Slowly, I am making my way through The Writing on the Water, the book by Muhyiddin Shakoor, chronicling his journey along the Sufi spiritual path.
As I was reading this evening, I was reflecting on the way that old, worn out and broken objects make their way into this story. These objects usually have some role to play in the teachings of the Shaikh; each chapter is focused on the author’s internal journey to understand these teachings and the insight he receives in dealing with tasks set out for him by the Shaikh.
I had a little insight of my own while thinking about the objects mentioned in the book. There are frequent incidents involving cars; specifically, old, broken-down cars. Hunks of junk that somehow still manage to function, at least occasionally. A car that has completely died and sits rusting away in an old barn. Cars broken down and useless on the side of the road. A car stuck in the snow on the night of a blizzard. The disciples in the book seem to be constantly struggling with these old bangers.
Then there is an antique record player with a broken needle, and the disciple has to go in search of this out-dated item to repair the player. In one chapter, there is an dilapidated old barn at the farm where the Shaikh and his disciples often gather. The Shaikh tells the dervishes to tear down the barn, beam by beam, and then they burn it in a bonfire over the course of a year. Throughout this year of destroying all traces of the old barn, the group of disciples go through many mental and physical struggles; moving the heavy beams and planks, watching over the fire through the long snowy winter nights, learning to work together to accomplish such a seemingly endless and daunting task. During this time they also find an rusty and aged wooden trailer and use it to help them transport some of the weather-worn wood from different parts of the farm, to construct fences and benches.
As I was reading, I was thinking about the different relationships to things that’s presented in the book. Always, the things are old, and seem to be out-dated and useless at first glance. But everything that is found is used, repaired, repaired again, until it is absolutely, 100 % dead. And then, on one occasion, the item is given a formal burial! The Shaikh, and eventually the disciples, seem to have the opinion that there is value in even the oldest, most dilapidated object. Nothing seems to be without function or to be meaningless.
For some reason, this made me think of the apartment we are currently living in. It’s a dark basement, a bit dank, the toilet leaks a little, it gets too damp and mold threatens to grow on any neglected thing near the windows, due to the condensation. The shower drain tends to clog up. I’m afraid to look too closely into the corners and under appliances in the kitchen or bathroom because I’m afraid of the dirt, dust, possible scary little creatures I might find there.
The apartment is old, and not exactly the most luxurious, and I feel like I often try to ignore its presence, as much as one can do while living smack dab in the middle of a place. I don’t want to see its imperfections, or deal with the dustballs under the kitchen sink. I don’t want to brush off the cobwebs in the corners or scrub down the kitchen floors. I just want to pretend there is no problem and nothing needs to be done, and use my free time for more pleasant activities. Perhaps because of this, I still feel, even after about four months of living here, that this apartment and I are strangers. We just haven’t bonded properly. We still have awkward and somewhat stifled interactions. We are sort of cordial acquaintances; nothing more, nothing less. I feel pretty comfortable letting it stay that way.
However, reflecting a bit on some of the images and events in The Writing on the Water, I feel that maybe I am missing something here. While material objects aren’t the end all be all of life and I think its best to be somewhat detached from them, I somehow feel like I’m missing out on a relationship opportunity. Its made me think of the way I, and perhaps, we, as a culture, interact with the material objects in our everyday life, and how these relationships to things mirror our interactions with other people and events in our world.
First of all, there is certainly a strong desire in us to ignore what is unpleasant. I don’t want to look into the corners or under the stove, because I will see dirt and dust that has been there, possibly for years, not to mention spiders or scorpions that might be lurking about! So, instead of having to face my disgust or fear, I just calmly avert my eyes, stick my nose in a book, and maintain my comfort level.
Also, I want to ignore the dankness and the dustyness of this basement, and the fact that its dank and dusty, at least in part, because I don’t clean it up. I don’t feel like taking the effort to sweep and scrub, to shine it up and make it feel like our home. I haven’t worked to fully claim it as my dwelling place.
I think this goes for old or used objects too. When the relationship with our washing machine or our CD player or shoes gets a bit rough, things are a bit more difficult or inconvenient, there is the temptation to just toss it out and get a shiny new replacement. Why labour away scrubbing off the rust from a still functional old car, or trying to find a replacement part for some broken down old appliance, or coping with your battered and troublesome old mobile phone when you can just forget about them and get something that seems new and better? And sometimes, even if you are frugal or environmentally conscious and want to get things repaired instead of buying a new one, you discover that it takes much more time, effort and money, and it just doesn’t seem worth it.
Maybe we take this view in our human relationships too. When things get a bit more difficult or require more effort, we can just check out, and let things drift apart. Maybe with people we work with, or even those who are closer to us, we just kind of shut down when a problem or difficulty comes up, when something is broken, and we choose not to look into the dusty neglected corners, to clean things off and make them workable again. We instead look for a shiny new relationship or thing or hobby to cheer us up and to make us feel good. At least until that gets a bit dusty too.
And then again, we can do the same in the relationship we have to circumstances and events in our lives. We can hide from what is uncomfortable or difficult instead of trying to make the most out of the situation we have in front of us. I’ve certainly had to deal with this experience in coming to a new country, starting a new job, trying to get settled in a situation that seems to constantly change and shift. When we have to struggle and strain to make things work, when we have to open our minds and think in new ways, when we have to look into the dusty corners of our hearts and minds, and deal with the spiders and scorpions that challenge us on a daily basis, we can, again, try to avert our eyes, ignore the problems and just pretend like none of it is happening.
But I think one idea I’ve gathered from reading about one Sufi’s personal journey is that there is some value in even the most unlikely of things, whether it be object, relationship or situation. Maybe we have to put the broken pieces back together, and scrub and scrape off the dirt and mold and dust to see it, but its there. Nothing in this life is disposable, ignorable, meaningless. Perhaps these things don’t have an inherent, eternal value, but they certainly have some lesson to teach us. Perhaps we can even learn to be more compassionate towards the people in our lives by first learning to treat the space we live in and the every day objects that make our life livable with a bit of gentleness and care. I don’t mean this in a materialistic way. I’m not suggesting that we should love our things. I’m just saying that each day, each action, each thing, animal, plant, person, place, event…. all of them are valuable and there is perhaps some wisdom to be learned from our relationship to each of the things in our everyday life, starting with the most ordinary.
I once read somewhere that even in such a commonplace item as a spoon, thousands of years of human thought and development are contained. Someone created the shape of the spoon, someone mined the metal, someone built the factory, someone packaged it and shipped it to a store near you, where someone works at the cash register, to make it possible for you to take that spoon home to stir the milk into your coffee. And thats just the tip of the iceberg! Think of all the development that made each of those things in the life of a spoon possible. Every item used by any person in the history of humanity has its own evolutionary story, and is connected to such a web of causes and relationships. Nothing can be taken for granted. Objects that to us seem so ordinary and boring that they hardly even deserve a second thought, may have taken our ancestors millions of trials and errors to perfect, and are a part of the great complexity of our world.
We interact with our world through objects; tools, toys, vehicles, clothes, buildings, ornaments… Where would we be without them? Perhaps the next time you’re ready to replace your junky old phone, boring last-season wardrobe or cantankerous home appliance, consider giving it a second chance and see if you can’t patch up your troubled relationship. Some of life’s greatest lessons come to us through the strangest of messengers.