The Light We Give (2022) lights a defiant flame of hope for troubled times. Drawing on a lifetime of navigating racism growing up as a Sikh in Texas, it offers simple, guiding principles and daily practices that can help anyone live a more fulfilling, joyful life – regardless of their circumstances.
Introduction: Find authentic happiness, even in turbulent times.
Table of Contents
- Introduction: Find authentic happiness, even in turbulent times.
- You can’t change what happens, but you can change how you see it.
- Confront your bias to truly connect.
- Finding the light in others brightens your world.
- Sharing the light brightens the whole world.
- Be an outsider to self-heal.
- About the author
- Table of Contents
There are lots of reasons to feel anxious and stressed these days, from a lingering global pandemic to climate change, war, terrorism, and widespread inequality. It’s all too easy to feel isolated and powerless, stuck in a cycle of fear and frustration that refreshes right along with your news feed.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
In this summary, we’ll walk you through some time-tested Sikh wisdom that can transform your life – not in spite of life’s turmoil and tragedies, but actually through them. Along the way, we’ll discover how honoring humanity in others can bring peace, why seeing hope in dark times can bring happiness, and how sharing with others brings abundance.
You can’t change what happens, but you can change how you see it.
September 11, 2001 was the first time Simran Jeet Singh had ever seen his mother lock the front door.
Growing up as a native Texan in a Sikh family, Simran was used to two things by his senior year in high school. One, that his long hair and turban, dark skin and beard caused a lot of racist reactions. He most often deflected these with quick thinking and humor – sometimes even using them as a chance to educate people about Sikh culture. But growing up Sikh also meant that his family was committed to generosity and community. Their door had remained open his entire life, ready to welcome anyone in need at any hour of the day or night.
Earlier that day, they’d watched the news in horror – both as the twin towers fell and when the image of a bearded, brown-skinned, and turban-wearing Osama bin Laden was broadcast as the mastermind of the terrorist attacks. In one fateful moment, the image of a turbaned terrorist was cemented in hearts and minds around the globe. The outpouring of hatred and violence was almost immediate.
After a lifetime of navigating racism and ignorance in his hometown, the stakes were forever raised in that moment. For the first time, his family was receiving death threats. In the aftermath, a turbaned Sikh in Arizona was murdered in his workplace. Others were beaten and harassed, despite having absolutely nothing to do with the terrorist attacks or those who perpetrated them.
But something else was happening, too. Friends and neighbors were checking in on Simran’s family. They offered meals, comfort, and moral support. Communities around the country were connecting and sharing information, too – supporting each other as they found ways to respond to the violence.
His family found immediate cause for hope in this outpouring of love and support, and life slowly assumed a new normal. But for Simran, it was just the beginning of a longer journey toward wisdom.
He realized that despite dealing with racism every day of his life in Texas, it wasn’t enough to keep his loved ones safe. His reality was challenging, for sure. There were many times he struggled with anger over the injustice of it all. But embracing this reality fully meant diving deep into his core principles, facing his biases, and practicing a new way to be in the world.
Transforming his life through a few simple principles wasn’t easy, but the reward has meant living with joy and fulfillment – no matter what the circumstances are. In the next section, we’ll start to discover how you can do this, too.
Confront your bias to truly connect.
In the days following 9/11, it was clear that many people saw anyone wearing a turban as a threat. For Simran, this led to the inevitable feeling that he had been attacked twice: once as an American in the terrorist attack itself, and then again as a Sikh, whose peaceful religious principles of inclusivity, charity, and interdependence didn’t matter in the face of their turban-wearing tradition. Surely, he could just cut his hair, ditch the turban, do what he could to fit in?
As he went on to college and graduate school, this idea certainly tempted him often. Not a terribly spiritual person, his connection to these traditions was largely through family, shared history, and tradition. Instead, he took these thoughts as an opportunity to start reflecting on why this was such a tempting idea. And what he discovered quickly started to change his mind.
Up to now, his strategy in facing racism in south Texas was to ignore it whenever possible – and react with humor when he couldn’t. Becoming quick-witted and gracious had helped in the short term, but as he’d seen all too well after 9/11, this wasn’t enough. So instead of reacting outwardly with anger, he decided to look within.
He realized that when people had seen him as an outsider in south Texas and told him to “go back to where he came from,” they’d assumed there was another place in the world where he truly belonged. But as a Sikh, his ancestors had left India after centuries of persecution, pogroms, and public executions. They fled to America with the promise of belonging.
Pondering this, he started to think about how his own unconscious biases had been formed. Sure, he’d experienced other people’s unconscious biases all his life, but what about his? He began to wonder if other people’s beliefs and ways of thinking had been passed down, too. This made him curious about them instead of overwhelmingly angry. Wondering why someone would think a certain way – what experiences they might have had in life that confirmed this way of thinking – led him to a new openness in the face of even the most angry confrontation.
