(Ottawa, September, 2001) I was raised Protestant, I suppose that’s appropriate since I’ve been protesting since Kindergarten. Why must I have an afternoon nap? Why can’t I fingerpaint my interpretation of Picasso’s Guernica? When adults tried to impose their will upon me, I stomped my feet and repeated my mantra: “that’s not fair.” Too young to know about the character Don Quixote, yet somehow a Quixotic being. I put on my armour and tilted at as many windmills as I could find. It was a never-ending war against fierce dragons – real and imagined.
This frustrated our vicar to no end. I didn’t know what it meant to be a Protestant, let alone a Catholic or a Buddhist. As a teen I only knew that I hated the church dress code requirements. Why did I have to ensure my shoulders were covered? Why couldn’t I wear open toed sandals? “God forbid!” my mother would exclaim.
Church was a test of endurance. I remember the sharpness of my mother’s elbow. Like a well-honed tool of an expert blacksmith, when thrust against my ribs during sermons, it was a dangerous weapon. Every Sunday, I would listen to the minister deliver yet another admonition about honouring thy father and mother, obeying without question, and believing in the face of doubt and mother would unsheathe her elbow. The pew calisthenics, which now included elbow avoidance – seemed an incredible waste of energy – all of this for a stale wafer and a sip of sherry wine? I just couldn’t see the point in all the pomp and circumstance.
By the age of 25 I had stoked a fire of frustration and disillusionment that made it impossible for others to tolerate me. Every cause was my cause, every injustice, my responsibility and every slight against those I cared for, a slight against me. I believed there was no humanity left in the world, so faith in anything was a waste of time.
Then by chance or fate, I noticed an ad in the paper. An organization required an idealistic knight errant to right all wrongs, to fight for the weak and the poor, to lobby for human rights in Canada and abroad. At the first interview however, my excitement fizzled when a very dignified turbaned Sikh met me at the door.
Stuttering my name made it obvious that I was completely unprepared. Suddenly I was keenly aware that I knew nothing about this strapping man in a saffron turban, except what the media had told me for the last ten years: that he and others like him should be feared as violent, militant extremists. My instincts throughout the interview told me otherwise.
We talked. Not about politics or injustice, not about government scandals. We talked like we had known each other for years. It seemed as though he somehow already knew about my rebellious nature. We bantered about human frailties. We discussed fears, goals, family, pain, happiness, service, kindness.
I phoned my parents, ecstatic. Despite my ignorance, despite my agnosticism, and despite the fact that I was white, I got the job. I shared with them everything I learned. That Sikhs, as a religious practice, do not discriminate on the basis of race, creed or colour. The equality of women was set in Sikh scripture over five hundred years ago. Justice counted. So did the elimination of ego. Clearly there was much I could learn from this community. Completely awed by the strength and serenity I saw in the demeanour of so many Sikhs – I wanted what they had.
Ironically, I worked on dress code amendments to the RCMP, Canadian Forces, and boxing rings, pursuing human rights at the United Nations, and educating the public and media. However, I championed issues with an evangelistic fervour, struggling daily to rid the world of the assumptions that I once possessed. I believed that to share my new found enlightenment I needed to point out the glaring stupidity of others. Yet the Sikhs around me wouldn’t get angry or frustrated. In the face of many challenges and insults they fostered humility. They responded to personal degradation with a genuine interest in positive changes for all of society.
Six years after I began working with the Sikh community, my father became very ill. I received no censure for being off work for five weeks, holding vigil at my father’s hospital bedside. Instead, my boss, the man who I had come to call Uncle ji, dropped by for a visit. He must have understood my dad was dying, for in a very quiet voice, Uncle ji told him how pleased he was with my work, how it benefitted people from all corners of the earth, from all races and religions. My antagonistic and cynical nature was not mentioned. My boss said my willingness to empathize, to embrace diversity and overcome my own fears, were special gifts that were a direct result of my father’s loving kindness. Uncle ji thanked my father for raising me so carefully. He then smiled, shook my father’s hand, hugged me, and left.
Dad looked directly at me. There was a tear making its way down his cheek, and the broadest smile that a father could display. Not a word was spoken, as we sat together and cried. He died two days later.
That day, like a seed in warm soil, I started to grow with a confidence in who I was and where I came from. I found my roots and my branches all at the same time. In my sorrow and frustration I found succour from the Sikh community, and an unbidden compassion that I had never known. My Sikh family helped me to accept the good and the bad in life by their patient demonstration of simple faith. There was no ritual, there was no ceremony, just an unwavering belief that purpose could be found in faith, and faith could be found in purpose.
In the last nine years of working with the World Sikh Organization of Canada, I have changed from decidedly cynical to less cynical, from faithless to hopeful. The Sikh example has changed me, ever so gradually, from anger and frustration to peace and acceptance. I have actually started to believe in people once again, as the Sikhs do so faithfully. I have started to believe that perhaps….perhaps…there IS some humanity remaining in the world. I have, in a word, become more Sikh, and while I have not converted to Sikhism, I have the privilege of enjoying all the peace and humility that is afforded the faithful, by working with this community every single day.
Perhaps I am not so Quixotic after all.