The birth of my gorgeous daughter, Roya, stands out as one of the single most spiritually powerful and most beautiful days of my life. So is the lesson about love that she has taught me, and keeps on teaching me every day. The lesson that lingers with me the most has to with… shit. I call it the spirituality of shit. It’s about a love that’s stronger than shit.
When kids are around and we have to watch our language, we call it the “Roya poop” story. When my baby was born, I hadn’t known about the effect of feeding babies milk on their poop. For the first six weeks or so of her life, her poop looked like golden little nuggets. And it didn’t stink. It was magical. I, of course, being a proud Baba (pappa, daddy) thought it was because my angel was just special. OK, to be more precise, because I thought she was angelic. And angelic babies have shit that doesn’t stink. I would show off her poop to visitors to our home with great pride. They would nod politely, knowingly: “O yes, it is indeed golden. And in fact… it does not smell.”
Then, eventually, the poop… turned. Maybe people are right. Maybe Muslims do have weapons of mass destruction. (Muslim humor…) In Roya’s case, it turned into this weapon of mass destruction called “Roya poop.” It was a runny, sickly, stinky, smelly kind of poop. No diaper known to man or woman could contain it. Worst of all, it kept leaking out of her diaper, riding up her furry back.
We Persians are a furry people, and even our half-Persian babies are quite furry. A few times every day, we got poop mixed with that fur that I had to clean up. Cleaning up poop caught up in fur is not for the weak of stomach. It was naaaasty. We are talking multiple, multiple baby wipes.
Yet, I noted something amazing. There was no resentment towards my child, nor even disgust. The poop was still nasty, the poopy fur definitely nasty. But to put it simply, I loved my daughter more than I hated the poop. I had found… a love stronger than shit.
It was the lesson of a lifetime: Love is stronger than hate. Love overcomes disgust. Love is stronger than shit. It’s because love is of God, love is from God, love leads to God, and love carries God’s fragrance. To put it in the words of both the Bible and Muslim mystics, love is God.
This has been one of the lingering lessons of the spirituality of shit: go with love. Even if someone’s behavior or words disgusts you, it ain’t worse than Roya poop.
Go with love, and find something divine in them to acknowledge.
One of my favorite lines of many wedding vows, from the Song of Songs: “There is a love as strong as death.” Yet death is at the end of the earthly journey. Shit is here, shit is now, shit is all along the journey. And love is stronger than death, love is stronger than shit, love is stronger than hate.
Mind you, it’s not about “like.” It is not that I like the poop, or like my daughter having Roya poop. It’s about love. There is a love that is stronger than “like.” You love through the shit. It does not mean that we “like” every person, or like what they do, or like all of their qualities. It simply means that we love, with a strong, unrelenting, and fierce love that refuses to stop at the shitty parts of their personality — or our own. It doesn’t mean that we love injustice and oppression, but that we refuse to return hate for hate, until love and justice rain down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.
To paraphrase the greatest movie of all time, Princess Bride:
Shit can not stop true love. All it can do is to delay it for a while. Love is stronger than shit.
May God bless us with this real love, a love stronger than shit.
In the old days, when a person wanted to join Rumi’s community of mystics, they would be sent to clean the toilets. Literally, they had to clean up other people’s feces. There is great wisdom in this: unless we are willing to love one another, and our selves, with a love stronger than shit, we are not ready to be transformed.
Real spiritual transformation has to involve a willingness to serve. It is not simply about accumulating spiritual experiences, getting high on the spirit. Real life of the spirit is not about a personal, consumerist experiential gratification. It’s about the willingness to love and serve — to clean up other people’s shit, and to clean up our own shit. Clean and polish, clean and polish, till we find a love stronger than shit.
What stands out for me is the very first time that I held my daughter, down to the exact feel of that soft, supple, beautiful brown skin. I remember holding my daughter in my eyes, and in Muslim fashion whispering the call to prayer and a chapter of the Qur’an in her ears as the first sound that she would hear in this world. I wanted her to know that I knew where she had come from, and knew not who she was butwhat she was: a child made in the image of God. I wanted her to know to there were people on this side of the realm of existence who would commit themselves to treating her as the spiritual being that she is, having a human experience.
