Last evening, I met with an old friend from university on a flying visit to London. He has spent the last twenty years expanding his firm’s international business. Me? I’ve spent it just finding my feet. For sure, we don’t have much in common anymore; perhaps we never did. But he was a gracious host, good enough to make time for me in his very busy schedule.
My old friend is confident hopping continents all year around, enjoying breakfast in the Gulf and afternoon tea in Beijing. Me? That was my first train journey into central London in years, and the experience imbibing the filthy air onboard left me giddy and nauseous. Peering through the window of my carriage on the way, taking in the unending cityscape and the multitudes of the unknown behind panes of glass, a thought belatedly occurred to me: “How preposterous to think you will ever reacquaint yourself with those you once knew!”
Living a quiet life, mostly working remotely, I had completely forgotten that London is home to nine million people. And yet… Yesterday morning an angel must have whispered the name of that old friend into my ear, which had led me to spontaneously message him. My intention: merely to convey salams — greetings of peace — and to wish him glad tidings. Instead, remarkably: “I’m in London. Have you time to meet for tea?”
Sadly I have used up all of my Annual Leave for the financial year, but somehow my perennial timidity left me and I accepted his invitation without qualms. So it was that I jumped on a train for an evening of conversation in our old stomping grounds. It’s amusing: he and I reside in such different worlds. I have always been both amazed and perturbed that we became friends all those years ago. He always had such a brilliant intellect, forever sharp and precise, whereas I was a gibbering wreck who dressed like I was homeless. I have always wondered how I ended up a student there; unbelievable but for the intervention of the One.
To be sure, our conversations were on different levels. He is articulate and ambitious, speaking of lofty matters and a life lived well, whereas I’m only just coming to terms with myself, looking back on my life to finally make sense of all that led me here. He was raised in difficult circumstances, the son of migrants from post-colonial South Asia, motivated to strive hard in order to support his parents and siblings. I was raised in privilege, the son of a successful solicitor, completely lost, with no idea where I was going. I have never had any worldly ambition. When our paths crossed all those years ago, it was because my ambition was to seek the One.
I should imagine my contributions to our conversations last night were tiresome. I know that of all my companions from university, I am the least successful in the worldly sphere. I was more-or-less there by accident, completely out of my depth, like a hare caught in the headlights of a speeding Range Rover. But still, it seems, lifelong relationships were forged back then, despite our strange zealotries. In the years since then, he has lived a great life. But I suppose I have too, in my own way.
Sure, I was never destined to go out into the world, to be someone, but as I approach my mid-forties, I feel I am finally making peace with myself. I have overcome many of the spiritual diseases which once plagued me. I’m finally beginning to grow up. My ambitions were always rather esoteric, so perhaps that is how I should measure myself. Not an arrogant, “Oh look at me, I am so pious and righteous.” No that’s not what I mean: that doesn’t even capture the inner anguish and mountain of regrets I carry with me. I am no oligarch of piety.
No, but taking stock: what were my ambitions back then, twenty-five years ago? To become a better person. To reform my soul. To pursue the One. To purify my intentions. Well if those were my ambitions then, perhaps I can say the years since have been a life well lived too. Just a life lived differently, that’s all.