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Letting go of hate by questioning the very idea of evil

Simran Jeet Singh, pictured here in the days after the attack on the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. in 2012, says he turned to his faith to help him through.
Stan Honda
AFP via Getty Images
Simran Jeet Singh, pictured here in the days after the attack on the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. in 2012, says he turned to his faith to help him through.

Some of the most contented people I know are really good at forgiveness. They do not hold grudges. They have the ability to look at the person who has harmed them and see beyond that particular action, insult or slight – even the most grievous.

As part of my own spiritual inquiry, I've been thinking a lot about this idea, which led me to a book by Simran Jeet Singh, called The Light We Give: How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life. In it, Singh writes about what it was like growing up as a turban-wearing brown kid in Texas in the 1980s. He learned how to deflect ridicule and insults with humor, but when he got older he could no longer laugh off racist epithets.

Instead, he learned how to confront the people throwing hate his way.

He told me the story of an exchange he had some years ago while he was out for a run near the NYU campus in New York, where he was teaching:

"As I'm running I hear someone shouting at me, 'f–ing Osama, f–ing Osama.' I could have ignored it and just felt irritated. But as I'm running by, I look at this person and he's probably 18 or 20 years old, the same age as my students. So I stopped and I went up to him. He waved me off like he wanted to dismiss me and I said, 'No, actually we're going to have a little conversation about this.' He was a person of color and I said, 'I'm guessing you know what it's like for people to say these kinds of things to you, how hurtful it can be.' And I saw his eyes change, from distance to sincerity. We shook hands and I went on my run. And it's not that I feel like I changed the world in that moment, but it totally changed my day and it changed the way I try to handle situations like that when it's appropriate."

But engaging with someone on a street corner is different than trying to see the humanity in a mass murderer. Yet, that's exactly what Singh tried to do.

Notice, though, that I'm not talking about forgiveness here. That word carries a lot of understandable baggage for Singh, as you'll come to understand. Even so, I ended up learning a lot about the nature of forgiveness from how he sees the world.

Our conversation about this began with what happened on Aug. 5, 2012. Wade Michael Page, a 40-year-old white man, opened fire inside a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis. He killed six people on the scene, and a seventh person died of their wounds in 2020.

Singh wasn't there, nor did he personally know any of the victims. But this was a racist attack from an avowed white supremist who targeted his faith and culture. He says he felt helpless as he watched the story unfold while at a friend's apartment in New York City where he lives.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Singh, pictured in 2012, speaks as the Reverend Matthew Heyd of Trinity Wall Street listens before they ring the "Bell of Hope" for the victims of the Sikh temple attack in Wisconsin in 2012.
Stan Honda / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Singh, pictured in 2012, speaks as the Reverend Matthew Heyd of Trinity Wall Street listens before they ring the "Bell of Hope" for the victims of the Sikh temple attack in Wisconsin in 2012.

Simran Jeet Singh: As we were planning to head home, my wife and I asked ourselves, "Do we feel safe walking?" And we thought maybe we shouldn't leave the apartment we were at. This is how fear can start to control our lives. And so we made the conscious decision, and this is one of the core tenets of the Sikh philosophy that we chose to live into, it's called nirbhau meaning fearlessness.

That was something that we intentionally chose that afternoon and it's something that the Oak Creek community in Wisconsin really embodied in the days and weeks that followed. To the point where they even had t-shirts made that said "Nirbhau, Nirvar," meaning no fear, no hate.

Rachel Martin: Those are such different ideas too, because you can live without fear, you can say we refuse to change how we live, how we worship, who we are despite this hideous thing. But to not give into anger and hate is like another bridge.

Singh: You know what, at first I let that anger sit. And I was OK with it. I didn't love that I was angry, but I thought it was fine and it felt appropriate. But the person who I was angry at was gone, he had taken his own life at the end of the massacre, so my anger was not going to have any impact on him. All it was doing was eating me up from the inside. It felt so corrosive. And that's when I started to realize that there's a choice I can make here. Anger may feel like a natural reaction but it's not the only option. As someone who grew up in this country looking different, I was a target of hate. I have a turban, I have a beard, I have brown skin and I'm often on the receiving end of people's bigotry. And part of what I've learned is to not take it so personally. Other people's anger is their problem, it's not mine. But I also realize that it can become my problem if those people can't control it.

Martin: So what changed for you? Because you were somehow able to, well not forgive the shooter, right? There was no forgiveness, but maybe a letting go?

Singh: Letting go isn't quite right. But forgiving definitely did not feel appropriate. He didn't apologize, he took his own life. And I know for a lot of people, and in many traditions, forgiveness is important and I appreciate that. But for me this really wasn't about forgiveness.

What I really struggle with in this country is so often forgiveness is expected from those who are on the margins and often in the context of racial violence. Like Dylann Roof in South Carolina. The immediate conversation was if these are real Christians they'll forgive him. And I don't think that's a fair expectation to put on people.

