It was the best of times and it was the worst of times. Ramadan 2018 was one of the easiest and in some ways, one of the more challenging years for me.
Easy, because I was busy. I was so busy, I didn’t care to wake up for the pre-dawn meal, preferring to risk early onset of hunger to conserving my energy for work instead. I was so busy, the hours some days flew by and I can’t even remember now all the times I left a meeting or the office late and didn’t get home to break my fast in time. One night I sat down to dinner at 9:30 p.m. (an hour after iftar, the breaking of the fast) and on a recent Friday when I worked a late shift, all I had to eat was a snack-sized bag of peanuts from Southwest that I’d stashed in my work bag (s/o to @SouthwestAirlines!). OK, that day wasn’t particularly easy, but I survived.
So what was hard about it? Being too busy to do any kind of spiritual deep-dive. The same reasons that made the physical challenges of the fast easier to contend with ultimately impeded me from tapping into a greater truth, which is just as much an integral part of the holiday as the refraining from food and vices part. Trying to complete the late evening prayer one night, one of the longer of the five prescribed daily prayers, my mind not only wandered during, but in between the units, I found myself reaching for my phone in boredom to see if I had any new messages, texts, tweets, likes, anything to distract me from going back to the prayer. Continuing, albeit begrudgingly, I couldn’t help lamenting just how disconnected I felt this year and how increasingly disconnected I’ve felt for years now — to God, to my own spirituality, even, sadly, to the suffering of others. I couldn’t help thinking, “Does any of this matter? Is there even a God out there listening?” I wondered whether — if this feeling didn’t go away — there’d come a day when I’d stop fasting altogether.
Then I had a transformative thought. Maybe it’s not supposed to be easy, maybe the struggle with faith and keeping up with the prayers, the frustrations, maybe they’re all part of the deal. I think it was at that moment I had a reaffirmation of just why Ramadan is so important, why participating in the ritual still matters to me even after 22 years.
I don’t fast because it comes easy to me, but because it challenges me, and the challenge could be the same or different every year. I fast because not being able to wake up with coffee frustrates me, but also makes me realize just how lucky I am to be able to make it for myself every day or buy it. I fast because I’m surrounded by restaurants and food and pleasures of all kinds 24 hours a day, but I am challenged to muster up the willpower to deprive myself of them. I fast because doing so is the most powerful method of mindfulness I know.
That doesn’t make me better than you; it does make me better as a person and member of society.
People who know me know how important Ramadan is to me, and increasingly personal. This year, I didn’t bother telling anyone that I’m fasting. I’ve come a long way from the days when I’d use Ramadan as a reason for getting out of running in high school gym class. “Too bad,” my gym teacher would tell me. “You’re going to have to do it. Try your best.” At the time I thought he was an insensitive jackass, but now I get it.
Ramadan shouldn’t be an excuse to get out of things or change your behavior for the worse (if you’re inclined to get “hangry,” for example, then that’s your Ramadan challenge). Saying you’re not strong enough isn’t an excuse either. No one comes into this with strength, but I can guarantee you won’t not be strengthened in some way at the end.
I think back to that night on the prayer mat and see it now as a fork-in-the-road moment. I could’ve folded the mat and and said screw this and succumbed to my pangs of doubt, my feelings of insecurity, but instead I chose to invite those voices to linger instead of shoving them away. And that gave me the push I needed to continue. I believe we ought to do more of that, we ought to embrace insecurity and doubt, sit with it, and hopefully, do the work to get past those feelings.
As the month comes to a close this week, I feel blessed to have had yet another Ramadan to participate in and reap its rewards and lessons, many of which I will carry with me for the rest of the year.