virtue is a value far beyond what any prescriptions and regulations can dictate.

We then proceed to define the term ‘religious school’ – it is basically any institution that functions within the creed and jurisprudential disciplines of any religion. It is important to inculcate values and beliefs as dictated by the sacred text and its scholars, and to recognize the utmost authority of these sources of information.

The question of morality and how it is perceived also happens to be a part of ‘Aqeedah, or creed. The two major schools of ‘Aqeedah under the Ahlus-Sunnah wal-Jamaah are the Ash’ari and Maturidi, both of which insist on differing ideas of moral inspiration. The Ash’ari school believes that the human mind is only able to discern right from wrong with the aid of Divine revelation. Conversely, according to the Maturidi school, the human mind is able to perceive that the more major sins such as alchoholism and murder are immoral and evil.

We are now faced with the challenge to commensurate the effectiveness of such institutions in developing moral individuals. Since I intend to speak from experience, I am not able to account for Dharma schools, convent institutions or Batei Midrash here. What I can account for, however, are the local Islamic religious schools in my homeland.

The nature of morality that is being taught in these schools is deontological, as previously defined, and it veers closely to an absolutism of sorts. An action is either absolutely right or absolutely wrong, regardless of the intention behind or the consequence following it. It may be argued here that it is still emphasized in such institutions that ‘actions are by their intentions’ as the Holy Prohpet Muhammad PBUH had put it, which is true. However, it should be noted here that actions that are deemed negative according to canonical evidence have been presumably prescribed negative intentions. An all-accommodating set of guidelines is now suddenly a black-and-white list of commandments.

The enforcers of these commandments are almost bereft of any form of compassion, so there is no tolerance for backsliding. Anyone who slacks in keeping ritualistic traditions is immediately chastised, when the reality is that every life journey is unique. Sadly, it is unconventional to believe that there are no two souls that reach Divine Unity the same way.

I cannot look at a supposed ‘backslider’ and immediately condemn the person to eternal doom, because according to canonical evidence, there is no such thing as eternal doom. In reality, however, this is exactly how morals are taught.

Studies of Qur’anic exegesis in school consisted much emphasis on the punishments of Hell, for instance. Assembly speeches are little more than endless, repetitive droning over the same texts about the law and the punishments that await those who do not abide by it. It was a fear-based pedagogy; therefore no room was left for love. No one knew the freedom of being non-judgmental, non-critical and all-embracing, terms that are next to best when one would want to describe Muhammad PBUH. The most apt term, and this is without a doubt, is unconditional Love.

Another grave consequence of such an approach is that it deadens the mind. I was reminded of this when a stranger, who came from the same school I did, pointed out to me that “religion is not about thinking”. She was evidently very unhappy about my decision to re-think the concepts I grew up with and never questioned. It was a heated discussion, on her part mostly, but it was that one statement that really made me think. It was apparent to me, now, why the system is, for lack of a better term, a failure. It is taught as part of the creed that rational analysis is second to canonical evidence. For some reason, be it a flaw in the methodology or a misunderstanding, it has produced a fear of imposing rational thinking unto any form of sacred text, leaving room only for literal observation. It is a surreal and almost terrifying reality.

I am using this particular incident as a case study to make a point. The uproar was not unexpected, for anger is only a natural response when one feels threatened, and she felt that her belief system was under attack. It was sad to see her desperately preaching verse after jurisprudential verse, and when she ran out of things to quote, resorted to lowly insults. It would only make sense for her to react that way. There was a lot of fear in her, as much as there would be in anyone who was educated the way we were.

This was the same fear I felt growing up. The only thing that kept me compliant to the rules was the fear of disapproval. Such was my lack of self-worth that I only sought it externally. I had to suppress almost all my curiosity and inclinations as they were not ‘Shari’a compliant’. Because of this, I grew jealous of people that were able to do the things that I kept myself from doing. My only consolation was to tell myself that in the end, I will be granted salvation while these people burn in Hell for their so-called sins.

