Lost Keys and ‘Punishment’

I was snuggled in my favorite corner seat on the B train, enjoying a quiet night on my way home. My stop coming up ahead, I reached for my trusty little purse and rooted for my keys, fruitlessly. A little more frantically, I reached into my jean jacket pockets, pants pockets, and turned my purse upside down for a thorough check. Still, nothing.

My heart started racing— I wondered if I had dropped my keys or lost them. I mentally reviewed my impromptu jog to the train (ah, how carefree I was) and how my purse was a bit unzipped. I quickly texted my friend who I was just with and asked her to search the couch. Empty.

I made a quick plan: Call my friend who had back up keys before she fell asleep, but first, run home and see if I…. left the keys in the door?!

That was the scariest thought of all. After a few months living alone, I felt relatively safe. But the idea that I left my keys dangling in the door in a semi secure building almost set me to a panic.  How could I be so stupid? I felt so irresponsible and worried. This narrative flooded me with emotions.

A small inner vice whispered out: You deserve this. 

I took off to my apartment only to find myself running in the wrong direction. I cursed myself again, finding no room for tenderness in this moment. I called my friend and got no answer. Though logically I knew I would eventually find someone to stay with if needed, the panic I was holding in my chest skyrocketed. I felt my hands shake and blood rush through me. My breath shortened.

The inner voice became louder, crowding my brain: You let yourself get comfortable. You stopped questioning. You seemed happier and I needed to trip you up. This is what you get for forgetting to think about god.

This grating thought came to me as a surprise. I pushed back. This wasn’t the time for spiritual catastrophe. I gritted my teeth and kept going.

My friend texted back to say I could come get the keys (she missed my call because she was indeed going to bed). I breathed a sigh of relief but still worried, imagining that someone robbed my apartment, or was hiding in there waiting for me. I went to the worst scenario and berated myself for being forgetful, telling myself I did not deserve nice things.

Once I arrive at my building, I remembered that someone would have to buzz me in. I creepily peered into an open first floor window to see a cat lazing in the sill (smirking at me, it seemed), while their roommate watched TV in the background. I contemplated being that weirdo who yells out for help, in hopes of convincing them I do actually live in this building. Instead, I buzzed four random apartments (sorry!) and prayed they weren’t desensitized to random buzzes.

Someone let me in. Bless them. I ran up.

The glint of my metallic green key chain winked back at me, nestled in the door.

key in doorWoosah. I didn’t know if I should be happy or more upset. I cautiously walked into my apartment. After a brief look in my closets and a walk through the rooms, I burst into tears. All my pent up angst poured out into an ugly cry.

I let my friends know I was safe. And I was, thankfully.

Still, there was a part of me that felt heartache. It’s understandable to lose keys, get locked out, or be occasionally forgetful. For some reason, that night was so much bigger to me.  Sure, it was a reminder to remain vigilant and more aware.

But even more, it felt like small punishment, a thought that hadn’t come to me as deeply for some time.

It felt like I had to examine my day, my week, and think about that inner voice saying “you deserve it” and question if it had validity. The thought snuck up on me like a quiet snake ready to strike.

Growing up, it was a louder voice, hitting me over the head. Something as little as a stubbed toe was punishment for a “sin.”

On and on it would go, the classic guilt syndrome. I didn’t view “bad” things happening as random occurrences that no one is spared from. Over the years, I was hardwired to believe that “bad” things meant god was angry with me; for missing a prayer, for having ill thoughts, for not being obedient to my parents. There was no such thing as random. It all had a meaning and I would rack my brain searching for it, hoping to atone, to be better in the eyes of god.

Each incident strengthened this relationship between “sin” and “punishment.”  It felt nearly impossible to deconstruct and I just accepted things for the way they were.

When I began questioning my religion, everything only intensified, even though it contradicted my newfound perspective that a higher being (or the universe) would theoretically be more compassionate.  Still, a bad day was for asking too many questions. Missing a train was for taking too long to call my mom. Heartache was punishment for having doubts.

I struggled between conflicting beliefs, ashamed that even as an adult, I was allowing that kind of thought process to plague my brain.  I understood that I needed to start detangling the wires and give myself and the universe more grace, but it felt like a long road ahead of me.

I remember my sister talking me down once, reminding me that what was taught in our childhood was the way of Old Thinking, that the world has since changed. She said she struggled too, and I felt less alone.

I had to evolve into New Thinking, not just intellectually but spiritually. I began to challenge myself. When the inner voice whispered “punishment” and “doubt” and “deserve” I would remind myself that consequences can be benign and thoughtless, or of course, a direct result of a choice I had made versus a fateful and angry sentence from up above.

Over time, this type of thinking became more natural and I felt much more compassion for myself.

In fact, the inner voice of guilt quieted down so much that it’s sudden resurgence felt abrupt, turning a somewhat minor scare of losing keys into a full blown emotional event where I was unnecessarily hard on myself.

Part of me knows why it resurfaced, but I still have a lot to reflect on. Four days into Ramadan,  I speculate that I was acting out in anticipation of feeling confused around this holy month of fasting.

It has been an ingrained ritual for most of my life, full of joy, hunger, exhaustion, and discipline. These past few years, I have not been in a spiritual enough place to commit to Ramadan the way I used to. And it’s scary to admit, both to myself and to the public.

Because it’s a choice I made, I have been afraid to say out loud that I feel at loss without the comfort and familiarity that you get when surrounded by community and family during iftar, and of the solidarity of getting through each day together.

I often look back and think about the few moments right up to breaking fast. Everyone is crowded around the kitchen (slightly zombie eyed but with
Dates on Datesgood spirit), eyeing the hot cups of lentil soup being ladled into tea cups, or picking out the juiciest date to eat. There’s a gnawing hunger in my stomach but I know I can last a few more moments after getting through the whole day.

Somehow, mom has the energy to loudly give out orders on setting up for dinner and reminding everyone that prayer comes first. There are always two siblings bickering over if the time to break fast is 8:17pm or 8:18pm. Either way, the time comes. There’s nothing like that first bite of food and sip of water. It made me feel invincible, grateful, and warm.

I’m working to bridge some of these Ramadan rituals and practices into my “new” Muslim identity, but nothing quite compares to those memories. It makes me question if I can have both worlds and still be true to myself. How do I hold on to and honor some parts of my Muslim heritage while choosing to let go of other parts I no longer believe in?

Oddly, my “lost keys’ served to remind me of this struggle, if only to reenergize this eternal question.

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