Monday, May 25, 2015

Givers or Takers?

I was thinking the other day about all the changes in the world during my lifetime.  Such musings come and go the older we get as we realize that we have indeed lived through great upheavals and times of transition. 

I grew up during the tail end of the Cold War, and nuclear annihilation was a constant if unspoken part of life.  We all went about our business and ignored willfully or actually that someone, somewhere could push a red button and the whole world would be reduced to a pile of ash.

The Cold War is over, but a new round of even more unpredictable dangers is on the table, and we continue to ignore these frightening new realities.  I often marvel over how so many people get sucked into the vapid lifestyle of music, parties and wasteful living, but then I realize that they don't know what to do with themselves besides.

The Qur'an tells us that if people were to be punished as they deserved, Allah wouldn't leave even a single living thing on the surface of the earth.  For those who open their eyes, this is not a harsh or unfair statement.  There is so much injustice and pain caused by our species that it boggles the mind.

Human activity is like genocide against the plants and animals of the world.  What we do to each other is equally bad.  Many people say, "Well yes, there is a lot of suffering in the world, but I'm not doing anything wrong!"

Yet when we scratch the surface, we find we are all complicit in the evil.  Do we live in houses made of wood?  Which forests (and all the millions of animals) were cut down to build that house?  Do we drive cars or use buses or subways?  Which environments have been decimated, polluted and raped to get all the natural resources that go into those things?

Do we wear clothes even?  Which sweatshop workers have been beaten, worked half to death and treated unjustly so we could find 'a bargain' at the store?  Do we eat?  Which animals were raised in torturous conditions and killed through fear and brutality?  I often think about the remake of the movie, "War of the Worlds."  It has a series of scenes that show the aliens hunting down humans and killing them for food in gruesome ways.  Hey, we kill some 90 billion animals a year just like that!

"Oh," someone says.  "I'm a vegetarian!  I eat only organic!  I wear cotton only!  I ride a bike!"  It doesn't matter what we do or how unobtrusive we try to make our existence.  The sewers we use discharge pollutants far and wide.  The plants we eat are grown with fertilizers that pollute watersheds everywhere, killing trillions of organisms.  The products we buy were made in places that pollute, exploit and consume.  Even the very beds we sleep in were produced by destroying the habitat of some creature or another.

Is that justice?  We sometimes hear about this or that refugee crisis, and we're confronted with images of starving children and helpless civilians without hope.  Besides the terrible nature of those situations, do we realize how many animal species we do that very thing to, all in the name of our superiority?

The truth is, we are an invasive species.  We are the super predators.  We kill and destroy and ruin no matter what we do, and the greed and shortcomings of our species causes us to turn on each other equally as well.

I am not saying we have no right to live.  All creatures have the right to exist.  It is a paradox that life requires fuel, and fuel - unless it comes directly from the sun - must be gotten from other life forms around us.  Even any plant and animal species will try to outcompete those around it.  It's natural and part of the struggle to survive and pass on one's genes. 

What I am saying is that we are wasteful, greedy and ignorant of our impact on the earth.  We cannot burn through our resources, our fellow life forms and our energy sources like they will last forever.  They won't.  I read recently that there is only about twenty year's worth of easily mineable gold in the world.  I was dumbfounded.  Twenty years?  For coal they say we have 300 years.  For oil maybe a hundred years or so.  As far as extinctions of life forms, they say that 90% of all life on earth will be rendered extinct (through human exploitation) in less than a hundred years!

What will people 500 years from now do for energy or food?  A thousand years from now?  Ten thousand?  Are we literally hollowing out the only home our species has?

The Prophet Muhammad (p) lived a very frugal lifestyle.  He hardly ever ate any meat products.  He warned we could waste water even if we did wudu in a river.  He praised planting trees.  He counseled people not to seek more and more.  Even though he could have filled his house (and those of his wives) with every material good and comfort, he owned only a blanket, a reed mat, a bowl and a few items of clothing.  His wives also lived in similar frugality.

What of our own homes, filled with stupid things as they are?  How many knickknacks do we have?  How many closets and shelves and boxes do we have filled with stuff we neither need nor use?  We talk of simple living, but we are buried in the latest gadgets, mountains of clothes and enough furniture for three households!  I could go on, but you get the point.

We all swim in the sea of life, and when we die we are supposed to come out of the water and walk upon the shore of eternal life.  Abu Darda, a famous companion, was once asked why he had few possessions.  He answered that the climb towards heaven was a difficult one, and that he wanted to be light for that journey.

Are we literally walking through life like a magnet?  Are we collecting to ourselves every useless thing?  How can we swim to the shore if we are struggling under piles of junk?  How many plants, forests, animals and environments have to be destroyed for our whims and false illusions about what is important?

I often wonder about the desire to acquire endless 'things.'  Not too long ago I saw a shiny new sports car pull up at a stoplight, and was amazed to see a very old lady driving it.  She must have loved how fancy and splendorous her hotrod was.  Then the thought hit me: she is old, but the illusion of 'new' things is giving her a sense of permanence.

It was almost as if her life was screaming, "I'm about to die, but if I surround myself with the wealth and shiny things of this world, how can I die?  Look at all this I have to take care of!"

Do people accumulate to distract themselves from the end of their lives?  Was religion created to give our brains a way to cope with the horrors of death?  I don't know for sure.  What I can say is that people in general, and Muslims in particular, need to simplify their lives.  We need to stop wasting and appreciate the little things.

The Prophet said that we only have the right to food, shelter and clothing.  Truly, everything else is superfluous.  If we want to rise to the level of the best of creation and avoid the truth of the damning judgment of Allah, then we need to get our priorities straight.

I'm not saying Islam requires us to be poor and have nothing.  All the Sahaba had various degrees of 'stuff' in their homes.  They had jobs.  They built lives, but they generally didn't overdo it anywhere near the way most people do in the world.  We need to learn to scale back our wasteful ways.

Begin to really look at what you have, why you have it and how it contributes to your life.  If you see a lot of things you don't need in your house or life, then beware the Day of Judgment where we will be asked about our blessings in life and how we used them.

Have a garage sale!  Refrain from buying unnecessary things all the time.  Ask yourself before you buy, "Do I really need this?"  Simplify your life for the climb to heaven.  Don't drown under the weight of things that bring you no benefit.

Do you need strength to change your mindset?  Watch a few episodes of "Hoarders" to set your mind straight!

Inshallah, we can improve ourselves and alleviate some of the suffering caused by our presence.  May Allah give us all the wisdom and motivation to make positive changes so we can be the world's 'caretakers' that we were meant to be, rather than the destroyers we can no longer afford to be.  Ameen.

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