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To Harvard College Students, In Times of Change

By Khalil Abdur-Rashid
Khalil Abdur-Rashid is the Muslim Chaplain at Harvard University.

I know that as you read this, many of you are with your families or are on your way towards your home communities. I also know that some of you may find yourselves still here on campus, unable to travel at this time. My message to each of you is a message of hope in the face of uncertainty; a message of relief in the face of trials; and a message of the presence of ease after hardship.

The only thing constant in this world is change. Change tends to be qualitative — being from better to worse, or from worse to better. As human beings, we are constantly marked by change. Indeed, leadership is often forged from the crucible of change. We learn the meaning of being human only through our persevering and making meaning out of change. On some occasions, change delivers benevolence from the winds of destiny. Other times change ushers in deprivation which reminds us of our essential needs from each other and of our need for something greater than each other.

As equal members of the human community, we grow and develop through both qualities of change. It is easy to welcome the kind of change whose quality delivers upliftment and joy. But how do we process the kind of change that deprives us of some of the things we cherish dearly but often take for granted? Rumi, the famous 13th-century Anatolian poet and jurist who himself endured this quality of change when he became a refugee as a child, used to have quite a bit to say about change. In articulating the mysterious but nevertheless providential aspect of change Rumi would say:

“If you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?”

In moments when we are swiftly blown away by the whirlwind of change, the hustle and bustle can naturally be disorienting for any of us. But as people who are more than just material beings, even if we find our bodies drifting, undergoing novel journeys that de-anchor us from the world as we knew it, what often helps is to imbed deeper yet transcendental meanings in our hearts and minds which may help us navigate such unchartered territories.

First, any tribulation you find yourself in, know that it could be worse! The fact that it isn’t worse is in itself a matter that requires a moment of thankfulness. Keep your eye (meaning the internal one) on the blessings that remain constant throughout the change. After all, which of those blessings could you possibly deny? Remembering what you have while in the midst of loss is part of undergoing the kind of character polishing that makes us diamonds, priceless to each other. Support one another and check on each other. Being socially distant does not have to translate into being socially isolated. We can find new, creative ways to stay connected and to reach out in times like this.

Second, remember that the grander narrative of the human being is one of migration and travel. We are, in this world, but travelers. That being the case, we must always remember that our time in all places is finite. While there is comfort in being in our homes, we must also call to the forefront of our minds what we will leave behind. We all arrive and leave places, so much so that it never really occurs to us. What distinguishes leaders in history/herstory is how they gave new meaning to present conditions which also fashioned the future. The time we have in all the places we inhabit is limited. Staying positive and consequently positively affecting the people and environment in our midst helps transform the world into a better place to inhabit both today and tomorrow. Therefore, when you travel, not only should you guard yourself from the contagious virus that infects others through human contact, but equally important is to instead infect others with the righteous content of your character. Make positive, lasting impressions on the people and the places you pass through so that both become tremendously impacted by the beauty of having encountered you!

Finally, choose courage in the face of fear and uncertainty. Remember that there are also positive contagions out there. Courage is contagious. Courage involves mustering the internal strength and conviction to face the horizons of an uncertain future, knowing that whatever the case, the future will be brighter than the past. We can become courageous ourselves by remembering courageous figures of the past — our remarkable, pious predecessors. Now is the time to remember that there were tougher obstacles faced by our parents, our grandparents, many of our relatives, and countless other heroes who stared down trauma, loss, oppression, war, and many other hidden and apparent threats. If they had courage, so can we; if they found hopes and dreams, so can we; if they never gave up, neither must we; if they became precious to us, then so too can we become precious to others. Courage enables us to think and operate with a profound sense of obligation to current and later generations.

Therefore, let us go forward together and face the remainder of our semester with courage, counting the blessings we have and cultivating a renewed sense of gratitude. Let us also remain devoted to a common cause of making the places and people we encounter a little bit better, on account of our character, no matter where we migrate to and no matter for how long or short of a duration we may inhabit that given place. And let us stay connected in new creative ways so that we revere the bonds we have forged.

May peace and blessings be with all of you and your families!

Khalil Abdur-Rashid is the Muslim Chaplain at Harvard University.

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