I was not blessed to be able to enjoy the presence of my mother throughout my adult life, as she passed away when I was eighteen-years-old. I was able to benefit from her mentorship and wisdom during my formative years, even though many of the lessons she taught me I did not fully appreciate until recently.
Perhaps the greatest thing she taught me was the following: “Son, no one owes you anything.” She added a practical twist to those simple words by letting me know, for example, if I wanted to be dressed to impress at the beginning of the new school year then I had better get a summer job because with seven children to feed and clothe, alone as a single mom, she was not going to be able to contribute to my wardrobe anything more than a single outfit which she would design and sew herself.
So in the summers I would head to the tobacco fields of the Connecticut River Valley to join the Puerto Rican and Jamaican migrant workers to offer my services to Culbro, Inc. During the school year I would sometimes have two paper routes. In junior high and high school I worked as a school janitor, emptying trash cans, sweeping, mopping and buffing floors long after the buildings had been abandoned because I had to perform my duties after football or track practice -during some years.
Some people might think that my mother’s advice was a formula for cynicism, but the opposite proved to be the case. Once I internalized that great lesson I have not expected anything from anyone, and in that I firmly believe that no one owes me anything, I have never been disappointed. For me that has meant the ability to love freely, to give freely and to live free. On the other hand, the copious good I have received from countless people who I have been blessed to cross paths with has all gone on the positive side of life’s ledger.
It was only after I accepted Islam and had spent long years studying and living the religion did I realize that my mother had helped to lay the foundation for actualizing the reality of Tawhid in my life, namely that we are to trust in and rely on Allah, the great giver of all gifts who will never disappoint us.
For the careful reader, I concede that there are God-given rights owed to us. Discussing how they are to be secured for ourselves in light of what I am mentioning here is a subtle discussion for another day. We are however enjoined to do everything in our power to secure those rights for others. What I am discussing here is at the level of personal expectations in a sometimes selfish and uncaring world.
So I say to all of my young brothers and sisters who may be just embarking, independently, on the wonderful and fascinating journey of life: no one owes you anything so don’t anticipate that you will be given anything. If you have dreams it is up to you to chase them. If you have a plan it is up to you to implement it. If you have a gift it is up to you to share it. You will never be disappointed so you will be able to freely love, live and give. Seeking the pleasure of God and not reciprocity from humans will be the wind filling your sails. Far from being bitter and lonely as you traverse the road before you, you will be enraptured by the incredible people Allah sends to help you along and because you never expected that help you will be moved to a realm of boundless gratitude. Godspeed and may Allah bless you.
“...and whosoever places his trust in Allah, He suffices him.” Qur’an 65:3