As a teenager, most of my summers were spent in the gym, along with my friends, as we geared up for our upcoming Fall sports. When running and lifting weights, I always found my dastaar to be uncomfortable, so I would opt for a modified patka with a baseball cap on top. Now, before I get arrested by the panthic police, let me explain that this was not an uncommon practice (right or wrong) back then by many Sikh boys on the East Coast to wear bandanas or baseball caps during sports. Even after I moved to the Midwest after college, I carried the same look to the gym for my evening workouts.
After one of my workouts – baseball cap and all, I recall making a quick stop at the post office to drop off a package. While waiting in a long line, from the corner of my eye I saw a Sikh man standing way at the back near the exit. As I dropped off my package and headed out, I caught a better glimpse of the Singh. He was middle-aged, wore a flawless dastaar and had a long flowing beard. Although I never felt I was doing anything “wrong” with my workout attire before, I immediately felt uncomfortable and perhaps a little embarrassed. I quickly walked out, only making the slightest eye contact with him.
Weeks later while at the Gurdwara Sahib, enjoying my langar quietly and alone – as many bachelors in an unfamiliar city could appreciate – a familiar looking Singh in a kurta pajama sat next to me. After a quick greeting, it occurred to me it was the same gentleman from the post office. He introduced himself and shared a bit about his family and three children. He asked me about my work and we had a pleasant conversation. About half way through our talk, he brought up the incident at the post office and confirmed that it was in fact me wearing the baseball cap. I explained that it was only for the gym, but he didn’t seem to care too much. As we ate our langar together, he shared with me what it meant for him to wear his kakaars and how proud he feels to wear the Guru’s bana, regardless of where he is or what activity he’s doing. He had a labor intensive job, and said it wasn’t always easy to keep his dastaar, but he felt he owed it to the Singhs of the past, who gave their lives for us to stand proudly with our kesh and dastaars, to wear them at all times. He also said his children get excited when they see another Sikh at the mall or a restaurant, whether they are wearing a parna, dumalla, or the traditional Patiala style – it gives them a sense of pride – and that part of our tradition should never be replaced by a bandana or baseball cap. I didn’t say much…but listened closely. After about 15 minutes, he gracefully apologized for taking too much of my time and hoped that I had not felt uncomfortable with bringing up the topic. We then parted ways.
For the next few days, I thought about what he said and from that day forward I never wore a baseball cap again. Turns out, a parna is way more secure and comfortable than anything I’ve worn for a sport…and well, I know a 100 year-old marathon runner who can tell you a full dastaar would do just fine too 🙂
Now my little secret…this post isn’t really about Sikhs wearing baseball caps.
What may seem like a typical langar conversation between two strangers may not be so common after all. I can think of dozens of times in my community (and sometimes my family), where a person is criticized, judged, or slandered for doing something or looking a way that does not match with their perspective of Gurmat – all without the person in question present. Now in our highly socially-networked society, the criticism of the kid wearing the baseball cap, sporting the trimmed beard, the girl with trimmed bangs, or “did you see what she was wearing?” hits a facebook status quickly – it now spans a much wider audience in a much shorter time. So what was different about my situation at the Gurdwara?
Rather than making an episode of it, he chose to quietly approach me, engage with me, and share his thoughts in a gentle way. I could have easily been offended…who the heck does this guy think he is? He doesn’t know anything about me – my personal discipline, how spiritual I might be, how much seva I might do…just because he dresses the way he does, he thinks he’s a sant?
But none of that crossed my mind.
I guess something magical happens when someone approaches you with genuine humility. Sometimes, just sometimes…it makes you humble too. And humility can make you do wonderful things – pause, reflect, open your mind, and well…change.
Often times we shun criticism directed toward us, because after all, “who are they to judge?” and the automatic follow-up, “Sikhs are not supposed to be judgmental.” Is that so true? Sure, gurbani tells us to look within ourselves and change, but what role is sangat supposed to play? Aren’t we supposed to be honest with those in our sangat, help “pull each other up” and keep each other moving toward the Guru?
The Singh was right, and deep down I knew he was right or I never would have felt uncomfortable that day in the post office when I saw him. In years recent, I’ve tried to have that gentle one-on-one conversation like the Singh had me with me during langar. Whether it was a former student of mine who recently trimmed their beard or a childhood friend who started drinking…unfortunately, I haven’t been too effective. Perhaps they weren’t able to dim their ego long enough to open their mind…or perhaps my ego was shining too bright.
Clearly, it’s the approach that makes the difference. As we learned in the janamsakhis, Guru Nanak Sahib transformed the most villainous of criminals to change their ways and follow his path – I wonder – what was it? Was it his logic and reasoning alone? Perhaps…but I believe it was also his love, his empathy, and the compassion in which he expressed it.
So I need to reach a more genuine state of humility before I offer guidance and also the same to receive it. I have plenty of people around me to point out my flaws and weaknesses, people I love and respect, people who want me to be a better person, and a better Sikh. But I can’t think of many times I’ve controlled my ego long enough to truly listen. And if I only did, like that time at the Gurdwara, who knows what might be possible?
So for now, I will try to stay armed and ready…