“Both versions of the story are true,” said Shaykh Ebrahim Schuitema, my Sufi teacher from South Africa. Shaykh Ebrahim has a majestic presence, tall, commanding, strong and yet humble with an unexpected high-pitched laugh. He doesn’t prepare his talks. He is concise and sticks to one theme most of the time.
What he shared that summer evening in Karachi changed the way I saw myself and the difficulties I endured. It had been a hard year. Living full-time with a person with mental illness is one of the most stressful experiences one can have. My family’s dysfunction was normalized to the degree that I thought there was something wrong with me rather than the situation I was in.
The Shaykh talked about the stories we tell ourselves. In one version there is usually a story about how the world is out to get you. How your family, loved ones, work colleagues betrayed you, hurt you, or how much loss you have experienced. The story is centered around the things that happened to “me” that I felt were wrong or unjust.
The other version of the same story is how the hardships we faced made us into who we are today. That the people who hurt us are, in fact, suffering and even though their actions may seem to be personal attacks, they are not. Finally, the more difficult we find a relationship, the more we can learn from it.
Beneath this narrative is the cultivation of the belief that there is perfection in the design of our lives and that hardships are indispensable to inner growth. More importantly, there is perfection in the design of being lost, being in a state of ingratitude and then coming through it to the other side. When one can understand the design behind life’s events, what seems at first as failure and loss is actually an opportunity for inward expansion, and what seems as success and gain can lead to inward stagnation and contraction. In fact, as Shaykh likes to put it bluntly, if you choose the Sufi path you are certain to experience catastrophe.
Though some of these concepts were familiar to me, that night I felt validated for the first time because I understood that both versions of my story are true.
Shaykh Ebrahim affirmed that the hardship is true and that slipping into darkness is not a spiritual weakness but a rite of passage. We cannot rise above hardship. We can only go through it. Often, when in the thick of it, we have no access to perspective and its purpose. Some difficult experiences will never have an explanation. These are the hardest ones to accept.
Having a child, especially a second or third one, is like this for me. I know how hard it is to have a baby while taking care of another small child. I know how exhausting it is to feed a baby, change it, respond to it, and often be baffled by it. I know how much it takes of me, from me, and from my relationship with my partner.
And yet I also know the absolute glorious thrill of bringing a life into this world. How expansive the love is as it spreads into my being and how it changes everything in an instant. How a child connects you to the simple and makes it grand, like puddles on the sidewalk and rocks in the wash. How the miraculous nature of our existence is reflected in their wonder and curiosity.
Each child arrives with the keys not just to our love, but to our deepest unresolved pain. As much as parents are set up in the role of teachers and guides, our little people teach us far more than we can comprehend.
It has been years, but often I remember my Shaykh’s words. Both versions of my story are true. Which one I pick to focus on is my choice, said Shaykh Ebrahim.