Four Reasons for Optimism in the Wake of Tragedy—Insights from a Sikh and a Unitarian Minister

We may never know what triggered Wade Michael Page’s rage on that Sunday morning at the Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. What we do know is that Sikhism can be a profound source of human healing in the wake of tragedy.

The gurdwara massacre sent waves through Sikh and non-Sikh communities alike. The two of us come from these different worlds: one of us is a practicing Sikh, the other a Unitarian Universalist minister. Rather than collapse these differences, we have chosen to honor them—standing on both sides of a cultural divide.

In occupying this borderland together, we hope to offer a richer account of what Sikh tradition might teach all of us about confronting tragedy in a spirit of chardhi kala—enduring optimism.

1. Life contains both joy and sorrow.

Bandana: The Oak Creek massacre, the Aurora shooting, the burning of the mosque in Joplin: all these events are understood by Sikhs through the concept of hukam—an Arabic term that refers to the invisible workings of the Creator. Just as the darkness of winter makes leaves wither in the cold only to sprout new life in the spring, tragedy is woven into the continuous process of life, death, and renewal. In the Sikh tradition both pleasure and pain remind us of the transience of life and encourage us to live as Divine-conscious beings in this world. All workings of the Divine are considered sweet to Sikhs, and our purpose is not to fight or flee the current of life—instead we allow it to bring us into that Oneness that lies beyond the duality of joy and sorrow.

Erik: For those of us who grew up outside of the Sikh faith, it may seem foreign to associate the Divine with pain, violence, and death. Shouldn’t hardship derive from our failure in life, not the fullness of it? When I first discovered Sikhism, I found myself stumbling over the suggestion that God could have any part in tragedy. Over the years, however, I have come to see the principle of hukam as an acknowledgment that nothing is alien to God. Like a wave that rises from the sea, distinct and yet connected, so too we human beings are connected to God, in suffering and in celebration. What reassurance! When tragedy strikes we don’t have to plead: Why, God? Instead, we ask: Where, God? Where are You present amidst our tears?

2. See the Divine in both the victims and in the killer.

Bandana: It makes sense to refer to those innocently slain in Wisconsin as victims. But the concept of victimhood falls outside the language of the Sikh Gurus, since the Sikh journey is one toward spiritual victory. In the wake of our initial grief and injury, we were inspired by the acts of heroism: the valiant policeman Lte. Brian Murphy, the brave temple president Satwant Kaleka, the precocious young children of 9 and 11 years, Amanat and Abhay, who ran inside the temple warning of the arrival of the armed killer. This appears over and over again in Sikh thought and history: spiritual courage manifests itself in a time of worldly defeat, enabling one to transcend victimhood. Through his teachings, the fifth Sikh Guru, Guru Arjan, reminds us: ‘[A devotee] has no pain, she is totally at peace. With her eyes, she sees only the One Divine. No one seems evil to her, all are good. There is no defeat, she is totally victorious.’

Erik: I can accept that God lived in the hearts of the innocent, endowing them with heroic strength. But in the heart of a murderer as well? It is tempting to disfigure, even dehumanize, the shooter, turning him into a monster. But this only distances us from the inconvenient truth that we are more alike than we are different. Hatred can take control of anyone’s heart. Sikhism helps us see that God is never absent to us; rather, we are too often absent to God. Wade Michael Page caved completely: I have to believe that he lost sight of the divinity within his victims, maybe even the divinity within himself. It is undeniably angering, but it is also dreadfully sad. His brutal legacy begs the question: how are we saluting the God within every soul, ours included?

3. Compassion is a lived practice.

Bandana: During his latter years, Guru Nanak settled down in Kartarpur, Panjab, near the foothills of the Himalayas, where he established the institution of langar. People from every caste, creed, and social standing would come together for a meal and actively serve one another. This tradition is intended to have a transformative impact on those gathered, uniting people with the larger family of humanity. Sikhs across the globe can learn from the foundations established by our Gurus. We can experience a deeper compassion by actively welcoming communities across social boundaries. What if we moved beyond spaces we feel comfortable in, and participated in efforts that make all members of our communities feel welcome and cared for, including food banks, tree plantings, health clinics, sports clubs, and mentoring programs?

Erik: It took many weeks before I could pour from a gallon jug of water (while standing) without spilling on someone’s food. The institution of langar illustrates how compassion, or daya, is not an abstract concept but a learned craft. It is not enough to espouse high ideals; we actually have to practice them. Often, that means risking the convenient and the comfortable to spill our way towards hospitality. It is impossible to truly connect with the experience of the stranger without having been a stranger ourselves. While that pilgrimage may lead some non-Sikhs into a gurdwara, it doesn’t have to. How about sharing lunch with someone you don’t know well? Or inviting a neighbor over for dinner? Communal traditions like langar allow us to rehearse the reality to which we aspire. We make believe, even if only for an hour, that social divisions can be overcome.

4. Love wins.

Bandana: In times like this, I remember that the quintessence of Sikhism is to love: to be love-inspired and love-driven. A dear friend of mine recently shared an experience that moved her during bhog (the service) honoring the deceased in Oak Creek. The musician, or raagi, leading the sangat (congregation) during the remembrance event, had also been present at the temple during the shootings. As the raagi began to sing, my friend could tell that there was a sadness in his voice. Despite the sorrow, he paused to share words of blessing, asking the Divine to take good care of Wade Michael Page in hope that Page has found peace within himself. My friend simply bowed her head in awe of the love shared.

Erik: In times of ease, we can afford to invest in status, wealth, and career, but in times of challenge, we realize that only love will last. One of my favorite stories from the Janamsakhi genre of Sikh sacred narrative begins in deep sorrow. Guru Nanak has just died, and his followers don’t know whether to bury or cremate his body. They resolve to part ways and reunite in the morning. Upon their return, they discover that the Guru’s body has disappeared. In its place lies a bed of gorgeous flowers. What a gift, even in the midst of such profound loss! The late Unitarian Universalist minister Rev. Forrest Church once put this same sentiment into words: the one thing that can never be taken from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die.

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