When I was in high school, we had an excellent English teacher who taught us what the skeleton of a good piece of writing should be. “You must always have an introduction, a body and a conclusion. This is the true secret of an essay,” she would tell us.
Start off with a catchy paragraph that will pull your reader in. Once you have their interest, you can flesh out your arguments and refine them, but the part that holds the entire essay together, that lifts it up to stand on its own, is the ending. You must always – always – make sure you have a solid conclusion that pulls together the threads of all your thoughts and ties them into a neat little bow.
A reader should feel that their choice to follow you on a journey with your muse was a wise one and that it has brought them to a satisfactory – if possible, an enlightening – end. Somewhere better than where they were before they started.
Add value. This is what your writing must do, no matter how small or big a piece of work it is. That is why it saddened me that for some time, I struggled to find any value in what I had to say through my writing. It seemed that Life was simply passing me by in a whirlwind of routine and chores, of duties and checklists.
However, nothing stops Life in its tracks and makes us pause like the brushing past of Death. Sometimes it touches us in a fleeting manner, other times it tears our heart out and leaves it a bleeding mess in our hands. Regardless of the depth of our encounter, it always shakes us awake from our slumber, albeit momentarily.
Death wakes us rudely from our sleepy routine and bombards us with questions we would rather not answer. I have to come to believe that in our efforts to heal and move on, what we are in reality seeking the most is simply to once again forget the inevitable end we are all heading towards.
My most recent brush with death was a distant one, but one that unnerved me more than I had anticipated. I had turned down a proposal from a peer a while back and chosen a different path that I believed was better for me. The person I decided not to work with just passed away suddenly a few days ago.
When people die, those left behind speak of their legacies. Did the deceased do good to others? Did they help anyone? What causes did they support? Every life they touched speaks up to honour them. The more fondly others speak of a lost friend or family member, the more their value is realised. We all live in the hope that this value is reflected into the afterlife.
Everyone I know has had only extremely good things to say about the personality we have lost. And now, the thought of what could have been catches me unaware as I wash the dishes or play with my daughter. It intrudes when I want to waste away an hour watching mindless television or when I want to sit down to read something instructive. Would my life have been different if I had chosen to work with the deceased? Would the different opportunities have made an impact on me that I can now only imagine? I will never know.
What I do know is that I chose my current path because I truly believed I would become a better person – a better Muslim – on it. But have I achieved that? Am I any further on the path of self-progress that I had imagined I would walk on? And if I were to die suddenly, how much of what I had aimed for have I managed to accomplish? Over and over again, the same question echoes in my head: what will the conclusion to my life story be?
I wonder what people will say of me when I die? I have looked back at the decades of my life and it is with fear and sadness that I see nothing but a blank sea of grey. I have spoken some words, written a few more, but I have not in any way contributed to the life of anyone else above what common courtesy or responsibility demanded. I have not given beyond my means, I have not served, I have not sacrificed.
Were I to leave this world tonight, there are a very few people who would miss me apart from my immediate family and close friends, simply because there are a very few people who have felt an impact in their lives through me. This is the un-pretty truth I am facing today: that I have left nothing that would guide my daughter, no example, no advice, no actions worth emulating.
I have lived in the false confidence that I will grow alongside her, learning as I teach; that I will guide her with the best of my knowledge as and when the occasion arises. I have never stopped to consider what I would leave for her if I am not meant to accompany her on her journey towards her Creator. Loss of parents is a reality that is played out every day all around the world, and yet those of us blessed to be spending one more day with our children, with our family and friends, remain blind to it.
It is a sobering thought for a sobering time of the year. As we approach the end of this Islamic year and the start of the next, it is the perfect time to assess and evaluate what we have done so far. The opportunity to gain complete forgiveness is abundant in the ten days of Mercy during Dhul Hijjah, followed closely by the ten days of inspiring an inner revolution during Muharram.
I know my resolutions this year will definitely involve implementing more clearly the things I want to tangibly leave behind in memory of myself. Most of us will never achieve perfection before returning to our Lord, but what is important is to be able to at least say that we are in the process of writing the best possible conclusion to our story.