Choose Well, Not All (Sixteen Lessons from the 2013 UBC SLC)

Festival at the Gedung Sate, Bandung

Festival at the Gedung Sate, Bandung (Indonesia)

One of my favourite conferences, the UBC Student Leadership Conference is an event that continues to grow and improve with every year. I’ve attended multiple times, and each time the conference has been an opening to an increased understanding of myself and the kind of work that I feel passionate about.  After two years in Toronto, this year I was blessed to attend once more, and this year was perhaps was my most meaningful SLC yet. From the rich lunchtime conversations, to the interesting case studies, and the palpable emotion in the room during the Closing Keynote, all of it left an imprint on my heart. This post has been in my draft folder since the conference, (apologies for the delay in posting!), but in no particular order, here are some of the lessons/quotes I took away this year.

1) Being exceptional is about overcoming complacency. It’s about doing the things that others are too busy, too important to do.~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter

2) I took part in the SLC Case Studies session this year as an alumni participant, and the experience was a lesson that case studies facilitate deep learning. During the session we were given a description of a real project under development at UBC, a series of questions to guide our thinking and then a few hours later presented our findings/solutions to a panel of people involved in the actual project. They listened, gave feedback and asked us follow-up questions after we presented. Instead of simply consuming information about a topic, we were asked to think critically. The experience was a reminder that learning and transformation is about meaningful conversations. Instead of simply taking in information, for ideas to stick you have to interact with what you hear, digest it, reflect on it, and experiment with implementation. In the future, whether I find myself planning a conference, a course or a retreat, I want to embed a case study learning method into the design of the learning experience.

3) You are an ambassador for the causes that you represent.

Every time I’ve been at the SLC, the volunteers stand out. They are consistently professional, helpful, friendly and excited. They radiate energy and enthusiasm and are keen to serve. Without saying anything, but simply through their state, they tell you how getting involved in the conference has impacted them. Extrapolating that lesson, the volunteers were a reminder that whenever we get involved in something, if it is good, the traces of that goodness should be visible from us.

4)  I spent a magical lunchtime during the SLC this year with friends I hadn’t seen for several months (years in some cases!) speaking about learning goals, and the challenges of finding your way post graduation. Our rich conversation was a reminder that assistance and advice can only come when you allow yourself to be vulnerable and open up on what it is you find challenging. When you’re honest and authentic about being confused. Once you share, you give others permission to do the same, and in that mutual sharing, there is strength, hope and advice to be gained.

5) A great deal of karma, good luck and blessings required for success.~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter

6) You remember the moments when you ask God to rescue you. ~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter.

7) Never take advice from someone who doesn’t have what you want. ~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter

8)Bureaucracies foster environment of scarcity. You need to foster an abundance mentality and see the world through a lens of abundance. ~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter

9) Do work that would be meaningful to you if you had two years to live. ~Alden Habacon, Featured Presenter

10) I learnt to have patience with myself and world. Because there is hope, but it comes on a different schedule than yours. ~Closing Keynote

11) Each difficult moment has made me the person that I am today. If you can make it through the darkness, will be transformed. Will be closer to the person supposed to be, and closer to doing the work only you are supposed to do. We grow through struggles and pain. We all have gifts. We need to share our gifts. ~Closing Keynote

12) Please live. Life is amazing. When I was struggling with thoughts of suicide, what kept me going was the thought that nothing is forever. ~Audience Participant, Closing Keynote.

13) You are in not even the 1%, at this institution, you’re in the less than 1% of high achievers. You don’t feel like that because you’ve always surrounded yourself with the same sort of people, and so you think you’re just average. No. ~Closing Keynote.

14) Make the time to fulfill your dreams. Wake up at 5 and write every day to finish that novel. ~Closing Keynote.

15) Tolerating Diversity is Not Enough

Whenever I go to a conference, I am used to sadly going over to the table where the vegetarian options are laid out, and hoping that the sandwiches present are somewhat interesting. Not so at this year’s SLC. There were several vegetarian options available. It wasn’t a reluctant accommodation or tolerance of diversity, it was a celebration of different eating choices. It was a refreshing change to experience a conference where a recognition of diversity was embedded within its design and planning process. It’s rare for me to have that experience; whether it is food, finding prayer space, or finding social space that is not alcohol centric, most of the time, I’m used to having to explain and request accommodation.

