‘Moving at God’s Speed’
By Maira Butt
I’m a lifetime member of that cursed and denigrated group: the dreamers. Always imagining, thinking, wishing, hoping, craving, thinking of a world that doesn’t exist but that you live to prove should. The usually poisonous term used to dismiss our thoughts, aspirations and actions is ‘naïve’ or the one I personally most loathe, ‘idealistic’. This results in a curious outcome: the most ‘romantic’ amongst us sometimes become the most critical, cynical and subversive. When the world is not the way you feel it deserves to be, and no amount of realist talk or conjecture can coax your head out of the clouds, you have no choice but to create the circumstances you need to survive. Often this means going against every single thing you have ever been taught. Questioning every single assumption and conventional wisdom you encounter, to find the one that allows you to bring all that you envision and all that you are, into existence. It is an adamant cry within that says you have the right to exist as you are in the unique expression that your experiences and emotions give you that fuels this fire. A refusal to conform or compromise or be coerced into values, morals, aspirations or lifestyles which are externally imposed. The right to see and experience life through your own eyes, and for this sight to be valid. Idealists are tiny catalysts of the evolution of consciousness, in my view.
I’m a British Asian Muslim female so I’m told, I was also born into quite stark poverty (by Western standards). With a father always at work in a factory and a mother who was overwhelmed with housework and caring for 5 children (born within a space of 7 years), I strove for stimulation wherever I could find it. I’d read the backs of cereal boxes, cleaning products, food, drinks, anything with words on. I’d watch TV shows with the subtitles. I’d write on the back of opened bills, envelopes, Argos catalogues and letters and sleep with them all under my pillow when I slept, because where else would I put them? We moved around a lot. And also had the most embarrassing of afflictions for a child: head-lice. We’d sleep in our school uniform and take days off regularly to watch TV and stay at home while our Mum bought us 99p ‘lucky bags’ with sweets and toys in them- these days were like Christmas for us. My parents didn’t really speak to people in the neighbourhood, which was a pretty bad place anyway, and so we rarely aroused any suspicion if my siblings were beaten, if my brother was forced to eat soap, if my mother was hurt to the point of losing teeth and being bruised (sources of this harm undisclosed for discretion), if our father’s persistent threat of suicide was actualised or not. Our homes were repossessed, we lost cars. All our clothes were given to us or bought from cardboard boxes in flea markets by bulk. We’d go without electricity or gas or food; baths were a luxury. Even to this day, it’s not unusual for us to be without it and to take our baths using water warmed in a kettle and poured in to a bucket. We were the ‘tramps’, the ‘boots’ in school. My siblings were bullied, beaten and ridiculed. I was persistently patronised. But, all we had was each other, and we hung on to that with everything we had. I really understand that what we went through is nothing, compared to many people, although I don’t really condone a hierarchy or competition of suffering. Yet, I still don’t know of anyone who feels as if they were raised in an absolute vacuum devoid of any positivity except the TV.
I don’t like the phrase ‘taking charge of my circumstances’, I find it too corporate and unforgiving. There’s a limit to your ‘self-actualisation’ potential if you live in a prison, or if you are bound into the slavery of debt or employment, for example. I would hate to patronise anyone with such puerile advice. I have felt the effects of destitution and despair, have witnessed my sister struggle with an eating disorder after being abused and persistently bullied, have seen my brother’s uncontrollable rage spew out on to everyone around him, have seen the self-inflicted cigarette burns on the arms of the taut skin of my littlest brother, I have seen the reserved isolation of my other sister, I have experienced my own depression and anxiety.
I know that these local instances of pain and suffering are only a microcosm of the frustration of humanity at a macro level. And I know, that there are many moments when an individual can’t simply join the rat race and become a celebrated rags-to-riches token poster child for capitalism. To ‘make something of themselves’ and show the world what they can do by posting updates and pictures all over Facebook in smugness. For me, it doesn’t inspire me or suit my personality or spirit in any way, plus I don’t want to be complicit in a structure which commodifies aspirations and reduces them to what is quantifiable and observable, alone. Rather my siblings and I have achieved something priceless, unquantifiable, we have fought for the ownership of our lives. We have resisted the despicable way that many, our family, our friends, our teachers, cashiers and boyfriends or girlfriends have labelled us.
Mic Righteous calls it ‘honour and pride’. And someone with no clue would think ‘how could someone like them have any honour and pride?’ To this I say, simply because we never had the opportunity, were never invited to conform or to be a part of the society that was always stamping down on us, looking down on us, crushing us, taking our homes away from us, our self-esteem, our beauty. My eyes blur and my mind wanders when I listen to the talk of a ‘prestige-whore’ (a name I used to give myself once upon a time, applying to university). I can never respect something which benefits from my emotional and physical scarcity. I can blame my parents for being deadbeat, and I have done in the past.
