The first kinda-roommate I had – I didn’t room with her, but I used the attached bathroom that she had all to herself, instead of the hallway bathroom used by up to ten women of varying tastes in hygiene – she was pious. She accommodated me, putting herself out with with an other worldly smile or a restrained pout and lowered eyelids.
This was the first time I’d roomed with anyone, and I was uncomfortable imposing on people. I was uncomfortable sharing space too. From a comfortable though frugal middle class family of doctors, I had my own room and my own bathroom, and I was the youngest of the family. As a roommate, I felt terrible a lot of the time, and I felt clueless about negotiating space in the situation. I took a while to connect with people, because my protective family hadn’t been socially very active. It was hard work letting people into my life, and simply sharing space wasn’t enough to connect with them.
One day, as I struggled with my feelings and felt deeply alone, I expressed my gratitude to my kinda-roommate. Her eyes lit up. I thought, oh, maybe we will connect now. Maybe I will know the real person behind her piety. Maybe she will say, “oh, don’t worry about it! It’s a pleasure to hang out with you!”
“It’s only for the sake of Allah that I do it,” she said. Her face glowed with a sense of charitable piety, and I realized that there was very little behind the piety to connect with. I felt stumped, and I felt deeply depressed, shut out.
Good-deed friends are exhausting. They reach out to lend you a helping hand. But they don’t really want to. They do it for God, for sawab, accumulating karma or Paradise points. But their hearts are so contracted within themselves and their own grasping desire for God, karma, and paradise, that even for God, karma, and paradise they cannot give of themselves. They end up draining you of zen and happiness because it is not out of generosity of spirit that they give but competitive point accumulation.
Believers, do not make your charities fruitless by reproachfully reminding the recipient of your favor or making them feel insulted, like the one who spends his property to show off and who has no faith in God or belief in the Day of Judgment. The example of his deed is as though some soil has gathered on a rock and after a rain fall it turns hard and barren. Such people can not benefit from what they have earned. God does not guide the unbelievers (Qur’an, 002:264, Sarwar translation).
Not all good deed friends are like this. Some of us earnestly want to do good deeds for others, but occasionally, on a bad day, we will run out of goodwill. Others, however, habitually run on empty.
If your heart isn’t able to give of itself to someone, you are a good-deed friend. A good deed friend ends up taking rather than giving. And when you take from someone who is down and out, you are doing nobody any favors.
The best deed you can do, before rushing into the world to help others, is to remedy the emptiness or the damage in your own heart. The same goes for da’wah warriors who want to invite others to God and the Prophet, but who are desperately in need of spiritual first aid themselves. The same goes for many first world wanderers who seek out the poor, huddled masses in the developing world, and who inflict harm by their ultimately self-serving desire to do good.
If you have nothing to give, stay in and cure that emptiness.
As a novice in my tariqah (which I still am, to be honest), I was keen to share my newfound ecstasy with others. I spoke to circles of women in Islamabad, and enjoyed the lights in others’ eyes when I shared my disconnected set of inspirations. It was a tumult in my heart, and I felt that I had to leak in order to contain it.
I was surprised and disappointed when my shaikh told me to stop. Stop leading dars circles, he said. Stop writing so much poetry. You cannot grow unless you bottle it up for a while. Not everyone must share with others. Not everyone must go out into the world to make a difference. Focus first.
Good deed friends, until you are ready to be a friend, bottle up your love for a bit. Help yourself before going out to help the world.