(RNS) – Last month, a woman in New York attacked four people with pepper spray while making racist and anti-Asian remarks. According to NYPD Sergeant Anwar Ishmael, she also yelled at a passing Asian man, “You’re bringing all your b***es back where you came from!”
The NYPD now charges him with eight counts of hate crimes, including assault, attempted assault and harassment. This attack is just a small drop in the surging tide of anti-Asian hatred. Last March, the NYPD treated nine incidents targeting Asians as hate crimes. From 2019 to 2020, attacks on Asians across the country increased from 161 to 279.
As a fellow Asian and as a turbaned, bearded Sikh American, I know all too well the kind of hatred that has transpired in New York City, where I now live. While many see this city as a bastion of tolerance, I know from experience that racism and hatred live there too. In the past year alone, the Sikh community has suffered multiple hate crimes here in New York. Just ten years ago, a white supremacist massacred Sikhs at their place of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin.
While it’s clear that we need a culture change, that gets us to a place where no one is attacked for how they look or where they’re from, what’s less clear is how we arm ourselves – mentally, emotionally and spiritually – to live in the reality of our present moment while striving for a better tomorrow. In other words, how can those of us who live on the fringes of American society live with dignity in a country that too often seems to insist on denying it to us?
I was born in Texas, wearing a turban, the son of immigrant parents. I have spent my life facing racism and animosity simply because of my appearance. But rather than blaming the abuse or hating the people who hate me, I found ways to find common ground with people. I do so by drawing inspiration – to my surprise – from the Sikh teachings of compassion and service that I grew up with.
These principles help me put aside the mistrust and anger I face on a daily basis and help me see behind the masks people wear and understand what connects us. At a time when we are all so in need of healing, within ourselves and with each other, we can heed some of these teachings to bridge the gaps between us.
The fundamental Sikh principle, ik oankar, states that the whole world is interconnected. Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh tradition, taught that we all contain the same divine light (joti) and therefore we are all equally divine. We are all unique, but we also carry an inner light that unites us all.
It’s a simple overview, but it’s not simplistic. In a world where people constantly claim supremacy over each other, including Charlottesville, Charleston, Buffalo and elsewhere, learning to see the light in ourselves and each other can mean the difference between love and death. hate.
Growing up, people in South Texas saw me as a terrorist. I also saw the children around me as different from me. We all let ourselves down. It was when I learned to see our common humanity that I moved beyond the fear and distrust that separated us.
Guru Nanak teaches that when we train ourselves to see the good in others, we enter a positive loop: the more we notice it, the easier it is to see it; and the more we see it, the more apparent it becomes to us.
It is the problem of light. It is always around us. Our ability to see it depends on our point of view. The sun always shines, but our point of view is not always the same.
However, seeing the light we share is not enough. Many of us already agree on our common humanity, but a look around the world reminds us how far we are from living this. So what comes next?
According to Sikh wisdom, once our perspective begins to mature, our relationship with the world also grows. We begin to feel connected, to ourselves and to each other, and this feeling nurtures cohesion, not division. It is this sense of connection that allows us to respond to hate with love, so that when people hate us, hate us, or even attack us, we are still able to see their humanity.
I’ve learned to live this way over the years and found ways to take care of people who don’t care about me: strangers, naysayers, and yes, even TSA agents who insist to check my turban because they think I’m threatening.
Taking this approach can help us live by the saying that so many of us yearn for. How to fight hate with love? Well, we start by learning to see the humanity in each other. Then we instill that insight into our character by practicing it daily.
How do we release the light and love that resides within each of us but often feels deeply anchored? The same way we unlock any of our human virtues: practice, practice, practice.
Some ask why we should try to live this way when we are not the culprits: It is the systems, institutions and people around us that sow these divisions. It is unlikely that we will ever achieve perfect justice in our lifetime. And even if we could, why should it be up to us to solve these problems that we did not create?
Here is the best answer I know. We cannot solve all the problems in our world, and it is unrealistic to think that we can. Far greater people who have walked this earth have been unable to achieve perfection, so why do we think we could? Making this our goal is to set ourselves up for disappointment. Moreover, fallibility is part of what makes us human.
Nor can we reasonably expect to inoculate the world against hate. We can do our best to produce more understanding and justice, but ultimately we cannot control what is in other people’s hearts. It took me a long time to realize this: people’s racist attitude towards me is their problem, not mine.
It is also unreasonable to think that we can escape the challenges that life throws at us, or even transcend them. Life is tough and we each encounter our own obstacles along the way. That doesn’t change either.
What can change is how we encounter these moments. If we can learn to see the light in ourselves and in the world around us, then we can transform the way we live our lives in ways that are less painful and more joyful, for ourselves and for others.
It is this simple teaching, ik oankar, that has changed the way I engage with the world around me. I no longer allow human difference to disconnect me from people I don’t know. I continue to show up for myself and others to help make our world a better place, but now I do it out of love rather than anger, and that has made all the difference for me.
This column is adapted from Simran Jeet Singh’s new book, “The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.”