Every once in a while, I let myself get frustrated. That's a fairly natural human emotion, but I tend to feel guilty afterwards; life overall has been very kind to me, and the worries I struggle with seem so insignificant in retrospect. Monday was one of those days where I let impatience overcome me, forgetting all the good in my life for the sake of a few minor frustrations.
Vancouver is a beautiful city, but it holds a dark secret: there is more poverty here than almost anywhere else in Canada. The Downtown Eastside area, situated just a few blocks from beautiful waterfront condos and trendy boutiques, is home to what is considered to be the poorest area of Canada. The sad consequence is that the neighbourhood is rife with drugs, homelessness, and prostitution. The crime rate is reportedly one of the highest anywhere in North America, and the results of that trickle into the more mainstream areas of downtown.
I see more beggars on the street here than anywhere else in Canada. The impoverished come in all shapes and sizes; if you were to see some of them just walking down the street, you'd never expect that they would have to beg just to make ends meet. Many of them are young, with seemingly good heads on their shoulders; they could have so much potential were it not for the drug addictions. Others have lost their wits entirely, walking around aimlessly for days on end, yelling and screaming profanities at the wind and rain.
And that's when I start feeling guilty about ever feeling frustrated. There was no choice these poor souls made that have brought them to where they are. None of these people simply decided that this was the life for them. They fell victim to circumstances mostly beyond their control, and now walk the streets with little hope of ever enjoying a comfortable life. They walk hungry, dirty, and incapable of even sorting out their own thoughts. Their beds line the sidewalks, and trashed coffee cups become their wallets. And my daily realities far exceed even the best of their dreams.
Neither my talents nor my hard work have saved me from such a life. There was no choice I made which protected me. Every breath I take, and the comforts I enjoy while taking them, have been gifts from my Creator. And perhaps the greatest gift I have is that I recognize this to be so; how many millions of people go through their lives with no belief at all? How many millions of people suffer from hardships without having the comfort of faith in their corner? It is a gift in itself to believe that there is Divinity listening to our thoughts and prayers; without this, we would all fall entirely to despair.
Ramadhan is fast approaching. Sometimes, I look at the beggars in the streets and try to justify my complacency by reminding myself that I will be fasting for an entire month in a few weeks. But that fasting, as valuable as it is, is still insufficient to truly show gratitude for all the favours I have been blessed with. Fasting in itself is a favour, because it is a sign that I have been given the gift of faith. So how do I show gratefulness for the ability to fast? What thanks do I give for the ability to perform prayers during the night and day? As one scholar said, "prayer alone is not a sufficient token of gratitude to Allah. In fact, the prayer is itself another blessing we must show gratitude for."
Truly, no amount of action on our part will ever complete our obligation towards gratitude, but Allah remains the Most Beneficent, the Most Merciful. We do what we can, and pray that our actions are accepted; please remember me in those prayers.
Update 9.16.2006: Please read this wonderful post at Reflective Dust for a practical response to this piece.