The ease by which we can get sucked into pessimism about humanity and the state of the world these days is startling. Not only do we have more and more continuing oppressions coming to light through the voice of the internet (see: growing vocalizations of white supremacists all over the world, violence against people of color, increased terrorism etc), but we also have pretty unique moments in history arising because of these circumstances – one example being the absolute freak show that is the American election where, frankly, there hasn’t been much hope since Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic candidate race. (Although I heard just yesterday that his name is still going to be on the ballot at the Democratic National Convention – do I dare to dream?)

Part of the problem is how we receive our information: particularly through Facebook. A lot of people don’t realize that this particular social media platform operates based on complex algorithms designed to show you what you are most likely to click on. The more doom and gloom you are engaging with, the more you will find in your newsfeed. There isn’t really a way to get around this and stay informed, unless you want to take the time to outsmart your Facebook account. This is my first tip for shifting over to optimism. A lot of people will simply disconnect or disengage from their social media accounts and that’s great if that’s what they really want to do – but for people like me, whose livelihood is connected to being a netizen and whose clients are managed under my general account, that’s not really an option. Every time I have tried to delete the Facebook app off my phone (even without deactivating my account), it takes less than half an hour for a client to message me asking me to post something. Contrary to appearances, I’m not sitting in front of my computer all day and even if I was, I can’t just connect to the internet through magical computer data, so I’m stuck with my phone and with Facebook burning an ever-growing hole of pessimism in my literal pocket.

hope and dreams

What to do then? You can start by liking positive stories or commenting on them. And no, I’m not just saying that because I’m a content developer and I want you to engage more with the barrage of things people post on the internet. This is not shameless self-advertising (even though it takes place on my business blog haha). Rather, liking positive stories is simply the quickest way to get more of them in your newsfeed – and, by extension, more positive people as well. Surrounding yourself with positive stories and positive people will start to shift the messages that are filtering into your brain every day.

Of course, I am not advocated shutting off completely. At. All. People absolutely have an ethical obligation to stay informed and educated about the issues we face in the world today and they absolutely must keep informed about political movements that will dramatically affect the countries in which they take place, and (in the case of America especially) every other damn country on the face of the earth. I am simply advocating for a little softness in the harshness that is the world, and to remember (or learn) that there really is more good than bad, or at the very least some good and a whole lot of neutral or irrelevant.

hopeful hearts

The other place that I have been finding solace lately will not come as a surprise to anyone that knows me is having faith. I was sitting in a grassy field with a new friend of mine the other night and she was talking about horrible atrocities against Muslim women who have come under the enslavement of various oppressors like ISIS. She was talking about how they had asked sheikhs for dispensation to commit suicide in the event that they will certainly face unspeakable and unending torture until they die. And she also mentioned how a sheikh she knew had gone from a hard-lined answer on this ruling to being unsure and simply stating that “he doesn’t know” if suicide is still forbidden to these unfortunate souls.

Regardless, when she was telling this story to me, she mentioned how this particular sheikh was different than other people – that he had a real kind of faith which, even if the face of hideous and cruel oppression, violence and death, still holds hope about the idea that justice will eventually be served by a Merciful God.

When she said that, I thought of my past self when I first converted to Islam, right up until the time I nearly died in a traumatic child birth in which I was repeatedly assaulted and had my rights violated. Until that time, I held out hope for justice no matter what the world was faced with – constant and persistent hope. Perhaps when I had faced true oppression from another still-unpunished person (and the profound disappointment in humanity that comes with that) and when the veil started lifting on just how much of it is out there, is when I started to operate in a pessimistic framework, I’m not sure. It certainly feels like I am always waffling between the two and some days are better than others.

My friend’s words in that field, however, reminded me what faith can do for people in terms of hope. Militant atheists are probably going to jump all over me for pushing my hope onto a transcendental entity, to which I would reply that hope for future justice need not be in a different metaphysical realm. It can mean hope for justice right here, right now, wrought by over hands – and, as a believing Muslim, that still comes from Allah for me even if it doesn’t for people who don’t believe. The type of justice that can be brought in this life, however, is often not enough and this is where I take comfort in my belief in a Merciful and Just God. One sheikh was talking about how, if Hitler hadn’t gotten away with suicide, and the court had had their way with him regarding the Holocaust, there is still no way to achieve a certain level of justice necessary to account for the six to eight million lives he extinguished (never mind those lost in the war he instigated). Only with Allah can we be certain that, for such an individual, it is possible to be awoken and killed six million times throughout the rest of eternity.

