These days the past haunts me. To be more precise: my squandered schooling and my failure to learn how to learn. It has been brought on by three things: 1) raising two young children, 2) revisiting a novel I wrote when I was twenty and 3) a perpetual numbness in my forehead which I have come to associate with my lack of knowledge.
Raising children is obviously a life changing experience. Due to matters beyond our control, we came to parenthood late in the day; my own parents already had teenagers by the time they were my age. But it is more than the life changing experience that has hit me: it’s watching, listening to, observing these two little children. Seeing their inquisitiveness their intelligence, their maturity already. I look back on my childhood: I was incredibly shy, slow to learn. The silent one.
The novel, a story about teenagers negotiating their moral identity, has carried me twenty years back in time. Not because it was biographical, but because it has reminded me of an era I had forgotten. And because its target audience — teenagers and young adults — prove themselves to be so much more mature than I ever was. I have been thrust right back to those awkward days.
And this numbness in my forehead. Perhaps it’s daft, but I really do associate it with the emptiness within: an empty head, under-used brain cells, stupidity.
My parents invested so much in my education and yet I don’t know what I got out of it. Oh sure, there’s a list of certificates, but what did I really learn? I am poorly read, inarticulate, my tongue unfluent. For my living, I push around bits of HTML all day, while my friends and siblings have gone on to great things, well-deserved.
I look back to all those days at school when I just spent my lunchtimes looking at a collection of Heath Robinson’s illustrations repeatedly, if not wandering aimlessly around the school grounds. I hated school and took nothing from it. I look back at the year I started at sixth form college and at my hopelessly random selection of A-Levels. I look back at that year I decided I would not apply for university, convinced that I would not pass my A-Levels. I later went on to university, but I was out of my depth: I was unsocialised and awkward.
Oh, but who cares about the past? I care because the past was the foundation for the present. I had an opportunity to push down firm roots, to build strong foundations, but I chose not to. And so today I reap the consequences. In the fifteen years I have been Muslim, what have I learned? I still struggle to read the Qur’an. I know few du’as. I guess my prayers fall short. In the eleven years I have been married, what have I learned of my wife’s language? Barely a smattering of words.
I am empty, because I have never learned how to learn. My mind seems to tick along at half speed. I am building on unfirm ground, on shifting sands. Honestly — and I really mean this — if I didn’t have my faith, I’d have nothing at all. This is what it means to run on empty.