Over time, he came to see that this process opened him up to the world and helped him stop judging it himself. Asking why people thought the way they did, with openness and curiosity, led to many deep conversations and connections. Approaching their self-reflection with equal amounts of radical honesty, he found himself cherishing people not in spite of their differences, but because of them.
Having compassion for others led him to have more compassion for himself. Patience with his own process helped him have patience for others, too. If hate is a vicious cycle, love and acceptance can be a positive cycle. The more you practice confronting your internal judgments, the more you can suspend your judgments of those around you – and connect more deeply in the process.
And connection, as we’ll see in the next section, can make all the difference.
Finding the light in others brightens your world.
On the morning of August 5, 2012, members of a gurdwara, or Sikh temple, in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, were gathering to prepare a communal meal for later in the day. Shortly after 10:00 a.m., with the building full of mostly women and children, an armed gunman entered the temple and began shooting. By the time it was over, five members of the community were dead – including the founder of the gurdwara – and several more were seriously wounded. A police officer had been shot more than 15 times, and the gunman, an avowed white supremacist, was also dead from a self-inflicted gunshot. One shooting victim was left paralyzed and passed away from complications in 2020.
While Simran had long become accustomed to encountering hate as a daily part of his life, he had never before witnessed violence against his community play out so openly across the news. Knowing the gunman targeted this community because they wore traditional beards and turbans was surreal . . . and completely expected. As anyone who has faced systemic injustice will likely understand, even the most shocking events can become routine for some.
In the aftermath of this violence toward his community, Simran began to unravel another piece of inherited wisdom – and found it radically transformed everything.
First, he realized that his urge to call the gunman evil was strong. They were an avowed white supremacist, after all, and this release for Simran’s rage would feel good in the moment. But in the long term, this way of thinking wouldn’t change anything.
Instead, he rode the roller coaster of emotions until he found himself wanting to channel it in a more positive direction. He found comfort in the stories of the survivors, who dealt with the reality of the situation and found reasons for hope. He saw their capacity to see the good in others as they responded with resilience and optimism. He watched them embrace the richness of life around them while feeling their grief. When he felt strengthened by their example, he realized his next step was clear: he had to challenge himself to somehow see the humanity in the gunman – in spite of all that he had done.
Strengthened by this revelation, Singh committed himself to seeing the best in others – and to practice this in every difficult or confronting situation. He quickly saw that his old reactions led to anger and pessimism. Challenging himself to see the best in others changed how he saw things, making it easier to respond in the moment with compassion and hope.
This little change in attitude created big transformations, too, as we’ll see in the next section.
Sharing the light brightens the whole world.
In times of collective tragedy, finding comfort in the experience of helpers and survivors can inspire us to carry on. Doing the hard work of finding the humanity in those who have wronged us has the power to transform the meaning of the tragedy itself. It can serve as a humble reminder of our own humanity. Over time, finding the good in others changes how we see the world – with signs of hope popping up everywhere we look.
For Simran, this transformation was never more present, or challenging, than during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Living with his wife and daughters in New York City meant being at the epicenter of the outbreak early on. Days were full of uncertainty, with no vaccines or testing to combat the spread. This time, it was his doctor wife who was on the front lines of the struggle, bringing her stories home after long days working in the hospital.
All of Simran’s previous experiences had led him to a place where he knew that seeing the good around him, and finding comfort in the struggle of helpers like his wife, could sustain him in the short term. But he found some unexpected struggles along the way that revealed even more transformative wisdom from the Sikh traditions he had embraced.
First, he knew that sharing with others, especially before partaking oneself, is an important way to show love. Looking for the good in others led him to countless stories of selfless New Yorkers who shared food, resources, and comfort with one another. Instead of depleting them, those who shared with others felt more joy and hope, even in the long days of lockdown. In looking for ways to share with others, they saw the abundance of their own lives with fresh eyes.
As time passed, though, knowing he couldn’t help out directly led to some uncomfortable feelings. Sitting with these, Simran realized that his activism had always centered around what he could do for others – in other words, on his actions. Owning up to the self-centeredness of his ideas about activism transformed his lockdown isolation into a wholehearted act of service. In a world that valued the ends over the means in activism, he was confronted by yet another way to think.
In taking into account his intention, his internal attitude about the lockdown transformed his seeming inaction to something else entirely. It was suddenly an opportunity to practice truly selfless service, to do what was best for his community and not himself. He began to see that other aspects of his “selfless” activism hadn’t been so selfless, which opened up yet more ways to be of service.