But having faith is not only about hoping that criminals get their due punishments (while, very often in this life, they go free). It is also about having faith that we can garner the strength and energy needed to bring mercy and justice to this life as well. At the Black Lives Matter rally downtown a few weeks ago, I met an amazing couple of sisters who I instantly connected with. In talking with one of them, I was discussing the prophetic hadith (sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him) about the end of time and how many people claim (and have also claimed at other unstable times in history) that that time is now because some of the signs appear to be upon us. How, then, can we be certain that all of this is not in vain and that things just won’t get irrevocably worse as we move towards the Last Day? All of that (I should note) fits into warped terroristic worldviews as they seek to bring about the apocalypse with their apocalyptic atrocities.

One of the sisters, however, was quick to state that even though that prophecy will inevitably be true, it does not have to be now. Doom and total destruction is not necessarily on the horizon for us because we can simply choose to live justly, seeking justice and doing good deeds together. We don’t have to give in to the rhetoric of fear, division and pessimism and, as a result, we can work towards a more optimistic future. Sounds pretty damn hopeful to me and something simple enough to be empowering and therefore doable.

hopefulness

The other inspiring thing I have been up to is working on my thesis. And while, for many disenchanted grad students (I’ve been there!), that can seem like a pretty weird place to find hope for the future (aren’t we all supposed to be procrastinating and eating cheerios while watching Netflix in bed?), it’s actually not that surprising. When you follow your passions, you will certainly find hundreds, if not thousands or millions of people right there with you. And that kind of unspoken community is enough alone to give you hope. After writing a thesis outline the other day, I went through a list of authors whose works I need to compile to inform my theoretical framework. Somehow, writing this book list to get from the library made me positively giddy. I started to literally swoon at my desk just thinking about all of the brilliant ideas that I would find between the covers of these books – all the information and careful thought put into assembling it, all the delightful analysis and discussion that would take place, all the changes in my own patterns of thinking that would take place, and that I would be bearing witness to all the time people had spent developing discourse on philosophical or historical ideas instead of time spent killing and oppressing each other. It was a sober reminder that there are libraries full of books, full of information, full of art, full of poetry, full of life and when we choose to engage with it, we come alive again too.

As of late, I have also been going back to nature to get recharged and renewed. That is not to say that we are somehow separate from nature, nor are we actually going back to it just by sitting in a forest instead of a city somewhere. Nature is not only all around us, it is us. “Going back to nature” is as simply as eating mindfully: chewing your food slowly and really seeing, smelling and tasting it. “Going back to nature” can happen in a concrete jungle simply by watching the ants move, or watching the wind whisper through the grass of your suburban lawn. Constructed nature tamed by humans is still nature and frankly, if you are always waiting for that trip to the mountains to slow down, recharge and marvel in the incredible and insane miracle of life, you’re probably going to fall into despair a lot faster than you need to.

Don’t lose hold of the mundane and sublime absurdity that is this life – the fact that we are water-based beings in hairy sacks of skin, occupying a blue and green planet in space and when we put the stuff that grows on this planet into our mouths, we somehow extract energy contained in it from a burning star to continue living for years. This place is pure magic and totally insane. In the relentless agony that is human politics, it can be very easy to forget that fact which is too bad because it certainly makes all that nasty human crap melt away pretty fast, doesn’t it?

What are your strategies for remaining hopeful?

On December 13, 2015, I was asked to be the representative of Edmonton’s Muslim community at the Phoenix Society’s Interfaith Celebration. The event took place in Edmonton’s City Hall and featured representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, as well as musical performances related to each faith. It was an honour to be asked to give my thoughts on the theme of “Hope” in Islam, particularly as the last speaker of the day and the first woman to represent Islam in the event’s history. What follows below is the text of my speech.

I want to begin – In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful – with a translation of the meaning of the 35th verse of the 24th chapter of the Holy Qur’an, entitled An Nur, the Light.

Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His light is like a niche within which is a lamp, the lamp is within glass, the glass as if it were a brilliant star lit from [the oil of] a blessed olive tree, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil would almost glow forth though no fire touched it. Light upon Light! Allah guides to His light whom He wills. And Allah presents examples for the people, and Allah is All-Knower of everything.

I stand before you today as a woman, a mother, an academic, an activist, and, above all, a Muslim.

I stand before you today as a Muslim woman and some might note the cruel irony in that, at this particular moment in history, I am supposed to talk to you about hope.

I stand before you today as someone who has every reason not to hope. As someone who has every reason to grieve. Even, to fall into despair.

I look around at what is happening in this world, in places like Yemen and Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, in Mali and Tunisia, in Palestine and Israel, in Lebanon and France, in America, in our own backyard in Canada, in my own family.

