11 October 2006

Wednesday October 4, 2006

Time for reflection


MY daughter ShaSha was in tears the other morning. She had intended to fast for half the day but while getting dressed for school, had forgotten and had eaten some cereal. So mortified was she that she refused to go to school. I had to spend a lot of time persuading her that she had done no wrong and that she could still fast if she wanted to. Eventually she agreed and after calming down, as I left her at school, she said she would still “fast” until lunchtime.

As children, we all wanted to fast. The idea of not having to eat seemed like a good thing, rather than having our mothers nag us to finish our rice and vegetables every day. What’s more, fasting was what grown-ups did, so to fast meant that, even if you’re only seven like my ShaSha, you are one step towards being grown-up. And oh, the joys of the breaking of fast with all the sweet drinks and kuih and all manner of good things to eat! I even enjoyed getting up in the wee hours for sahur, since it is the only time we get to eat in our pyjamas.

From her Ugama lessons at school, my daughter could recite all manner of puasa protocol. She can tell you when you don’t need to fast and how you need to replace missed days. But somehow her teacher had failed to tell her that at seven, it is not compulsory to fast yet. This is the sort of omission that makes for grief like the breakfast incident. She thought she had done something really bad.

To console her, I told her something which I had been told long ago in my own childhood and which has remained with me until today. I told her that when she thinks of good things to do, God immediately records it as merit, while if she thinks of something bad to do, then God waits until she actually does it to record it as demerit.

Nothing proved to me more that God is fair than this story, that He blesses good thoughts and even more good deeds. But knowing well human frailties, He allows us to think of nasty things yet doesn’t condemn us until we actually do them. I think understanding the compassion and forgiveness of God was what made her decide to carry on fasting despite her small mistake.

I wish often that adults would remember these particular traits of God, which we would do well to try and emulate. One can think of so many nasty things about other human beings but there is no real reason to act upon those thoughts by doing, saying and writing them in order to cause hurt and humiliation. No doubt there are many things that need to be said but there are equally many ways to say things. Rationally and calmly is one way that takes the sting out of one’s criticism without necessarily distracting from the substance of what one wants to say.

Yet many of my countrymen and women seem to unleash every single thought that occurs to them without once thinking whether what they say truly enlightens those on the receiving end, or just reflects back on themselves. I read comments on the Internet and have to wonder how countering racism with even more racism achieves anything. Lying, no doubt, has its uses but only for people with no conscience I suppose. Unfortunately, I have encountered many untruths about myself but it seems useless to do anything about them. I just have to take consolation that Someone knows the truth.

In this good month of Ramadan, we are supposed to not only cleanse ourselves physically by fasting but also mentally and spiritually. It may be a month that tempers the behaviour of Muslims but I find that in our country, our fellow citizens of other religions also tend to get more subdued. I know several who also fast during Ramadan, not just to keep their Muslim friends company. One friend, a Catholic, decided to fast during Ramadan, as a kind of offering to God because his mother has cancer. It’s also nice to know that those non-Muslims who just thought of fasting but then didn’t still got points for the thought.

Our thoughts do not necessarily get more benign during Ramadan. Indeed some people may use hunger as an excuse to be testier about everything. But at the same time, the restraint from eating also has the effect of restraining us from everything of a malicious nature. It makes you at least stop and think. And how many of us could do with that extra second of reflection?

Maybe what being religious is really about is pausing to reflect on what effect everything we say and do has on another person.