Somewhere we read: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
She opened up her beautiful gray eyes and stared at me. There I was, holding this little being with a big soul whose eyes were fixated on me, never wavering. She didn’t blink. She stared right into my heart. That unwavering glance reminded me of the loving glance exchanged between the Prophet (S) and God at the very zenith of the mi‘raj (“heavenly ascension”).
I was born as a Muslim, raised as a Muslim. Monotheism was hardwired into me. And yet, in that moment of looking into my daughter’s eyes, I understood how it would have been possible for me to worship a human being, as a channel to worshipping God. There are beings we come across in life who are so filled with an otherworldly beauty in such a way that we know there has to be more to existence than the realm we see here. Their very being becomes an icon, a loveliness we see through to be with God.
Oh how powerful it is when a beloved gazes into your eyes, not turning away. There is grace that abounds, hardness that melts away, and love that endures. A whole eternity is in these moments. What a joy to live, even for a few moments, even for three seconds, inside this eternity.
I had known love before, loved my family, loved my friends, and passionately so. But this was a love unlike all those. It was, paraphrasing that beautiful Rumi poem, like this:
perfected and whole,
That love has lingered. It lingers now, even as it unfolds and expands. It is not a rose-y kind of love, not the stuff of legends and storybooks. It is one of the most real loves I have ever known.
It is the get-up-in-the-morning-and-fix-breakfast-when-you-are-exhausted kind of love. It is the take-your-child-into-your-bed-when you-haven’t-had-a-good-sleep-for-weeks-because-she-has-had-a-bad-dream kind of love.
It is the forget-seeing-cool-movies-and-reading-the-latest books-and-replace-them-with-Disney-and-Pixar kind of love.
It is the I-will-serve-you-because-there-is-no-love-without-service kind of love. It is the put-someone-else’s-needs-before-your-own-wants kind of love. It is the it’s-not-about-me-any-more-but-about-you kind of love. It is about the how-can-I-make-you-feel-loved-in-the-way-you-need kind of love. It is about the how-can-I-love-you-better kind of love.
What amazes me about this love, compared to any romantic love I had ever known before her birth, is that in this love there is no holding a grudge. In romantic love, probably because of my own spiritual shortcomings, I used to hold a grudge. I moped. At times for days at a time. Not so with the love for my children.
They can throw an absolute temper tantrum (and used to do so about 17 times a day). Yet when they wake up every morning, sleepy with dragon breath, they crawl into my lap and give me kisses as if nothing had happened the day before. They didn’t remember, and I didn’t linger. That kind of love reminds me of the blessing of living in “the now,” the eternal love, in love and gratitude, rather than attaching ourselves to the past or hurling ourselves into the future.
It marked the first time I had come to realizing a perfect love, indeed, a Divine love. Since then that same love has shown up, unexpectedly, here and there, but I first saw it through my children.
It reminds me that this is what it must be like for God to love us: offering absolute love, and forgiving all. It reminds me of a story by the blessed Prophet: There was a mother who had lost her infant child, and was extremely anxious over her. When she found her baby, she held her child to her chest and began nursing her. The companions of the Prophet were deeply moved by the outpouring of her love. The Prophet (S) said to them: “Do you think that this mother would throw her child into the fire?” The companions said “Of course not!” The Prophet said: “Then know that God is even more loving towards humanity than this woman is to her child.”
Prior to parenthood, I thought of love as an emotion, as something that one experiences, something that we feel. Now, I see love more as something that one does.
You do love.
Love is everyday; love is service. Love is when you project yourself beyond the confine of your own ego, caring for another human being.
I am grateful for having come a step closer to experiencing Divine love, a love that is absolute and not dependent on reciprocity.
Once I heard Cornel West say this:
Of every person there are only two questions worth asking: how deep is your love, and whom do you serve.
The answer to both of those questions has become intertwined with my children. For all of this, I am grateful to God, to the cosmos, and to my children.
And perhaps Roya’s poop was right after all: this kind of love, otherworldly, but here in this world, Divine and mingling with humanity, is golden. And it doesn’t stink.