I look around at what is happening in this world and I have seen it all before. As a historian, I have seen all of this before: all the violence, the hate, the divisive rhetoric, the othering, the anger, the retaliation, the death of so many of our children. And the more I study, it seems the less I can make sense of any of it.

I started my journey in academics as a historian of the Shoah – the Holocaust perpetuated by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. And in this example, we find some of the darkest depths of human depravity. The absolute worst of humankind. We find this darkness emulated every day around the world, individually and collectively: in war, in genocide, in terrorism, in racism, in abuse. We find darkness everywhere. We carry it with us like a shroud.

I stand before you today as someone who has every reason not to hope. As someone who has every reason to grieve. And I do grieve.

In language, grief almost always involves water, with people drowning in it or passing through life in a fog due to it. In grief, we find the nomads, the memorialists, the normalizers, the activists and the seekers: those who are unresolved, those who seek to preserve memory, those who recreate family and community, and others who turn to prayer for meaning.

Grief occupies a physical space in the phenomenal realm. An immoveable mass. It cannot be perceived by the senses but it’s there, an invisible tunnel entered through the gates of trauma, sometimes narrowing to the point of suffocation, other times widening so that its grasp is forgotten.

Studies of bereaved individuals reveal that grief is not linear – it does not plot itself neatly on a road map from denial to recovery with despair and depression as pit-stops in between. How can grief be linear when there is continuously so much to mourn?

I grieve because grief is part of my hope. In grieving, I mourn the loss of life, the loss of love and the death of morality that has become normalized. In grieving, I know we can be better.

Psychologists suggest that bereavement carries with it one of the greatest qualities of humanity: resilience. From disaster and tragedy, people almost always reflect and rise up stronger than before and the process is so individual that it resembles a fingerprint. It cannot be shaped by others. Our resilience is at once our own and communally, universally shared.

Resilience carries with it the connotations of brilliance, an illumination that, even if small, forbids darkness from taking over completely. There cannot exist total darkness as long as there is a single light and it is this light, this noor, that we must choose. Choosing hope, being resilient does not mean you will never grieve or that you will never fall into despair. In fact, it means that those things will be a necessary part of your hope.

I want to share an important interpretation of a Qur’anic passage with you about the nature of humanity as carriers of both shrouds of darkness and resilient light. This comes to me from a fellow Muslim, brother Aaron, writing in response to the recent terrorist attacks across the globe and the violent backlash felt in Muslim communities everywhere.

The creation of Adam (a.s) is mentioned many times in the Qur’an, but the first time it is mentioned, the angels asked Allah of the earth: “Will You place in it someone who will spread corruption there and shed blood while we praise You and glorify Your Name?” (2:30). Their question was well-founded. Prior to the creation of humans, jinn were constantly fighting and killing and spreading corruption. It got so bad that the angels intervened to stop their constant wars. So when they learned that God was making another creation, they probably had reason to fear that this creation would behave much like the jinn did.

Were the angels right about us? Have we spread corruption and shed blood? Yes. So very often, yes. The earth has been saturated with the blood of humanity. But, when the angels asked why God would create something that would spread corruption and shed blood, Allah responded:

“I know what you do not know.” (2:30)

What does Allah know? Does God know some true potential of humankind?

In this, I stand before you today as someone who has every reason not to hope. But, I do hope.

I have seen people change before my very eyes. With consistent patience and compassion, I have seen their hatred give way to understanding and acceptance, seen their fears turn to knowledge and kind action.

The world continues through the walls of grief.

People will fall in love and be married; children will be born; poetry, art and beauty will forever echo our dreams.

History marches on into the future.

A collective loss is a mark in our continuous time – a crack in the sidewalk that some people step over, others stumble past, and still more individuals stop and marvel when tiny, yellow flowers push up through the fracture.

These are the ones, the ever-bereaved, the ever-hopeful, the resilient ones who I emulate and in whose tireless efforts I place my trust to carry the Light into an uncertain future.

Thank you.

Nakita Valerio is currently pursuing graduate studies in History and Islamic-Jewish Studies at the University of Alberta.  Nakita was named one of the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation’s Top 30 Under 30 for 2015, and is the recipient of the State of Kuwait, the Queen Elizabeth II and the Frank W Peers Awards for Graduate Studies. Most recently, she has been named one of Edmonton’s “Difference Makers” for 2015 by the Edmonton Journal. Nakita is the co-founder of Bassma Primary School in El Attaouia, Morocco and a Director with the Alberta Muslim Public Affairs Council.