Finding our purpose in Ramazan

Published: June 15, 2016
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The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He tweets @Mbilallakhani

The writer is the recipient of the James A Wechsler Award for International Reporting and a graduate of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. He tweets @Mbilallakhani

The scripted lives of the brightest minds in Pakistan are often a mad dash to meet other people’s expectations. First, it’s your parents who want you to get a job at a multinational company so they can show you off to their friends and within the family. Next, there’s the girlfriend who wants you to settle down quickly so you can send a rishta because other weird guys are already beginning to send rishtas and she can’t keep saying no to her mother without sharing a half decent reason. Then there’s the ultra-possessive boyfriend who wants you to take care of his mother after you get married, while he pursues his dream career even though you studied exactly the same courses at IBA or LUMS and you, in fact, used to tutor him before exams.

Our lives become a function of expectations others have of us, which we internalise and start benchmarking our lives with. If a girl doesn’t get married by a certain age, she must have a problem. If a young man can’t hold a steady or high flying job, he’s flirting with failure. We effectively outsource our happiness to the hypothetical construct of ‘normal’ and ‘successful’ in Pakistani society. As a result of this artificial construct of ‘normal’, young men and women reverse engineer their lives to check all the boxes society wants them to tick, even as happiness and meaning remain elusive. Happiness and meaning sometimes require the courage to sacrifice what society expects of us. The courage to define a unique purpose and personalised drivers of happiness, which may not necessarily sync with society at large.

This is difficult to do in any society but especially so in a conformist society like Pakistan, where happiness is generally defined in such glorious terms as the size of your bank account, how fair your skin is and how quickly you’re able to ‘settle down’ in life and make your kids settle down. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing any of the above as life goals. The challenge lies in Pakistani society viewing these goals as the ones that are legitimate or worth pursuing. What about pursuing other life goals? Like, for instance, helping those who may not have the same opportunities as us or spending time and energy to help grow ourselves as individuals and enabling others to grow. What about spending the time and resources to discover a purpose unique to us as an individual, rather than the life goals that society pre-assigns to us? This is where we move away from our comfort zone and the magic and upheaval of creating a meaningful life begins.

It’s not easy being different in Pakistan. But every now and then we are offered moments of reflection which can nudge us closer to the courage we need. Ramazan is one of those moments. We’re stripped away of legitimate expectations we — and the world — have for us to live a normal life. And yet, not only do we live but we strive to become better versions of ourselves. At least in theory (and for those of us who may be fortunate enough to bring this into practice), Ramazan allows us to defy the rules of gravity when it comes to what we thought was possible in terms of controlling our hunger, thirst, thoughts and actions. We can use this moment to pause and reflect on our lives outside Ramazan too. Perhaps, we aren’t aware of exactly how much we’re capable of doing with our lives. If only we’re able to suspend the current lens through which we look at the world and ask: what is the one thing God sent you to do on earth that no one else can do?

The journey that follows to answer this question is as intimidating as it is meaningful. There will be moments of weakness and moments of strength when we choose to strike out on our own path. But the exercise of defining and following a unique purpose will enable us to live our lives to their fullest potential rather than following the scripts we’re handed down from peer to peer. This isn’t an easy thing to do. But, just like Ramazan, it will teach us that we’re capable of giving more to the world than we ask of ourselves.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 16th, 2016.

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