What Will You Do With The Things You Notice? (the beginnings of Idea Steep)

Near my bedside table are Thoreau’s Walden, and a book of essays and lectures by Emerson. Both are books that I can only read a few pages at time, and something different speaks to me with each reading. Today upon opening Emerson I came across the following passages:

What help from thought? Life is not dialectics.We, I think in these times, have had lessons enough of the futility of criticism. Our young people have thought and written much on labour and reform, and for all that they have written, neither the world nor themselves have gotten on a step. Intellectual tasting of life will not supersede muscular activity. If a man should consider, the nicety of the passage of a piece of bread down his throat, he would starve. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Experience.

I am thankful for small mercies. I compared notes with one of my friends who expects everything of the universe and is disappointed when anything is less than the best, and I found that I begin at the other extreme, expecting nothing, and am always full of thanks for moderate goods. (..) If we take the good we find, asking no questions, we shall have heaping measures. The great gifts are not got by analysis. ~Experience, Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Emerson’s words remind me of conversations with a mentor of mine last term, where I would be upset about something going on in international, national, or local news, or something that happened to me personally, or a program or policy that I thought could be designed better, or about the exhausted feeling I would get sometimes answering a question about the hijab/my ethnic background/Muslim women that I’d answered a million times before. Really whatever the matter would be, the question I would always get after I had finished my rant was what are you going to do about the things that you notice? Are you simply critiquing and making conversation, or do you have the ethical commitment to initiate change? And what will that change look like? What is the purpose of your professional and personal life Shagufta?

It’s a blessing to have someone ask you such questions. And that is perhaps one of the greatest blessings of graduate school, (though I hope it continues after school is done): you are surrounded by people who are brighter than you, more accomplished than you, who have more skills, who are more well-read, and who are actively striving to understand more about the world and what their place in it is. In such company, you find yourself marvelling at how different everyone’s research interests are, how inspiring their intellects are, and you grow because the company you’re in demands it.

I grow the most though, when the company I’m in is not just of fellow students who are genuinely interested in the questions they’re pursuing and are actively thinking about how they can make contributions outside themselves, but is of people who are also engrossed in the task of becoming better people. One of the best descriptions I’ve read of this kind of company is Rehab al Buri’s blog. (If you haven’t heard of her, she was an ABC News staffer who passed away on March 6th 2011 from cancer, at age twenty-five. ABC News wrote an article about her here, which is where I first heard her story). Her blog was about her reflections and thoughts about her illness, and in one of her posts, she writes:

“I’m also trying to keep company with those who are committed to leading meaningful lives…who don’t think making du’aa  (supplication) at the end of a get together is cheesy, and who won’t think I’m trying to be a goody-two-shoes for suggesting worship instead of entertainment, and who will call me out when I’m wrong.

Living up to the person I promised Allah I would become is a struggle. But I figure I can set myself up for success by making struggle my new normal.

Like Rehab, I too would like to keep the company of those who are committed to leading meaningful lives. Before moving to Toronto, I helped organize an event called Terry Tales, which was basically a gathering every couple of weeks at the University of British Columbia with tea, cookies, and awesome people. The event was originally supposed to be something similar to The Moth, but when we ran the event we discovered people were more interested in sharing ideas and reflections and gaining inspiration from one another than hearing stories passively, and there were really neat projects that came out of each session (just from engaged people who do wildly different things being in the same place, chatting and deciding they liked each other enough to actually work together). We also almost always blogged about the experience afterwards. Since moving to Toronto, I’ve been wanting to try something similar and call it an Idea Steep, and since my heart still feels so heavy and painful over leaving home, now seems like the right time. I think I’ll be hosting it at home (makes it more doable with school) so it’ll be small and simple, but I will blog about our reflections here. And if we come across a magical space with tea I’ll post the details here too.

Stay tuned (and if you have ideas of potential places, feel free to comment!)

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