This is a self-destructive thought pattern (therefore it is not limited to people of any specific orientation, religious or otherwise). The mechanics of this sort of thinking all occur on a sub-conscious level, therefore one would not realize the reason he is thinking this way. On the one hand, you have almost no self-worth. On the other, you overcompensate for this lack by convincing yourself that you are better than others. You belittle other individuals to glorify your own piety.

I’d hardly think having a belief system that promotes resentment and anger anywhere near the peaceful, moral ideal of an effective education system. Be it just a hunch, but perhaps enduring years of being taught to suppress and self-glorify is not the best way to produce moral individuals.

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Posted by on September 23, 2013 in Rants

 

The Conference of The Birds: An Excerpt and Some notes

This was written a while back for a class. The Conference of the Birds is a handbook on Tasawwuf (spirituality) written by Farid Al-Attar, circa 1145. Attar was a Persian poet and the following was taken from an online translation:

Lines 94-108: Bayazid’s annihilation (q.s.)

One Night from out the swarming City Gate

Stept holy Bajazyd, to meditate

Alone amid the breathing Fields that lay

In solitary Silence leagues away,

Beneath a Moon and Stars as bright as Day.

And the Saint wondering such a Temple were,

And so lit up, and scarce one worshipper,

A voice from Heav’n amid the stillness said:

‘The Royal Road is not for all to tread,

Nor is the Royal Palace for the Rout,

Who, even if they reach it, are shut out.

The Blaze that from my Harim window breaks

With fright the Rabble of the Roadside takes;

And ev’n of those that at my Portal din,

Thousands may knock for one that enters in.’

A similar narration in Tazkirat al-Awliya’ quotes, from Bayazid himself –

“one night, when I was a child, I left the city to go to the desert. The moon was shining and the world was at peace. Suddenly I had a vision; I saw an illuminated silhouette. The image was so bright that the light of the sun looked pale compared to this apparition. I fell into a state of rapture and a deep feeling of joy came over me. I whispered to myself, ‘Oh Allah, such a beautiful gate, yet empty, such an almighty realm, yet lonesome!” I heard a voice say, “the doorstep is empty, not because no one comes, but no one is admitted to come. This is not the realm of the impure; not many have the honor of admittance.” I thought, from whom in creation could I call upon to intercede for my admittance? And I remembered that the only one to intercede was the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w). I could not call upon anyone but wait for him to give me permission to enter. It was then that I received a message saying, “because of such politeness I will raise your name so you will be remembered as the Sultan al-’Arifeen, Bayazid.”

Here the Almighty realm is empty because no one is granted permission. This is because only Allah exists and for one to reach this realm he must have annihilated in Him. No permission is granted as long as the self is present.  Also, the path to the Divine is through His Beloved, Muhammad s.a.w.

 

 

Lines 109-126

Thus spoke the Tajidar: and the wing’d Crowd,

That underneath his Word in Silence bow’d, 110

Clapp’d Acclamation: and their Hearts and Eyes

Were kindled by the Firebrand of the Wise.

They felt their Degradation: they believed

The word that told them how to be retrieved,

And in that glorious Consummation won

Forgot the Cost at which it must be done.

‘They only long’d to follow: they would go

Whither he led, through Flood, or Fire, or Snow’—

So cried the Multitude. But some there were

Who listen’d with a cold disdainful air, 120

Content with what they were, or grudging Cost

Of Time or Travel that might all be lost;

These, one by one, came forward, and preferr’d

Unwise Objection: which the wiser Word

Shot with direct Reproof, or subtly round

With Argument and Allegory wound.

Bayazid’s account, as told by the Hoopoe (here called the Tajidar, meaning ‘the adorner of the diadem’, a symbol of wisdom), humbles the birds as it becomes a reminder of the journey’s cost. The self is a hefty price to pay for anyone who thinks he is something, and that is most of us. The Nafs al-Ammarah and Nafs al-Lawwamah are susceptible to worldly obsession, which oftentimes becomes the barrier to feeling the sweetness of devotion. A related quote narrates, “verily in your heart sits the daughter of Iblis and that is Dunya, and it is incumbent upon the father to visit his daughter in her home, and his visit brings nothing but destruction”.