16) Choose well, not all. ~Faces of SLC

Stay Tuned to This Space! It’s time to Tell A Story

I just can’t anymore. I can’t open up another book frustrated about the stories of oppressive arranged marriages, the choices characters need to make between “culture and self expression”, their intense desire to be accepted by wider society, and their descriptions of self loathing – the list goes on, but I can’t read stories that leave me miserable. As a reader, I am not uplifted or enriched by narratives structured by such narrow binaries, and they do not represent me.

I say this because today I started a book that was full of such moments (it was assigned by a book club I joined recently), and the experience made me realise that it’s time to take writing more seriously. Not because I want to explain the life of a Muslim woman to other people, but because for myself, I want to tell a story that I would want to read, and I think people I care about would want to read too. And so though the blog posts will still continue, I’ve started on a longer writing project.

If you’re interested in following along/getting updates, please do stay in touch via email or the Facebook page.  And if you have advice about sustaining longer writing projects, please do leave a comment/send an email. Here we go!

Observing, Understanding and Respecting Nature is Imperative of Deep Faith

The Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) thanking students for remembering that some things decompose and others don’t.

 Last week, I read Green Deen: What Islam Teaches About Protecting the Planet, a book that calls you to open your heart and care deeply about yourself, your community, city, country, continent and our shared planet. I started the book after reading In the Footsteps of the Prophet, a book in which Tariq Ramadan writes:

“This relationship with nature was so present in the Prophet’s life from his earliest childhood that one can easily come to the conclusion that living close to nature, observing, understanding and respecting it, is imperative of deep faith. […]Being close to nature, respecting what it is, and observing and meditating on what it shows us, offers us or takes (back) from us requirements of a faith, in its quest, attempts to feed, deepen and renew itself. Nature is the primary guide and intimate companion of faith” (Tariq Ramadan, In the Footsteps of the Prophet, p.13)

This insistence that nature is needed for faith intrigued me, because I love the natural environment, but I am my most energetic and passionate when I’m in a beautiful city. I love the gleam of skyscrapers, the chatter of coffeeshops, the bustle of a crowd, and the feeling you get in a large city that you could meet a wonderful new friend just around the corner. This book however, asks us to think about the world that our city hides from us. It asks us to think about where food comes from beyond the grocery store, the scarcity of water beyond our (Western) household taps, how polluting energy sources adversely impact the planet, and where waste goes beyond the ‘chutes’ in our apartment building or the garbage can outside our house. It acknowledges it is hard to be mindful of these things, but emphasizes that understanding chains of consequence is a key component of living an ethical life.
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N’Allez Pas Trop Vite (On Reading “How Proust Can Change Your Life)

“The vibrancy which may emerge from taking a second look is central to Proust’s therapeutic conception, it reveals that extent to which our dissatisfaction may be the result of failing to look properly at our lives rather than the result of anything inherently deficient about them.”  (Alain de Botton, How Proust Can Change Your Life, p.153).

I’ve read Alain de Botton’s book “How Proust Can Change Your Life”  twice recently. The first time I read it quickly on the way to work over a couple of days, but the second time it was a slow read, with a pen and paper handy to take careful notes and underline and paraphrase key points.  This approach felt fitting because the entire book is an argument to not be hasty.

It argues that we should take our time in describing something properly instead of resorting to cliches, that we should take our time making a judgement about someone instead of assuming income and formal education translates to virtue and intelligence, and that we should take our time to understand what life is teaching us when we experience difficulties. And in the perhaps most interesting chapter, we are asked to open our eyes and seek the beauty within our daily life.

According to Proust, we may be unhappy with our routine because popular art has told us that what we ought to value looks different. Reading his example of how an imaginary youth might seek out a museum because he cannot see the beauty in the everyday, I wondered if our expectations act as barriers to being fully rooted in where we live. I know for myself, I came to love Toronto deeply once I stopped seeking Vancouver within it, I loved Bandung deeply once I stopped thinking about Canada, and I have become much happier in Vancouver upon moving back once I stopped comparing it to Toronto. Instead of having specific expectations of what life should look like and thinking, “Toronto doesn’t have mountains!”, “Vancouver doesn’t have the same active Islamic learning scene!”, and feeling disappointed, I’ve been slowly learning to quiet down and appreciate each city for what it is.

