“The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”
I was only in third grade at the time, just 8 years old. I had no idea what happened other than really bad people did a really bad thing that made people really sad…or even mad…at me. But it wasn’t long until I learned.
Amongst these options, the label of terrorist is the last one any student hopes for. Most people easily fall into the other categories; my story, however, is quite different. One Friday night, years ago, while hanging out with my best friends, like most students do, we decided to make a pit stop at a local gas station. I walked in the store to grab a quick snack; Reese’s to be exact.
As I entered the store, I held the door open, as a courtesy, for someone exiting with an array of snacks in their hands; rather than a simple “thank you” in response, he called me terrorist. I was dumbfounded that I could display such a simple act of kindness, and receive such hurtful treatment in return.
How can a complete stranger spout such a slur and not see the error in their actions? Satisfied with both his armful of snacks and delivery of his insults, the man meandered back towards his car oblivious of how his words affected me. Through this I learned that every person in one’s life will have an impact, whether positive or negative; it is up to each individual to decide how they will allow each interaction to affect them. Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “no one can make you feel inferior without your consent”.
As a young adult, I always expected to gain wisdom and knowledge from my elders. I never expected to learn, what I perceive to be, one of the most important lessons of my young adult life from someone who seems too young to understand life, as we know it.
Emily, a nine-year-old girl whom I tutored, is just like any other typical nine year old-she loves playing lacrosse, hanging out with friends, and she idolizes Taylor Swift. Yet unlike most of her peers, Emily survived leukemia. I hadn’t the slightest inclination of this young girls’ battle with such a disease until she told me her story. Emily battled an aggressive and life threatening disease, yet she persevered.
She didn’t allow the devastating diagnosis to define her, but rather, took it as an opportunity to view life from a different perspective. Her story of struggling with such a disease and her unwillingness to succumb to it really resonated with me.
Emily chose positivity and strength, thus choosing herself. She chose to deny the cancer the opportunity to crush her. She chose to sleep soundly, knowing that another day was yet another opportunity to be her best self.
Reflecting on Emily’s strength, I thought about the struggles that I have faced, and how I have allowed each event to impact me. The most defining element in my life is presently being a young, Muslim woman in America. Although my personal struggle does not threaten my life like Emily’s, it once threatened my self worth, and that is a dangerous battle of its own.
I am an Iranian-American- born, proud, practicing Muslim. I was born in the United States – it’s home to me. After the tragedy of September 11th, life as we knew it changed, not just for Muslims, but also for the world. While only third grade at the time, just 8 years old, I could not fully grasp the gravity of such an event.
As the years passed, I experienced the effects of the aftermath of September 11th, which manifested itself in stares, ridicule, rejection, misunderstanding, confusion, hate, all best described in one word: discrimination. I was allowing my humanity to be defined by the misguided thoughts of others. All too easily, I granted strangers the power to be the decisive element in my life.
Every day, like most teenagers, I struggled with my identity. I felt as though no one could empathize with the struggle I faced being that my surroundings lacked much diversity. I had trouble understanding why I was different and why people treated me as though the culprit of the tragedy of September 11th was me, as if I single-handedly committed the crime.
It was as if just because I chose to put on an extra piece of clothing every day I was instilled with hatred.
The way Emily took charge of her troubles taught me to not look at life through the eyes of defeat but rather those of fortitude. A girl, whom I was supposed to be teaching simple math to, switched roles with me and taught me a much more valuable lesson: someone’s pain, whether physical or emotional, is only temporary and only you have the power to determine how it impacts your life. Choose to empower yourself. Choose to define your worth. Choose to sleep soundly.
Surely, at times, I have endured scenarios where the words of my peers and strangers passing by have knocked me down emotionally. Initially, I allowed hurtful actions and hateful slurs to dictate my self-value, and distort my view of people but I learned that words are powerful, both as weapons and as peace offerings.
It is important to understand that however powerful words may be, it relies solely upon individual interpretation to whether those words will build you up or break you down. Unbeknownst to her, little Emily indirectly changed my life for the better. Emily taught me that no matter the battle and despite your trials and tribulations, your best self must always be put forth for the chance that someone, anyone, will recognize it and be inspired as a result.
When I reflect on the events that made me cry or hurt me or took me to the point of complete silence, I go back to the day at the gas station and remind myself that I was a complete stranger to the man. He did not know who I was, and honestly he would never get the pleasure of doing so.
Fifty years from now when I’m old and gray, that man at the convenience store will be a distant memory that occasionally visits my mind, but rather than letting that memory pain me, I will be at ease, unaffected by his ignorance.
In a world overflowing with calamities and hardship, it is frighteningly easy to fall prey to the well-crafted illustrations others draw of us.
Empower yourself to be a tool of inspiration, rather than a tool of anguish. Remain soft and sweet, never allowing yourself to become a familiar companion to bitterness. Sleep soundly, with the comfort of knowing you solely define your worth. Sleep soundly, unaffected by the judgment of others. At the end of the day, when I lay my head down to sleep, I sleep soundly.