In recent weeks, I’ve experienced a period of tension with a close friend of mine. I have no doubt she and I are going to get through it, and in fact, with a series of honest emails we have already started the journey.
Today this friend – whom I am going to call Lisa because that’s not even close to her name, and I want to honor her privacy – wrote to me that “my hurt came from feeling like I was supporting you … but not feeling that there was mutual space in our friendship for me to share if I was needing support.”
Lately I’ve been reflecting on how our experience and understanding of “outside reality” – the things happening in the world we can see, hear, touch and point to – can be so deeply influenced by our inner reality: our memories, our past experiences, the stories we tell ourselves about who were are and what we identify with.
A perfect example of this is the disconnect I have been experiencing between my own negative body image and the way a certain man sees me – and likes what he sees! If I keep telling myself I am unattractive and unlovable, I am going to behave in a way that influences the way I am treated; the outcomes may even reinforce my beliefs, creating a vicious cycle.
I can’t help thinking this same phenomenon is at work here with my friend Lisa. Reflecting on my own experience of the last few months, I have known that Lisa has needed support, but my attempts to reach out were, from my perspective, not well received. Text messages I sent asking if she needed anything went unanswered, conversations in which I stated point blank that I was worried about her were met with the response that “everything’s going to be fine!”.
From my perspective, Lisa was behaving like a person who didn’t want to open up to me and have an honest conversation about her fears, her stress, her grief. In turn, I didn’t know how to be supportive of a person who didn’t want to receive my support. But I think the key point here is that from Lisa’s perspective, the opposite was true: she wanted support, and felt like I was not interested or available to give it to her.
Lisa’s own story about her life is that she is everyone else’s caregiver, but she does not get the care she needs in return. This story plays so loudly for Lisa that when care was, in fact, offered, she was unable to receive it or even recognize what was being offered.
My study of Sufism has helped me make sense of this phenomenon, a process which I understand to be heavily influenced by the whisperings of sheitan.
“What is this ‘sheitan’ you speak of?” you may be asking.
Although the word is etymologically linked to Satan, I prefer not to use the terms interchangeably. ‘Satan’ to me immediately evokes the Church Lady from Saturday Night Live, and all the baggage associated with our caricatured views on religion.
The term ‘sheitan’ is almost onomatopoeia, describing exactly the way he interacts with us. “Shhhhh… Hey, let me tell you a secret. No one is going to be around to help you when you need it. Don’t tell anyone, but the truth is that no one really cares enough to show up. You’re going to give and give, but it’s never going to come back to you. People can’t be trusted to come through for you, so you’re just going to have to deal with this on your own.”
The wounds we hold onto from our past, the dark corners of our heart, these are the doorways sheitan will enter with his lies. Our wounding serves as a tool for sheitan: for every lie he speaks, he can provide evidence to back up his claims. The voice of sheitan speaks in shadows and whispers, playing on secrecy and shame, because he knows if his words ever saw the light of day, they would instantly be exposed as a fraud. This is why he works so hard to promote isolation and silence, convincing us to smile and say “everything’s fine!” even when it’s really not.
The story sheitan has told me, the story I have believed for too many years, is that I am ugly and utterly unloveable, that I will never have a family because no one wants me, that I will always be on my own. For more than a dozen years I have lived as if this was true, manifesting scenarios that reinforced this terrible belief.
It’s only now, in my 32nd year, that I’ve been able to voice my fears before utterly self destructing. Every time in the last several months when I have spoken my fears and named the lie, someone has shown up to tell me the truth: that I am beautiful, that I am loved, that I am wanted, that I have a family, and that I will never be left to face life on my own.
Just as Sufism has given me an awareness of sheitan and his lies, Sufism has also given me the tools to combat them.
Although God is so vast that no human mind can comprehend Him, I have learned that I can recognize who He is by remembering His qualities. God is Love, God is Mercy, God is Kindness, God is Gentle, God is my Support, God is my Friend.
And from my Sunday School days I also remember, “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” ~Jeremiah 29:11
It’s through faith and knowledge of God’s qualities that I can also recognize “who he is not”. By comparing the story I am listening to with the qualities of God, and noticing when the story is harsh, hurtful, debasing, when the story robs me of hope and and leaves me feeling isolated and friendless, without a future, I know this story cannot be from God, and must be rejected.
I sincerely hope that Lisa will come to believe that there are people in her life who want to give to her all the nurturing and support that she needs, that this is part of the bounty God has for her and for all of us, a bounty that He is only waiting for us to be ready to receive.
Image: Banksy street art in London, photographed by Dominic Robinson on Flickr