The same could be said for life stages. Though I enjoyed graduate school, there was a danger to count down the days and wish the intensity to be over and working life to begin. Now that I’ve graduated and started working, it is easy to grumble through the commute, long for the weekend and exclaim with delight once Friday arrives. Fulfillment and happiness becomes something in the distant future, requiring external conditions  – being in the perfect job, in the perfect city, with the right company – to exist.

Aside from the impossibility of perfection, such an attitude ignores the fact that all the moments of your day, week, month, and year make up your life. Which is not to say one pretends to have a chipper attitude – delusion is not the aim – but simply that it is too easy to grumble and sleepwalk through existence.  The harder (and according to Proust) necessary work is to find ways to be as peaceful and appreciative as you can wherever you are. To stubbornly insist in seeing and spreading beauty. To have trust that what is challenging now will hopefully become easier and better later, but that requires succeeding in finding the good and lessons in where you find yourself today.

Go slowly Proust tells us, and look carefully, because life is too valuable and short for us to relegate living to a later time.

Negligence Deadens Desire

 I think life would suddenly seem wonderful to us if we were threatened to die as you say. Just think of how many projects, travels, love affairs, studies it – our life – hides from us, made invisible by our laziness which, certain of a future, delays them incessantly.

But let all this threaten to become impossible for ever, how beautiful it would become again! Ah! if only the cataclysm doesn’t happen this time, we won’t miss visiting the new galleries of the Louvre, throwing ourselves at the feet of Miss X., making a trip to India.

The cataclysm doesn’t happen, we don’t do any of it, because we find ourselves back in the heart of normal life, where negligence deadens desire. And yet we shouldn’t have needed the cataclysm to love life today. It would have been enough to think that we are humans, and that death may come this evening.”

Marcel Proust, quoted in How Proust Can Change Your LIfe.

Oh Dear, It’s Raining (Again)

Though I don’t quite miss the chilly weather of Toronto, it’s strange to see rain on a daily basis now I’m back in BC.

For me, pouring rain and wind equals warm knitted sweaters, soup recipes that warm you up from head to toe and deep within, and Taboo and Risk for cold nights. And it means baking crumbly apple crisp, drinking cardamom chai in mugs the colour of the summer sky, and writing letters to far off friends on bright sunshiny paper.

And of course, it means a fresh reading list for those evenings when a warm blanket and tea is much more appealing than venturing outside.

And  that’s where you come in  readers. I’m nearly finished reading How Proust Can Change Your Life by Alain de Botton, and I’m curious..  What have you read recently/hope to read soon?  This is always one of my favourite/most referred to threads, so please do leave a suggestion in the comments below! Also, what does rainy weather make you think of?


Reading Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

In the last year of my undergrad I took a number of English courses, and these classes taught me the importance of reading carefully. We read slowly, examining structure, noticing varied sentence length, admiring literary devices, researching the origin of epigraphs and learning the details of plot advancement. As someone who is often impatient to get to the end of a book, it was startling to discover how much is hidden in the art of telling a story. I learnt the words we choose matter, and the more you know about the milieu a book is set in, the challenges and debates it is responding to, the life and history of the author, and the connections that exist between one book and other works, the better your understanding of that particular book will be. The more closely you read, the deeper and more meaningful your encounter with a text.

Like those masterful English professors, Alain de Botton is an author who changes the way you understand the world.  He reads closely, and the results of his scrutiny are thought-provoking and meaningful.

Last week I read his book Status Anxiety, a book about modern life’s obsession with status. (Note: the examples and discussions are largely limited to the West). The book is divided into two sections – the cause of status anxiety (with chapters devoted to each suggested cause of snobbery, dependence etc). In this section he suggests a possible origin for status anxiety:

“A sharp decline in the actual deprivation may, paradoxically have been accompanied by an ongoing and even escalating sense or fear of deprivation. Blessed with riches and possibilities far beyond anything imagined by ancestors who tilled the unpredictable soil of medieval Europe, modern populations have nonetheless shown a remarkable capacity to feel that neither who they are nor what they have is quite enough.”(p.25)

The second section is called Solutions and has separate chapters on Philosophy, Art, Politics, and Religion. As a whole, the book is a reminder of how fleeting worldly status is, and through an exploration of classic literature, paintings, satire, western philosophy and tragedy, explains how different philosophers, artists and writers have sought to delink the association between the value of a person and their material worldly position.