But I know that poverty isn’t within the individual, it is also embedded into the fabric of this society. We get called the parasites, but it’s them who feed off us. I have seen the derision with which my Dad has been treated as a man, the way that white bus drivers in Burnley, (renowned for racial divisions) drive past him when he’s running for the bus stop, 10 yards away, with arthritis in his knees. The way people have ridiculed my Mum for not having enough gold, for not wearing the right clothes, not being flattering or charming enough. I have no respect, no admiration, and no incentive to participate within the competitive, racist and corporatized mentality of such a society. None.
As I have mentioned before, religion or faith has never been an intellectual endeavour for me. Atheism is a luxury that the poor, oppressed and voiceless can’t afford. You know God when he is the only thing you have. It is far more nuanced than simply ‘finding meaning in suffering’. It is the awareness, the knowledge that you exist. That your existence is real, and that there is a witness to your reality, in all of its complexity outside of the man-made social, cultural, spiritual and psychological conditioning we are born into. That your experience is being seen, that it matters. That you are contributing to life by being alive. As we are further able to channel this complexity into words, we evolve human consciousness. Carl Jung said it better than I ever could:
‘But it is possible to have an attitude to the external conditions of life only when there is a point of reference outside them.’
So when people give me advice on how to ‘fulfil my potential’, I really do listen only out of politeness. If I want to be a waitress or a writer with a Law degree from the LSE, a Masters in Psychology from the University of Manchester and a ‘strong academic background’ I will be. Because your yardstick is not my yardstick. And it never will be. I will bring my reality into life by existing as I am, vehemently refusing any labels or narratives imposed upon me, any short-sighted explanations of my experience or any advice on how to live the life that was given to me as a gift. And that only God alone has been a complete witness to.
I asked myself why talk about this now? Aside from the fact it was my organic reaction to the brief presented to me, I felt sick of the silence. Every day I am surrounded by people who thrive off material success, and believe me I don’t judge them. They are celebrated and revered, admired and considered inspiring, rarely are they called vain. But there is a story that is being missed amongst all the tossing around of alleged wealth and affluence. That is the story I wish to present here. Posting images of purchases, promotions and holidays is considered ‘like-worthy’, whilst any hint at negativity is ignored, considered dull and boring, or flinched upon. But simply because others may consider this self-pity or unnecessary doesn’t mean that I agree with their judgment. Somewhere out there, there may be a young woman or man like myself who is deeply wounded, maybe they self-hate, because of the imprisoning feeling of their own conditions despite their utmost efforts to escape. I want to tell them their experience is valid. Their pain is valid. It exists, it is real. And above all, it is a valuable addition to the human experience. It is crucial in fact.
The majority of the people on this earth are suffering in some way. It is a part of our condition, but it is not inevitable. Many of you may sob only when no one is around to see, experience loneliness, isolation, self-hatred, frustration and numbness, then proceed to present a peaceful façade to the world. I do the same. So let’s not pretend it is self-indulgent to feel weak, to feel powerless and broken. Our existence and authenticity depends upon us being loyal to these experiences, to sharing them. Through affirming the existence of our reality we can change things, we can change the whole world in fact, but first we need to admit the truth of our situation as it is and has been, without running from it or denying it. And remembering that we exist in an unescapable web, responsible for and to each other. There aren’t that many things that I have control over in my own life at the moment, although I strive in literally every moment to be free from these restrictions, but I do have control over my own voice, over my own narrative. And if there is anything I want to own, it is that.
This is the brief I was given when a dear friend requested me to write a piece for her blog, as part of a fascinating project ‘The People’s Playground’:
“How a woman takes charge of her circumstances, isn’t what society expects her to be, strives to break the glass ceiling, yet can be underrated due to societal or family expectations”
Over the last few months, I met people from all over the world online, in the Facebook group of the same name and discussed issues such as love, loss, monogamy, religion, capitalism, work ethic, philosophy, reading, music- basically everything. It was set up by one of the most intelligent, critical and intellectual people that I know, Shazeen. A woman who has explored the world and her own existence through sensuality and the intellect, through understanding and compassion. Of course, I was honoured to write for her. Thank you for helping me work through my doubts, my confusions and being a compassionate and conscious presence at many moments in my life.
The title of this piece is taken from the song ‘Gone’ by Mic Righteous. Link here:
Would you like to explore more of Maira’s thoughts and ideas? Please tune into her blog: The Gates of Paradise