I was really moved by this audio essay from Cecilia Muñoz titled “A Little Outrage Can Take You a Long Way” on NPR’s This I Believe segment.
In her reflection on activism, I connected with the statement about defeats outweighing victories, and how it motivates her to continue her work. Like many of the TLH readers, I too take time out my schedule for service activities. And after serving 100 or so meals at a homeless shelter, I go home feeling good about myself and the good deed I had done. Unlike Muñoz, I don’t stay awake thinking of the 100 or so people who were turned away that day at the shelter, or those who wouldn’t have a place to sleep that night. Maybe this is what separates me from real activists. To me, service has become an event or an activity – for an activist, service is a part of their life…part of who they are. They are constantly looking for ways to serve.
And I agree with Muñoz, “a little outrage can take you a long way.”
Although I don’t believe Guru Nanak was motivated by anger, I do believe he was outraged. Outraged by a society complacent with the rigid caste hierarchy, outraged at the imbalance of justice, and outraged by the barbaric methods of the State to suppress a minority. You can almost hear the outrage, when Guru Sahib describes the horrific events of Babar’s invasion:
eaethee maar paee karalaanae thai(n) kee dharadh n aaeiaa
There was so much slaughter that the people screamed. Didn’t You feel compassion, Lord?
But in the brilliance of Guru Nanak, he managed to channel that outrage in to compassionate activism.
As a child, attending Khalsa school and camps – I would learn about these different facets of Guru Nanak’s life and teachings. But to be honest, I struggled to understand the spiritual elements – concepts like Naam, Kirpa, Jeevan Mukti, all of these were abstract…I didn’t really “get it.” But when I read about Guru Nanak’s history and his activism…that, I got. When Guru Sahib at age 9 rejected the caste system by refusing to wear the janeoo…I got it. When Guru Nanak directly challenged the oppressive ruler Babar, during his invasion in the early 1500’s, and called him out as a tyrant…I got it. When he established the concept of Langar, where no matter what caste, creed, religion, or socio-economic group you were a part of – everybody sat together on the floor to share a common meal, and by doing so shook the very core of the caste system…I got it! It made sense to me. I connected with it.
And now as I’m slowly grasping a bit more of the spiritual elements of Guru Nanak’s message and putting the pieces together – I’ve learned that in Sikhi, spirituality and a connection with God (as essential as it is) it is not an end itself. Guru Nanak, with all his knowledge and piety, did not retreat to the hills and have followers come to him for advice. No, instead…he became an activist, an activist for the defenseless – to create a society based on complete human freedom and equality. Guru Nanak, and the Gurus to follow, were advocates for social justice, culminating in Guru Gobind Singh establishing the Khalsa with the deliberate plan that the down-trodden, even the out-castes, achieve social equality and capture political power.
Based on the examples the Guru’s have set for us, I believe that being an activist is a requirement for a Sikh. But how do we become and foster activists? As a parent, I’m always trying to think of ways I can teach Sikh principles to my children, and I know for many of the customs, rituals, and routines of a Sikh – they will learn it – through camps, through Khalsa schools and other structured learning. But when it comes to activism, such an essential part of our faith…I believe it will only be learned through example.
So perhaps I need to be a little more outraged. Or at least not get too comfortable. Maybe I need to keep a part of me always a little restless…searching for ways I can help a cause. I know there is so much injustice in the world. I know there is so much that would affect me, if I only cared enough to look.
Right now, somewhere in this world, there is a cause that needs my voice, a movement that needs my pen, and a march that needs my feet. Somewhere there is a fist I can raise, a rock I can throw, a fight I can fight, or a compassionate hand I can lend…all I have to do, is care.
This is the example Guru Nanak has set for me. The only question is…what am I going to do about it?