zipping through the life cycle — a sufi parable

Nothing like your firstborn’s wedding to put the reality principle front and center, life cycle-wise. Ten seconds ago I was giving birth. Ten seconds from now I’ll be under a pile of dirt, or small particles blowing in the wind. Pop! We appear. Poof! We’re gone. This, says Tylor (that would be Sir Edward) is why human folk invented religion. We can handle the pop! a tad better than we can handle the poof! We won’t accept exiting the stage… It’s not just an American thing.

There’s an old Sufi tale about a young man praying to God.

“Allah!” he calls out, what is next?” he implores. “I see my youth, but what is to become of me?”

I’m paraphrasing, of course.

There is a rope, not just any rope, but the rope of life. And Allah gives him the next bit, and he examines his next moment. He’s older now, with small children of his own. His work is not unexpected. Okay, got it, he thinks. Now I know this moment, but what’s the next?

“Allah!” he calls out again. “Take pity on me. I must know what comes next!”

And Allah, the Compassionate, feeds out the next bit of rope. And the man now has labored some years. He’s gotten quite good at his trade. His children thrive, perhaps. He cannot see. And so, he asks the Compassionate One once again. And once again, Allah feeds him a bit more of the rope of life.

And now he is mature, at least in the chronological sense, if not in his heart, for he still has not understood the consequences of his own unreasonable demands.

And he pleads with the Almighty for the next, and the next and the next. And Allah the Compassionate, feeds out the rope again and again.

And he reaches at last, the end of the rope and it is frayed, and he himself is ancient and hobbled, and suffering the pain of his very last days.

“More rope!” he calls out to Allah, the Merciful One.

But there is no more rope.

And he finds that he has gone through his rope in the blink of an eye. And used up his life not in living but in seeking the next moment. And his life has passed him by in a flash.

Poof! He is gone.

And I think of this tale all the time. And tell myself, slow down! And for the most part, life is mundane enough to feel slow. And I can spend time in my spot on the rope without moving. And I can see the intricacy of the woven strands that comprise the larger umbilicus that binds me along that supernal time-line. And I use words like ‘supernal’ and ‘bind’ and ‘umbilicus’ to describe my piece of rope. And I attempt to wax lyrical, and fail. Attempt not to move along the trajectory of the rope at all, but stay, stay put right here in this spot. Examine it. Savor it!

And the years pass, and I live them. And they’re good. And the body aches a little here and there. It expands more than it contracts. It fatigues a bit faster. It sags, it stoops, it just plain hurts.

And the joy comes in smaller and smaller packets. The smell of the soil. The eyes of a wolf. The purr. The wind. A really good sentence on a paper I have to grade.

And I’ve slowed time. I’ve asked for no more rope. I’ll hang out right here, thank you very much. This moment — every moment — is this lovely gift.

And the children are little. And I do for them. Because the rope is so short!

And the children are growing. And I do for them. Because the rope is so short!

And the children are grown. And I do for them. Because the rope is so short!

And what does the eldest child go off and do? Ah! He’s let out the rope a little bit more. Time has ceased to stop.


The Compassionate One allowed me to savor the rope, and I held on to that lovely spot with all my might. And then the rope is suddenly yanked. All at once. Death of a parent. The caring for another parent. Marriage of a son. Retirement (of sorts). New status. New roles.

A new spot on the rope. And I hang on to savor it.

I think my way is just as wrong as the man who zipped right through the whole of his life in the blink of an eye. For what I want is to stay put at each stage — any stage at all — and just taste it, and smell it. And hold on.

And it doesn’t work that way, does it?

So does the rope pass smoothly through our fingers? Or in fits and starts? Or are there many ways to pass through that rope? Or is the image completely wrong? Too linear. Maybe our lives aren’t like rope at all. Maybe they’re dendritic charts. The roots of trees. Grains of sand upon the shore. Sunrise, sunset. Mythical time that just stands still in mythical space.

I never liked linear imagery much. Maybe just let go the rope, and drift, or float. The Little Prince comes to mind at once. He refuses the rope. He rises in the end. Or does he die? Nonlinear space, nonlinear time.

Tylor said we invented ‘souls’ this way, in our need to make sense of ‘it’ all. An animate universe, we never have to exit. No rope. Nothing but eternity … to savor.

By mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.

2 replies on “zipping through the life cycle — a sufi parable”

This has been a life-long issue for me. Now at 40, it seems that it's time I really learn how. I did not get the life I thought I would have. My children never arrived. I never found my lover. I don't have a tweed jacket and eager, engaged pupils. I struggle financially. I don't have a garden or a library-study. This is it. This is what I have. I spent the first 40 years pulling on the rope. This isn't it. It must be further along the rope.

I have experienced those existential moments, when time freezes, and the tiny green spider on the web is the center of the world, or the conversation with my aging grandmother slows the pace of the sun across the sky. I have glimpsed and felt those moments of sheer, weighty beauty.

But I have lived impatiently tugging the rope for more. It is time to learn to hang out and open.

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