Lines 127-150

The Pheasant first would know by what pretence

The Tajidar to that pre-eminence

Was raised—a Bird, but for his lofty Crest

(And such the Pheasant had) like all the Rest—

Who answer’d—’By no Virtue of my own

Sulayman chose me, but by His alone:

Not by the Gold and Silver of my Sighs

Made mine, but the free Largess of his Eyes.

Behold the Grace of Allah comes and goes

As to Itself is good: and no one knows

Which way it turns: in that mysterious Court

Not he most finds who furthest travels for’t.

For one may crawl upon his knees Life-long,

And yet may never reach, or all go wrong:

Another just arriving at the Place

He toil’d for, and—the Door shut in his Face:

Whereas Another, scarcely gone a Stride,

And suddenly—Behold he is Inside!—

But though the Runner win not, he that stands,

No Thorn will turn to Roses in his Hands:

Each one must do his best and all endure,

And all endeavour, hoping but not sure.

Heav’n its own Umpire is; its Bidding do,

And Thou perchance shalt be Sulayman’s too.’

This begins with the Pheasant’s judgment of the hoopoe – questioning his authority and on what grounds he was chosen. This reflects the Hadith, “the believer is a mirror to his brother”. Whatever the pheasant saw in the hoopoe, was what he had in himself. The hoopoe answers that it was not by his virtue alone, his dialogue explains extensively the lessons behind the aforementioned account of Bayazid.  The point here being that the fruits of ‘amal are never granted by one’s own virtue, everything is by the Mercy and Favour of Allah Almighty – dare we question His Wisdom?

Lines 151-191: The story of Shah Mahmud

One day Shah Mahmud, riding with the Wind

A-hunting, left his Retinue behind,

And coming to a River, whose swift Course

Doubled back Game and Dog, and Man and Horse,

Beheld upon the Shore a little Lad

A-fishing, very poor, and Tatter-clad

He was, and weeping as his Heart would break.

So the Great Sultan, for good humour’s sake

Pull’d in his Horse a moment, and drew nigh,

And after making his Salam, ask’d why

He wept—weeping, the Sultan said, so sore

As he had never seen one weep before.

The Boy look’d up, and ‘O Amir,’ he said,

‘Sev’n of us are at home, and Father dead,

And Mother left with scarce a Bit of Bread:

And now since Sunrise have I fish’d—and see!

Caught nothing for our Supper—Woe is Me!’

The Sultan lighted from his horse. ‘Behold,’

Said he, ‘Good Fortune will not be controll’d:

And, since Today yours seems to turn from you,

Suppose we try for once what mine will do,

And we will share alike in all I win.’

So the Shah took, and flung his Fortune in,

The Net; which, cast by the Great Mahmud’s Hand,

A hundred glittering Fishes brought to Land.

The Lad look’d up in Wonder—Mahmud smiled

And vaulted into Saddle. But the Child

Ran after—’Nay, Amir, but half the Haul

Is yours by Bargain’—’Nay, Today take all,’

The Sultan cried, and shook his Bridle free—

‘But mind—Tomorrow All belongs to Me—’

And so rode off. Next morning at Divan

The Sultan’s Mind upon his Bargain ran,

And being somewhat in a mind for sport

Sent for the Lad: who, carried up to Court,

And marching into Royalty’s full Blaze

With such a Catch of Fish as yesterday’s,

The Sultan call’d and set him by his side,

And asking him, ‘What Luck?’ The Boy replied,

This is the Luck that follows every Cast,

Since o’er my Net the Sultan’s Shadow pass’d.’

Here the story of a boy and his encounter with the Sultan is narrated. The boy is in a destitute situation: his father had passed away; his mother barely has a morsel to feed their big family. They now count on the boy, who has had very little luck fishing since sunrise. The Sultan chances upon him and offers to help, and strikes a bargain with the boy:  whatever he (the Sultan) catches today belongs to the boy, but whatever the boy catches tomorrow will be for him.