It’s a wonderful read, particularly because the examples used are so interesting and familiar, and his insights are thoughtful.  He talks about the novel Middlemarch and how although Dorothea Brooke is a ‘failure’ by society’s standards,her soul is rich, and she is of one those ‘unvisited tombs’ who makes life better for those around them. In his discussion of another classic heroine, Fanny Price of Mansfield Park,  he describes Jane Austen’s intellectual project in all her books as an attempt to reform society and alter the lenses through which we view people. In Mansfield Park, Austen creates the character of Fanny Price, an obscure and poor individual who lacks worldly importance, and who cannot forgive and/or respect the Bertrams for their materialism, moral depravity and hypocrisy. Their wealth makes them ridiculous, it has no connection to making them subjects of respect. Fanny’s vision is clear and perceptive and when we see the world through her eyes, de Botton argues, we are more likely to view our own world through a clearer lens.

When explaining Greek tragedy, the author describes tragedy as a genre that expands our capacity to emphasize with how ordinary people can fall when confronted with specific circumstances. He notes that tragedies enable use to see people with nuance and complexity – unlike the media headlines that limit what we can learn and know about a person. To illustrate this point, he gives the example of the classic novel Madame Bovary. The novel was based on a newspaper article about a 27 year old French woman who killed herself after leaving her family and feeling stifled by her marriage.

For me, one of the most powerful parts of the books is its analysis of wealth. The author points out that

” Being truly wealthy.. does not require many things; rather it requires having what one longs for. Wealth is not an absolute. It is relative to desire. Every time we yearn for something we cannot afford, we grow poorer, whatever our resources. And everytime we feel satisfied with what we have, we can be counted as rich, whatever little we may actually possess. There are two ways to make a man richer reasoned Rousseau: give him more money or curb his desires.” (p.43)

He furthers this point by saying that we decide whether what we possess is enough by comparing ourselves to a referent group of people who we consider to be our peers. If we feel differences between us and our peers we feel diminished, but if the comparison shows us that we are equivalent or slightly better, then we don’t feel so bad, even though our actual situation in either case may be precisely the same.

More importantly, praise that is not deserved does not change who we are:

“Does what is praised become better? Does an emerald become worse if it isn’t praised? And what of gold, ivory, a flower or a little plant? Marcus aimed to take his bearings from the person he knew himself to be: “Will any man despise me? Let him see to it. But I will see to it that I may not be found doing or saying anything that deserves to be despised.” (p.114)

“Rather than allow every instance of opposition or neglect to wound us, we are invited by the philosophers first to examine the justice of other’s behaviour.  Only that which is both damning and true should be permitted to shatter our esteem. We should forever forswear the masochistic process wherein we seek another’s approval before we have even asked ourselves whether that person deserves to be  listened to – the process, that is, whereby we seek the love of those for whom, as we discover upon study, their minds we have scant respect.” (p.117).

There is much more to be said as this is a very rich, wonderful text, but in summary, this book made me think about whether we have space to have conversations about anxiety, fear in modern cities. Much of this book is about how anxiety over status and social positioning has increased as modern life has become less hierarchical and more secular, and that arguably, something has been lost in the process. How do we create communities which are healthy for the mind, soul and heart, and where we can see the world in ways that separate material positioning from personal worth? This is perhaps a question de Botton answers in his newest book: Religion for Atheists, but I’m curious to hear the thoughts of others.

Additional resources:

The TED Talk about the book:

Meeting Piscine Molitor Patel

When I meet new people, it matters what their tastes in books are – not because I judge people based on what they read, but because when you share a love for a book with someone that leads to deep conversations, and when they introduce you to new material, that gift widens your awareness of the world.

