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Pathways of Privilege and Hardship

A childhood photograph prompts Jenna Evans to reflect on the complex and unpredictable journey we call life.

The two baby girls lay side by side, arms intertwined, with their big brown eyes focused on the camera. Born only weeks apart at King Khalid University Hospital in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the cousins spent much of their early months and years together. Nevertheless, a photograph taken when they were three months old is the only evidence that they started life in the same place, at the same time, linked by kinship.




As I envisage the photograph, I wonder if their family members knew just how different their lives would turn out to be, or whether they imagined that their little girls would grow up together, bound by sisterhood and shared experiences. Were they aware of the stark differences they would face at home and in their communities? Could they have foreseen the disparities in access to education and opportunities for personal growth?




The picture is tucked away in an old box, but the image of those two little girls has haunted me on many nights. You see, I was the girl on the left, oblivious to the fact that although my ruffled shirt paled in comparison to the intricate lace and frills on my cousin’s white dress, I was born with certain privileges, intangible gifts she would never have the pleasure of knowing.


I have often wondered how and why, twenty-seven years later, I am a postgraduate, comfortably situated in the middle class – while she has a high school education and shares a small room with five siblings. Were her dreams worth less than mine? Did I try harder than she did? Was it just fate?




In his iconic poem, Robert Frost speaks of two roads diverging in a yellow wood and how he “took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference.” I, too, can pinpoint several times in my life where I stood at a crossroads and was forced to make a difficult decision: left, right, straight ahead, or turn around? Those decisions no doubt changed the course of my life. But to what extent is our journey the product of the decisions we make?




While studying comparative policy, I came across a phenomenon called path dependence, which explains how early circumstances and decisions set out a specific trajectory of events that are difficult to reverse or change – like a chain reaction. When I began to apply this theory to my own life, I identified specific differences between my cousin and I, differences that relate to who our parents were and the decisions they made and circumstances they found themselves in before and after our births. I realised that from the moment I was born, I was already on a pathway of privilege and she on a pathway of poverty and hardship. My aspirations and achievements were made possible not by individual persistence and effort alone, but by design.



Like interwoven threads, our life journeys are made up of complex and unpredictable combinations of our own hard work and dua’s (supplications), and Allah’s will. This reality is captured in the Qur’an and hadith. We are told that we must work hard for our goals:
“Man can have nothing but what he strives for; the fruit of his striving will soon come into sight.” (An-Najm:39-40)



“Never will Allah change the condition of a people until they change it themselves with their own souls.” (Ar-Ra’d:11)




Yet we are also reminded that we must be content with whatever Allah (SWT) gives us and that which He chooses to take away, knowing that He (SWT) tests people in different ways and that it is in these tests that we may reap the greatest rewards:

“Do you think that you will enter Paradise while such trial has not yet come to you as came to those who passed on before you?” (Al Baqarah:214)




“Do not wish for that by which God has made some of you exceed others. For men is a share of what they have earned, and for women is a share of what they have earned.” (An-Nisaa’:32)




“No fatigue, nor disease, nor sorrow, nor sadness, nor hurt, nor distress befalls a Muslim, even if it were the prick he receives from a thorn, but that Allah expiates some of his sins for that.” (Bukhari)




It was in these deeply motivating and reassuring words that I ultimately found peace. I will never find a definitive answer as to why the lives of those two little girls evolved as they did. But I have come to realise that both hardships and blessings are tests from Allah (SWT). What will determine our destiny is how we choose to respond to them.




Jenna Evans graduated from the University of Toronto in 2014 with a PhD in Health Services Research. She is currently a Post-Doctoral Fellow at the Institute of Health Policy, Management and Evaluation where she enjoys conducting research on how to improve the coordination and quality of health care.