This story is highly metaphorical in that the boy and is representative of the individual. His situation the Hell he creates for himself when one chooses to rely on his own resources.  In gnosis, the Master of everything is recognized, and one should have no resource other than Him to rely on.  The Sultan’s arrival represents Gnostic recognition and how it is the key to abundance. Abundance is a state of being rather than a physical phenomenon, therefore it is irrelevant what form it comes in. It lies in the satisfaction that accompanies every moment of remembrance, and the awareness of God’s hand in everything.

 

 
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Posted by on June 21, 2013 in Poetry, Rants, Spirituality

 

The L Word

complicated?

In the name of Allah.

…Of all taboo topics to choose this holy Month –

There is perhaps a common stigma that circulates in my community, revolving around the term ‘love’. Again the liberal-conservative dichotomy comes into play, and while it is shunned and resented by some, others think a bit too little of it.

It is all too common for the average, blooming adolescent to be in the throws of infatuation, confounded between the unforgiving regimes of (what some call) religious duty, and adequately dealing with so much emotional turbulence. It is perhaps (and sadly so) a rare chance that the two ever comply. Thus the pressure exerted from both options often produces extreme results, depending one’s inclination and experience with the doctrine.

I’m taking an entirely neutral standpoint and approach, (again, avoiding quotes because I intend to invite you to ponder, not preach to you what any Friday sermon would tell you) and whatever I’m about to say is purely my humble opinion.

Anything can be easily misinterpreted and misrepresented, as long as there is a lack of depth and understanding of the subject. The individual more often than not fails to understand and appreciate love as it is, because – let’s face it – nobody actually talks about it. Many of us are too busy being self-righteous and checking on others, putting on holy fronts and being all too conspicuous about being morally upright. And when we think nobody is looking, we feed our egos by sniggering at whoever we deem not as ‘holy’ as us.

Admit it.

To put it crudely, the issue cannot be explicitly addressed because hardly anyone has the guts to do it. It gets swept under the carpet, breeds, and when it slips out, we sweep it back under the carpet, and the vicious cycle continues.

In our own little ways, we can do our own little parts to break the cycle.

Let’s start by defining love. (this won’t be easy, but let’s try.)

It is important to know the difference between love and attraction. Love is, in essence, pure and should not be treated otherwise. In extreme cases it could be self-sacrificial, but this may not necessarily be bad. The whole point of love is realization and self-annihilation, and requires a thorough breaking of the ego to fully experience it.

What many of us do not realise, is that loving a person is not as easy as it sounds. While attraction may be involuntary, to actually love this (once) complete stranger is a decision. You will have to put a lot of effort into building and maintaining such a relationship. You will need to commit mentally and physically, be spiritually aligned with the person, sacrifice habits, observe, understand, negotiate, and the list goes on. I believe it is very silly to rush into things just because she has a cute laugh or he has a charming smile. It does not work that way. I repeat, it does not.

The issue becomes taboo when the topic of love becomes trivialized. It is commonly misrepresented as attraction. When one fails to recognize the difference between the two, it causes an imbalance in one’s emotional discretion. The danger of attraction is that it stimulates all sorts of fantasies, sweet and heroic, and one easily ends up running in circles, chasing pretty lights that never actually existed. More often than not, these failures turn into baggage, which may turn things nasty when you actually decide to settle down.

Wake up, and open your eyes wide. Saddle up – love is a bumpy ride. (Not the most perfect rhyme but you get me, right?)

 
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Posted by on July 26, 2012 in Rants

 

Some Rhymes and a Lot of Nonsense

The following are some of my unremarkable attempts at wordplay and alliteration.

The sultry Sunday slipped secretively
Through my fingers, sandlike and slippery,
Surreal it was, point- blank, serenity,
Slithering silently into eternity.

It was apparent poison in plain perception
As I beheld the pain in pale apprehension,
Panic erupted and pelted my vision,
and drew perfect parallels with my discretion.

