“I just don’t even know how to feel; I’m either numb in my mind or hurting in my heart.”
Over the past decade and half, American Muslims have seen aspects of this complicated identity play out: Besides more than one family losing a relative in the Twin Towers, in another family a child’s Purple Heart fighter jet pilot uncle ran military missions over cities of countries where his extended family relatives live. In another, an aunt’s life is gunned down in an American office building by a man with the same name as a child’s cousin’s father.
And, a young girl is told the Muslim school’s much anticipated field trip to the American History Museum is canceled because her fifth grade class might be confronted by hatred and meanness.
Our children are growing up in a world of warped lunacy that takes what they know about a beloved Prophet or God and turns it into reasons for hurt and anguish – both of which they have been reminded can be alleviated by “using your words and taking a deep breath.” And the frustrations are even greater when the internal debate of how much news to share with young ones may inevitably end up with them asking, “Daddy, why does that man say I’m going to hell?”
As Muslim mothers, fathers, teachers, human beings, we feel sad, angry, confused, helpless, hopeless and a heaviness in our hearts about the world for ourselves, and even more so for our children. Globalization has not made it any easier; it’s just confounding as to how much not in control we are, stripping away the super powers parents are usually assigned in those little eyes.
At our small Muslim community school — where peace education, religious and American cultural literacy are integrated into the ABCs and 123s — we decided to especially emphasize the critical role of empathy at this time. It’s about being more present and aware of our own feelings, the feelings of others and the importance of this as a basis for nurturing our mental wellbeing and building sustainable relationships in the world.
We, as the founders, teachers, parents and staff of the school, see clearly every day that it’s the emptiness, negation of feelings and disconnect with one another that is leading to more hurt, loneliness and violence in humanity. As statements, declarations, condemnations of all sorts swarm around, we increasingly realize that to truly effect change it must be through greater intentionality in how we treat and value ourselves and one another.
This past week really put all of these practices at our school to a test. Teachers were visibly shaken, disoriented, tearful and at a loss as to how to personally grapple with the enormity of horrific events and potential repercussions. Because it was so palpable, we gathered for a check in.
Together we recognized the need to share what these feelings do to our bodies, minds, outward actions and to our own sense and understanding of faith. It was clear that as we teach and nurture empathy in children, we have to find ways to bolster our own emotional and spiritual health.
To support ourselves and each other, here’s what we shared as reminders on how to respond as adults to these layered feelings and frustrated state of mind. This is what we’re holding on to for our own sanity and putting into practice as teachings from spiritual traditions. Without cultivating these spiritual connections, we’ll have a harder time making our worldly connections meaningful.
Make Dua/calling out to God — God is waiting for us to ask Him, at any time, for whatever we need
- Dear God, You are the Source of Peace, make my own heart be at peace. Make there be peace in the hearts of others who feel the same way as I do.
- Dear God, You are the Protector, protect me from harm and from doing harm.
- Dear God, You are the Reliever, take my worries and my fears away.
- Dear God, You are the Maker of Order, alleviate this chaos and confusion in my heart and in the world.
- Dear God, You are the Inspirer of Faith, restore my faith and renew my spirit.
- Dear Lord, I take refuge in You from anxiety and sorrow, weakness and laziness, miserliness and cowardice, the burden of debts and from being overpowered by others.
- Make the intention to lighten your own heart and mind
- Make the intention to alleviate suffering in the world
- Mondays and Thursdays as tradition of Prophet Muhammad
- Group fasting with family members and/or friends to make it a shared action
Do Dhikr — Repeated and constant remembrance of the Creator brings focus in mind and lightness in hearts
- Remember to say “In the name of God, who is Infinitely Merciful, Eternally Compassionate” with mindful purpose for us each to act with mercy and compassion.
- Remember to say when you feel lost or overwhelmed “God is sufficient for us, and how fine a guardian He is.”
- After each prayer remember His completeness by saying “How perfect is God;” remember blessings bestowed by saying “Praise and thanks to God;” remember His dominion over all by saying “God is Greater than Everything.”
- Remember humility by saying “I seek God’s forgiveness.”
- Remember when you feel helpless to say “There is no power nor might except with God.”
- Remember when you feel lonely or disconnected to say “There is no deity but Allah, He is the one God with no partner, to Him belongs all, to Him is all praise, He is the capable of doing and being all.”
Pray — Reconnecting ritual with a personal and communal purpose
- Mindful prayer as meditation and conversation with the Creator
- Use each prayer movement as a physical reminder to being present in the world.
- Try to make regular prayers on time, or choose one prayer of the five to make on time
- Increase extra prayers from your normal routine.
- Choose verses to recite during prayer that you know the meaning of. These can be duas from the Quran.
Random acts of kindness — with family members or in public, when least expected to increase positive feelings and energy around you and in yourself
- Not just for those who might need help, but for anyone – pay for the person behind you at the coffee shop
- Give to those who need with your own hand – see someone receive help and make eye contact saying “thank you” to them.
- Share a smile or verbalize a positive thought with someone who looks disconnected.
Build and create community — check in with family members, co-workers, neighbors to make connections that are real, sustaining and contribute to communal well being
- Push yourself out of your comfort zone to be interactive.
- Intentionally and purposefully ask how they are feeling, and listen to their responses
- Find out what a person might need to feel more comfortable, safe, connected.
- Find out what joys and celebrations others are experiencing, and appreciate and acknowledge their positive feelings.
- See what needs to be done in your neighborhood that you have ability to change – take along a bag on your walk to pick up trash on street, beautify surroundings, fix what is broken.
- Join others who are working for justice and betterment for all in your neighborhood and community.
These are trying times for humanity to be sure. It may be that as much as our faith in fellow humans and faith even in our connection with a Creator wears thin, it is an opportunity to rebuild, reignite, and rebalance the way we see ourselves. And then become the compassionate beings necessary for these times.
Afeefa Syeed is founder and currently Head of School of a nonprofit, independent school with a curriculum based on peace and civic education and integrated learning. As a cultural anthropologist she served as Senior Advisor at US Agency for International Development (USAID) and has been a Scholar Consultant for the Carter Center, Research Associate with Cambridge University’s Institute on Religion & International Studies, Senior Fellow and Advisory Council Member for Institute for Global Engagement’s Center for Women, Faith & Leadership. She works in areas of religion engagement, educational innovation, gender inclusion, countering extremism and integrating cultural context into development and diplomacy. Afeefa is based in Washington DC.