Instead of depleting him, each act of service as a supportive father, partner, and citizen increased his happiness and joy. With daily practice, all the circumstances of his life, viewed from this fresh angle, became rewarding and fulfilling opportunities to serve. He had more energy to support his wife, who had more energy for her work in saving lives. These ripples of service expanded outward, creating positive changes far beyond his own efforts.
Be an outsider to self-heal.
If the journey thus far has been shaped by extreme circumstances – terrorist attacks and a global pandemic – the transformative insights are extremely simple. Choosing optimism and looking for hope helps sustain us. Confronting our bias and seeing the humanity in others can connect us. Serving others shows love, and showing love brings fulfillment.
To put these simple kernels of wisdom into daily practice, it can help to imagine observing yourself like an outsider might. As Simran himself experienced, growing up as an outsider forces you to examine yourself and your life from another’s perspective. This, in and of itself, can bring insight.
So begin by imagining yourself as a true outsider: an alien from some far away planet. Observe and interpret your behavior like an alien scientist might. What would they see as you go about your everyday life?
When asked, you might say your family and friends were the most important things to you. But watching your day play out, the aliens may get a different impression. Sure, you spent an hour in the morning getting everyone ready and chatting over breakfast – but you likely spent the next eight hours with work colleagues and your computer. Maybe there was another hour commuting, catching up on messages or the news. And then you spent another hour preparing for the next workday, and so on.
Even if you spend a few hours with family or friends, your statement about your priorities may ring hollow to our alien observer. They might think your priority is clearly work – and over a course of the typical week, their impression would be confirmed more days than not.
When seen this way, there might be a big difference between the way your life feels on the inside and how it looks on the outside. Recognizing this contradiction is the first step toward reconciling it. It might be painful at first, but even just sitting with the discomfort can be healing.
That’s because you know yourself from the inside, and you understand that your efforts to prioritize often fall victim to circumstance. Instead of feeling embarrassed or ashamed of this, use it as an opportunity to have compassion for yourself. This kind of compassion is self-healing, because it relieves you of the burden of frustration and shame while honoring your own humanity.
To be human is often to fail, to fall short, or otherwise disappoint. To see this clearly is to find humility, which helps grow empathy for those who struggle. Humility also gives us the courage to keep trying – and to find hope and patience in our own struggles as well as others’.
Having the discipline to keep viewing yourself, your community, and your surroundings this way has the power to transform the world as you experience it. It helps you find light everywhere you look, even in the darkest times, and brings fulfillment to every step of the journey.
While you can’t change what happens to you or the circumstances of your life, you can choose how you experience them. Acknowledging internal judgments and biases will allow you to connect more deeply with others, changing how you think about the world and even what you see in it. Honoring the humanity in yourself and others can help you have patience, and relieve you from the burdens of anger and shame. Seeing everyone, and everything, as an interconnected whole takes daily practice and self-reflection – but the results are a life full of meaning, love, and joy . . . no matter what comes your way.
Simran Jeet Singh, Ph.D is Executive Director for the Religion & Society Program at the Aspen Institute and a visiting professor of history and religion at Union Theological Seminary. He is a Soros Equality Fellow with the Open Society Foundations, and in 2020 TIME magazine recognized him among sixteen people fighting for a more equal America. He is a columnist for the Religion News Service, and his work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and on CNN. Singh is the author of the award-winning children’s book Fauja Singh Keeps Going. He lives in New York City with his family.
Motivation, Inspiration, Religion, Spirituality, Biography, Memoir, Autobiography, Self Help, Philosophy, Personal Transformation, Happiness
Table of Contents
Introduction: Where I’m Coming From
Part I: Seeing With Fresh Eyes
Turbans in Texas
Moving Out and Looing In
Life and Death
From Locked Out to Unlocking
Part II: Radical Connection
Insight1: How We Feel
Enhancing How We Feel
Insight 2: How We See
Refining How We See
A Fresh Perspective
Insight 3: How We Connect
Advancing How We Connect
The Power of Connection
Part III: From Connection To Love
Expanding Our Love
Love in Action
Love Is Connection
Connecting Through Meditation
Love and Soccer
Live Is Selfless
Love Erases Self-Centeredness
Practicing Humility and Selflessness
Part IV: Cultivating Our Values
How We Prioritize
Resetting and Rebalancing
Why What We Do Matters
Identifying Our Values
How Our Values Can Save Us
Embodying Our Values
The Value of Creativity (karta purakh)
The Value of Fearlessness (nirbhau)
The Power of Discipline
Part V: Seva As A Spiritual Practice
Serving Others, Serving Ourselves
Seva as an Empathy Practice
Save as a Practice of Love
Challenging the Darkness
Seva as Mindfulness
Putting Seva into Practice
Seva as an Authenticity Practice
Seva as a Humility Practice
Stay tuned for book review…