Unhappily he handed, hurried and haughty
A handsome horse, hitched and gaudy,
Held up and hesitant, his face did show,
Cast here, high on his worried brow.

-Z

 
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Posted by on June 18, 2012 in Poetry, Rants

 

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Uninspired.

I have a very cliché craving for someone to ask me if I’m alright.

There the willow stood, unmoving,

Its hollow trunk soiled and leaves blackening,

No wind teases it, its shriveled and dry

Branches drove away all that passed by.

There is nothing profound about it

Save the silence around it

Its craving for hope and light, lost,

In its curdling roots and compost

 

Nothing beckons,

 

Save the sorrowful song it sings

It singes

My very core, center and hinges

There is no more love, and no more resentment

No more room left for sentiment

Empty ; Just the biting numbness

An estranged, merciless caress.

 

In shock I shriveled, ashamed,

Blind and deaf to the call of my name

For my name I am not, and I, neither,

On the threshold of madness did I teeter

 

For the doors are closed, and the world unwelcome,

And nothing makes sense in this cold-blooded anthem.

 
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Posted by on May 23, 2012 in Poetry, Rants

 

On Hijab and idiosyncrasies.

In the name of God Almighty.

source: google images

It’s the 21st century – horses are no longer martyred in long-distance journeys, our daily bread usually comes with coke and fries on the side, and technology has advanced so much that we find the most childish reasons to start wars (oh wait- that’s nothing new). But such is the nature of mankind that no matter how many light years he has advanced in the fields of virtual realities and electronic wonderlands, these changes remain skin-deep.

Meaning to say, our tendency to be greedy, vain, judgmental and other idiosyncratic desires has always been, and will forever be, the bane of our own wellbeing. Which is something many of us fail to realize – we feel automatically cultured and civilized the moment we adopt a certain belief system or way of life, forgetting that its very fundamentals aren’t found essentially in the way we dress, or eat, or greet each other even, for instance.

So… what does this have to do with the Hijab, again? Based on my experience and a bit of reflection as I sat on the train the other day, this is what I have to say: –

To put it mildly – I believe we have experienced more than enough of society’s patronizing attitude towards hijab-wearers (or perhaps Muslim women in general). How do we even define ‘Hijab’ in its essence? Its origins lay in the Arabic 3-letter root “حَجَبَ” (rom. “Hajaba“) which means to hide, screen, make something invisible or inaccessible. Its usage traverses numerous fields of Islamic knowledge (e.g Tasawwuf and Faraidh), with varying versions and definitions in each, to suit its context. Pertaining to this, the word ‘Aurah is also often heard, the origins of which lies in the Arabic root “عَارَ” (rom. “‘Aara”), which means shame, disgrace or nudity.

Suffice to say that the literal definition of these terms encompasses a wide variety of meanings and understandings – can its spiritual implications be any less than this?

The hijab is most often related to the topic of modesty and morality. At the mention of the word, one automatically pictures women in flowing, loose gowns carefully tailored not to give away any details of the body, with extra-large jilbabs (head dress) to match, preferably with an extra piece of cloth that covers the face, too.

Yes? You either come from a highly conservative community of highly religious people (perhaps in a desert where the sand necessitates the covering of the face) – in which case, bravo – or you’ve been trying just a little too hard – and perhaps your righteousness is veering dangerously towards self-righteousness.

No? That’s great, let’s try that again.

Man in his variety of beliefs and experiences, cannot be expected to conform to just one standardized view on modesty. An individual whose life has been spent in a brothel and another whose life has been spent in a Mosque may not have the same understanding of decency. In fact, it will be greatly biased and unfair to expect them to. How then is a woman expected to fulfill such contrasting criterions of modesty?

The answer: she doesn’t have to. (what did big dresses and jilbabs have to do with this, anyway?)

Now, let’s take it from the ultimately more important aspect in question: the wearer herself. Why does she wear a cloth over her head? The reasons every hijabi might give you will differ, without a doubt. It should, however, eventually boil down to one main reason – she chooses to cover up for the sake of God. This will make sense the first time you hear it, and the second, third and fourth, and so on – until you decide to start thinking about it.

