Simple Is Not Always Easy
As we begin our annual Fall Program, Rev. Joanne asks us, Where do you see wonder in the world? As children, we are naturally curious and easily fascinated by new things. In saying this, it is not meant to imply that natural curiosity or fascination are childish or somehow beneath adult behavior. Actually, the opposite is true. Those who are most inspired, the most inspiring, and solve great physical and philosophical questions, are able to make seemingly self-evident observations and ask simple questions.
Mohandas Gandhi said, “Gentleness, self-sacrifice and generosity are the exclusive possession of no one race or religion.” Albert Einstein asked the “simple” question, Why do things fall downward?” Gandhi’s insight helped bridge the ethnic, cultural, and religious divisions that plagued his society. And the question, Why do things fall downward? set Einstein on a decade long quest to find the answer. The result was the theory of General Relativity. If Gandhi and Einstein, and others like them, had given up their natural curiosity and wonder when they “grew up,” our world would be very different indeed – and probably not for the better.
This year, the book that is being studied is See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love1 by Valarie Kaur. Rev. Joanne tells us about Valarie’s experience as a young child growing up. She is ethnically Indian and follows the Sikh tradition. In the U.S. she learned quite young, she was an “other” because of her skin color. When visiting India, she was an “other” because she was culturally American and of a minority religion. Too young at the time to understand why this was so, later in life it helped to shape her ideas about closing the distance between the “otherness” we all have felt at one time or another.
Rev. Joanne reminds us that almost all faith traditions tell us of our “oneness.” Ubuntu is a Nguni Bantu term meaning "humanity." It is often translated as "I am because we are," or "humanity towards others," or in Xhosa, "umntu ngumntu ngabantu" but is often used in a more philosophical sense to mean "the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity."2 The Maya say “In Lak’ech Ala K’in” which means I am another yourself. It also means I am you, and you are me. The Sikh tradition teaches the idea of Ik Onkar, also spelled Ek Onkar (symbol illustrated below). It is a phrase in Sikhism that denotes the one supreme reality. It is a central tenet of Sikh religious philosophy.3 And Christianity teaches, Love your neighbor as yourself.4
If most spiritual traditions teach the idea of oneness, why do humans have such difficulty demonstrating this in their everyday lives? This is one of those Einstein-like “simple” questions. The answer is not so easily forthcoming.
Rev. Joanne tells us about how practicing Sikh chants (shabads) helped calm Valarie from the troubling idea of otherness. One such chant was “Tati vao na lagi, par brahm sharnai. The hot winds cannot touch you when you walk the path of love and justice. Even if you are beaten down. Even under a rain of fire. Even if you are bleeding – in the birthing room or on the battlefield – the hot winds cannot touch you. Because you are with the holy, and of the holy. You are with God, and of God. You are with love, and of love. And that kind of love saves us all.”
The hot winds cannot touch us, Rev. Joanne explains, because wherever we are God is there uniting us all. The way back to that remembering is through the idea that Valarie calls revolutionary love.
In Sikhism the name for God is Waheguru. Wahe- means awe, and -guru means light that dispels darkness. God is often described, in many traditions, as being of awesome power. In contemporary American English, the world awesome has been overused to the point where its original meaning has been diluted. Was that shrimp salad you had at lunch really awesome? Your new shoes, awesome? Even though the colloquial use of the world has taken on a different meaning, Rev. Joanne invites us to realize that a thing we call awesome, however mundane a thing it may be, does actually have the potential to inspire awe. In doing so, we can come to realize that the world around us is something to inspire wonder and awe.
We can be inspired to live our lives from a place of love when we allow ourselves to appreciate differences and things we do not understand instead of fearing them. While this is certainly a good idea, we must also understand that fear is one way nature protects us. We must not deny the feeling of fear as it occurs. But once we are confident that any danger has passed, it is useful to examine the source of our fear. If it was caution against danger, either imminent or projected, then we may take steps to lessen that risk. But if the fear was simply a matter of lack of knowledge or understanding, then we have the opportunity to learn, grow, and make the world a better place for all. Rev. Joanne said that when we think we know who another person is because they are “x” or “y,” we run into issues that can create violence. This is often the case. It is also a very good reason to resist placing people into demographic boxes. This automatically creates separation and increases the risk of problems. Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said, “Once you label me, you negate me.” Let us resist negating one another.
Rev. Joanne tells us that Kaur’s revolutionary love is expressed in three stages. First is that we can move beyond the idea of others to “see no stranger.” Second, that love for our opponents can moves us toward reconciliation. And finally, that love for self requires us to breathe and allow transformation to occur. But we are cautioned. If we are so focused on loving ourselves, it becomes escapism. If we are so focused on loving our opponents, it becomes self-loathing. And if we are so focused on loving others, it is usually ineffective.
Throughout the following weeks of this Fall Program series, we will learn from Rev. Joanne and Valarie Kaur how to embrace the power of love and avoid the pitfalls of the misapplication of the concepts we are studying. We may not be a Gandhi or an Einstein, but if we allow ourselves to remain open to wonder and awe, together we can transform the world.
Now Go and Be the Light.
Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 1 Peter 3:8
As you orient to the world with wonder, a simple practice can support us in wondering about each person. As you move through your days this week, practice seeing each person as “Sister, Brother, Aunt, Uncle.” Within your mind call each person that you meet as that family member. Or, look upon other people’s faces and think, “You are a part of me I do not yet know.”
1See No Stranger: A Memoir and Manifesto of Revolutionary Love: Kaur, Valarie, Random House Publishing Group, Jun 16, 2020.
2About the Name. Official Ubuntu Documentation. Canonical. Archived from the original on 23 February 2013. Retrieved 2 February 2017.
3Rose, David (2012). Sikhism photopack. Fu Ltd. p. 10.