Martin: Dylann Roof, who killed nine Black people in 2015 at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.

Singh: That's right. I don't think forgiveness is a fair expectation for us to put on others and I don't even know if that's the solution to our suffering. I personally haven't had that experience. But I've developed a few strategies over the years drawing from Sikh philosophy on how to deal with those moments.

One is to get to know the person. And I've found that if you can know someone you can come to humanize them. And so I tried that with Wade Michael Page and I found the more that I got to know him the less I felt connected to. This strategy just didn't work. I read about his background, I read the white supremacist message boards he was on, I read everything I could and I was like, this guy has nothing in common with me. The revelation moment came when I was talking to young Sikh kids at a camp in New York and the parents had asked me to lead a session with them about the massacre. I asked the kids, "Why did Wade Michael Page kill these people?" Their immediate response was that this man was evil. That he killed because he was an evil person. And that struck me because evil is not a concept that we give much attention to in Sikh philosophy. We don't even really believe in evil and we certainly don't believe that people are evil. But I also realize this is essentially how I had been thinking about this person.

All of these terms I'd been using like "racist" and "white supremacist" were all code for my way of thinking about him as evil. And that shocking moment really made me step back and ask myself, "What is it that I believe about how someone, how a human could commit this kind of atrocity against another human being?" And that question pushed me, all within the context of this conversation with the kids, to go back to basic Sikh teachings. The core idea is we all have the same light. We're all interconnected and we all have this shared sense of humanity, and we are able to hurt one another when we fail to see that light.

Martin: This is called vahiguru, right?

Singh: Yeah, vahiguru is the term we use for divinity. And there are different ways in which we would describe it, but one that I really love from Sikh scripture is what I shared with these kids. It says, "Aval allah noor upaaiaa kudrat ke sabh banday. Ek noor te sabh jag upjaia kaun bhalay ko manday." What that means is first God created the light and all the people of the world. So if everyone comes from the same light, how can we say anyone is good or anyone is bad?

Part of what I didn't expect coming out of this conversation with the kids was this way of thinking, essentially saying there's no place for judgment. There's no place for discrimination. This is a core teaching of Sikh philosophy and I realized that as I was thinking about this white supremacist, I was so judgmental of him and I had developed the same kind of supremacist thinking that I was upset at him for. I thought I was better than him as a human being. I thought I was more divine or had more light inside of me, or however you wanna describe it. I just thought I was better than him at the end of the day.

Martin: But can't we agree that you didn't murder people? Like, doesn't that make you a better person?

Singh: I think we can get in trouble if we start to say there's no morality, there's no right or wrong. I don't believe that. But I don't think that our ability to live in certain ways necessarily means we're better than other people. Growing up, the one thing that I found most frustrating and the biggest turnoff about religion was when people thought that they were better than you. And maybe it's because I grew up in Texas and there's a lot of that kind of judgment, the whole "holier than thou" mentality. It always rubbed me the wrong way.

I never really understood why it was particularly unacceptable to me until I started to think about this very one-sided relationship, because he was dead, with this man. But in trying to see his humanity and learning that if I wanted to see him as equally divine I had to get over this assumption that just because he did horrible things means that he's a monster or he's inhuman and doesn't deserve the same kind of dignity as everyone else.

Martin: That's a hard thing to wrap your head around, I think, for a lot of people, myself included. It's really bold, that idea, and the effort you put towards it to try to discover and to meditate on this person's humanity, and that you had the space to conceive of him as both good and evil. I think for a lot of people who come from a Christian tradition like myself, it is this binary, right? You grow up with this idea that there are good people, there are bad people, the good and the evil. And opening yourself up to the idea that we are both things – that all of us contain the good and the bad, the dark and the light – is useful.

Singh: I hear you when you say it sounds hard, because it is hard. There are all sorts of people I encounter personally and from a distance who I look at and it's not as easy for me to see the goddess in them, the light in them. Sometimes I despise the things they stand for and despise the way they treat people. There are all kinds of people who do terrible things. The very simple practice, the starting place, is to take 10 seconds each day and see the humanity in someone who is different from yourself. You can start in the easy places: family members, friends, colleagues, coworkers. But once you get through that list and you need to find someone else, you'll start seeing strangers you never noticed before. People you wouldn't otherwise connect with. And what I've found with this practice is that the strangeness starts to go away with these 10 seconds every day. It doesn't have to be super cheesy, you don't have to lock eyes and stare. Just notice someone and try to think about who they are and where they're coming from and just see their humanity.

So many of the assumptions that we make about one another are born out of ignorance and a closed-offness in our culture. And I have found that by opening ourselves up, we can help open up one another and that's where the exchange really begins, and we can really start to see one another.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Martin
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, and a founding host of NPR's award-winning morning news podcast Up First. Martin's interviews take listeners behind the headlines to understand the people at the center of those stories.