It is easy to do many things for the sake of God. It is also easy to develop self-righteousness, arrogance and in cases, fake humility, in the process. It is imperative to be aware that a cloth, no matter how big, never justifies a heart filled with such heinous characteristics. One mistake many of us make is the assumption that donning a hijab immediately transforms a woman into a pure, chaste, God-fearing priestess – the bigger the hijab, the purer. Which is never the case – and apparently this belief is adopted and strongly reinforced within the smaller, more religious communities of the Malay society, inevitably casting an elitist tint on their portrayal to the masses. In which case the act of donning such attire (and this does not apply to everyone) could easily be translated as an attempt to promote superficiality, rather than diminish it, as how it ought to.

Speaking of superficiality, another popular topic is the issue of make-up. All that vitamin B+ foundation, gel eyeliner, UV-protection powders and ultra-moisturizing lip balms, aren’t all these things feminine tools used to allure men to their destruction? Perhaps the best answer I could think to that is: any straight-thinking, upright lady would be the least interested in leading any man to his destruction (unless you were an evil stepmother in an Indonesian drama series seeking revenge on her son’s lover. Now THAT kind of make-up should be haraam) – besides, if men were really so easily aroused that a little powder and blush excites them (pardon me), then I think the problem isn’t in the make-up at all. Of course, I personally think that over-indulging in make-up is an absolute no-no, purely for practical reasons. If praying 5 times a day meant scrubbing everything off and re-painting it all on afterwards every time, a little laziness would be enough to send all my priorities haywire.

There is also quite a lot of discussion on how Muslimah dressing is an attempt of beautification, aimed at making the wearer more attractive to the eye, often interpreted as a cry for attention, too. Perhaps it has hardly occurred to us that it is a woman’s fitrah (nature) to be inclined to beauty and beautification. So, instead of being so obsessed over whether a woman’s self-beautification is obnoxious and attention-seeking, let us simply not deny her her nature. Let’s look at her as a human being with human tendencies and inclinations, and see past these tendencies because it comes naturally in every woman anyway. Value her for her heart that beats with passion and her mind of intellect. Look at her (and everything else) with the eyes of depth and wisdom.

At the end of the day, the whole idea of practicing the hijab is to exercise a level of outward modesty – simply put, particularly one that simply does not make heads turn wherever you go. When the self no longer takes interest in attention and judgement, and no longer feeds itself on the praises and admiration of others. That is my understanding of invisibility and inaccessibility, of covering up nudity. When one allows herself to be affected by every comment and judgement passed off about her, isn’t that exposure and vulnerability too? There is nothing mahjuub (covered up) about a sequin-filled skin-tight dress that attracts stares wherever it goes, and it wouldn’t make a difference whether your hair is covered or not. Just a thought.

Let’s cast away the judgemental looks we bestow so liberally on others and start turning these eyes inwards.

“Honesty is calmness, and lies are doubt, and righteousness is the best of conduct, and sins are that which is woven within your heart, and you would be ashamed lest it would be discovered by the people. Seek your heart’s counsel.” (Hadith)

  • Zaf
 
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Posted by on May 1, 2012 in Rants, Spirituality

 

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Woven.

Bismillaahirrahmaanirraheem.

Such is the incomprehensible Wisdom and Beauty of God, that no paths cross except for a reason, each a thread carefully woven into the intricate, seamless cloth of life.

Little do we realize that we remain in each other’s lives only for as long as we have to, until our role in each other’s development is complete, and then we move on to the next set of threads, and the next, and the next.

For some, the process is quick, while others prefer to take their time. Sometimes we see the same faces over and over again, and others, we only meet once.

Perhaps the only established reality of life is that it changes, constantly and relentlessly, whether we like it or not.

I was waiting by that lone, frosty street,

Hands clasped in misery,

It was sweet.

Just a thought,

Zaf.

 
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Posted by on April 12, 2012 in Rants, Spirituality

 

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