Ten years ago a friend recommended the book Life of Pi but I gave up halfway through because the descriptions were making me feel squeamish and seasick.  In the intervening decade, I’ve lost count of the number of people who have described it as one of their favourite books and who have expressed surprise at my lack of interest in reading it. Last week, curious about what all the fuss was about, I picked it up again, and this time around I thoroughly enjoyed the read.

Without giving up too many plot details, to read this novel is to realise that writing is a craft. It doesn’t make sense to moan and complain about not being a good writer if you wish to write, you have to be relentless in your practice. The author’s sentences are sturdy, his metaphors and similes are unusual, his pacing is wonderful, and he is all in all, a master writer and storyteller. (Days later while skyping with the Nephew, I tried to explain the story and the animals, and even my four year old friend was engrossed).

In addition to his skill with words, the book is powerful in its themes. In the main protagonist’s meditations on life he touches on belief, religion, saying goodbye and the compulsion to move (among other topics) and his insight in everything he addresses is keen. And meeting Piscine Molitor Patel, like meeting Dorothea Brooke or David Copperfield or Jane Eyre, changes you. He has gentleness with people who lack understanding, he is fiercely determined to survive, he longs for books, he cares for life,  he is unassuming. I feel I have much to learn from him, and this book was a reminder that great fiction impacts your personality,  your outlook on life,  your perspective on different issues and subjects, the traits you value in others, and the goals and dreams that you have.  This book was a reminder that novels matter because they touch us a way that non-fiction, important as it is, cannot.

Below, some of my favourite quotes from the book:

On Faith..

To choose doubt as a philosophy in life is akin to choosing immobility as a means of transportation (28)

“What is your religion about?” I asked. His eyes lit up. “It is about the Beloved”,” he replied. I challenge anyone to understand Islam, its spirit, and not to love it. It is a beautiful religion of brotherhood and devotion.” ( p.60)

The presence of God is the finest of rewards.(p.63)

On Leaving..

“All living things contain a measure of madness that moves them in strange, sometimes inexplicable ways. This madness can be saving; it is part and parcel of the ability to adapt. Without it, no species would survive. Whatever the reason for wanting to escape, sane or insane, zoo detractors, should understand that animals don’t escape to somewhere but from something. Something within their territory has frightened them – the intrusion of an enemy, the assault of a dominant animal, a startling noise – and set off a flight reaction.

“Why do people move? What makes them uproot and leave everything they’ve known for a great unknown beyond the horizon? Why climb this Mount Everest of formalities that makes you feel like a beggar? Why enter this jungle of foreignness where everything is new, strange and difficult? The answer is the same over: people move in the hope of a better life.” (p.77)

On Saying Goodbye..

What a terrible thing it is to botch a farewell. I am a person who believes in form, in the harmony of order. Where we can, we must give things a meaningful shape…It’s important in life to conclude things properly. Only then can you let it go. Otherwise you are left with words you should have said but never did, and your heart is heavy with remorse. (p.285)

The Main Battlefield of Good

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless. These people walk by a widow deformed by leprosy begging for a few paise, walk by children dressed in rags living in the street, and they think, “Business as usual.” But if they perceive a slight against God, it is a different story. Their faces go red, their chests heave mightily, they sputter angry words. The degree of their indignation is astonishing. Their resolve is frightening.

These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside. They should direct their anger at themselves. For evil in the open is but evil from within that has been let out. The main battlefield for good is not the open ground of the public arena but the small clearing of each heart. Meanwhile, the lot of widows and homeless children is very hard, and it is to their defence, not God’s that the self righteous should rush.

To me, religion is about our dignity, not our depravity.

~Yann Martel, Life of Pi, p.70-71.

Celebrating Four Years as an Aunt

Being an aunt is something that is very close to my heart, and though we’re in different provinces at present, I’m celebrating the birthday of my nephew today. Sharing stories over pancake and berries breakfasts, whispering at 4 am during weekend sleepovers, drawing pictures and reading books together, and just generally witnessing a child develop from an infant into someone with speech, opinions, and a definite personality is a fascinating and blessed process. (At the end of this post is a list I wrote for when my nephew turned one of the lessons I’ve learnt during his first year. The lessons are still true, so I’ve reposted them here)

He isn’t alone on the fantastic child list though. During my trip to Singapore last month, I kept running into wonderful kids who inspired me with their curiosity and intellect. I passed by a travel store one day with a giant globe at its entrance, and two siblings who were probably 9 and 11 years old were quizzing each other of their knowledge of tiny countries, and trying to map out flight routes. They were struggling to find a few countries, and we struck up a conversation. The next day I was on the MRT and a mum and her son of about ten years of age were talking about Google, what a googol is, and how that relates to what the search engine intended to do at the outset of its creation.

It reminded me of other kids I’ve met from time to time who have qualities that I wished schools and cities cultivated within all young people: voracious reading, tremendous curiosity, and an ability to figure out answers to questions that puzzle them.  Imagine what communities would look like if we planned them (and budgeting priorities) with the learning needs and experiences of the youngest members of cities in mind. Then imagine where you live at present. Though some places are better than others, there is still so so much that we need to do.

Life Lessons From A One Year Old 

1) Disappointments are to be experienced intensely, mourned briefly, and then forgotten. Failure should not hinder one from trying and trying again.

2) People are fascinating. Seek them out. Be unafraid to start conversations. To smile. To wave hello to your neighbours. Make a habit of constantly expressing your delight that you are in the company of others, and the recipient of their attention.

3) Relish solitude. You need time every day to wander, to think, to explore and simply figure things out. To try new things. Protest fiercely when others encroach on this time.

4) Make amends quickly. When you keep others up at night or leave them exhausted during the day, make sure you make up for it with a contrite smile and a heart softening cuddle.  Have a sunshiny disposition that makes it impossible to remain irritated with you.

5) The world is your playground, discover it actively. In every situation, there are things to be explored and learnt, touched and tasted. Have a healthy sense of curiosity about your surroundings. Be a scientist in the world. Experiment, challenge, test, test again, revise your assumptions, store that knowledge away, and repeat this process continuously.

6) Be heard.  If you have an opinion, share it. If you aren’t understood at first, persist until you’ve conveyed your point of view. Learn new languages to speak to ever widening circles of people.

7) Seek support and comfort from those around you. When you fall and stumble, touch base to feel better, and then return to your adventure-seeking, knowledge-desiring, happy state.

8 Embrace your inner artist. Express yourself, and don’t let limitations of ability and skill deter you from enjoying colours and textures and different art forms.

9) Savour tastes and smells and textures.  Enjoy each morsel. Chew slowly. Explore new foods. Try what others are having. Chase after new experiences.

10) Wake up completely thrilled about the day ahead. Stand up, laugh, and become excited and energised about the big adventures that await you. Nap when needed.

11) Touch the world, and be in touch with nature.  Splash in water. Watch birds. Stop and say hello to puppies. Jump on grass. Stare at trees. Be conscious of the fact that the world is awesome, and spend some time every day marveling at its wonders. Don’t let a day go by without some time outdoors.

12) Don’t hold grudges. When someone trips over you, or makes a mistake, have a good cry, but don’t let bad experiences or moments impact your trust of others as a whole.

13) Laugh heartily. Laugh often.

14) Seek new goals constantly. Be hungry to learn and grow and develop. Be persistent. Spend lots of time with others who are more skilled than you-it creates an environment where you are naturally constantly trying to stretch and increase your abilities.

15) Assert your independence. Don’t let others do things for you too often. Push people away who prevent you from learning.

16) When you make a mess, clean it up.

17) Dance when music plays. In fact, make time for movement every day.  After spending any length of time being stationary, or eating large amounts of food, race around, climb things, and revel in your ability to move and reach and run and stand.

And lastly…be confident.  Babies have personalities. They come into the world with their own idiosyncrasies and habits and little quirks, and when you hear mothers talk about their children, they speak about the things that he/she likes and doesn’t like, prefers and doesn’t prefer, and what their habits tend to be. And yet, a year earlier, the little person didn’t exist. Obviously I’m not the first writer to reflect on the miracle of birth, but it is something to keep in mind as we strive for things and get discouraged and get disappointed at times: that perhaps the simple fact we exist, that we come into the world with such a definite sense of self, means that one must chase and seek and find meaning. We are too astonishing to not seize the day, to not make what we can of our lives and experiences, and to not reach out to others and create social change.