Crisis of Faith: T. SHER SINGH
Part III - The Blame Game
Saturday, September 8, 2012
On my way home after my early morning coffee almost every day, I walk by a figure slumped on a bench, quietly smoking a cigarette, staring at the traffic whizzing by. Crumpled and shrivelled, shrunk and world-weary, he wishes me ‘Good morning’ each time, and I greet him back as I walk by.
One morning, he cleared his throat as I passed him and stopped me in my tracks with: “You are a writer, aren’t you?”
I looked at him, not sure if I had heard right.
“You’re a writer?”
It’s a village and everyone seems to know everyone’s business, I have discovered by now.
“Of sorts, yes,” I said.
“Good. Then sit down for a minute, I want to talk to you.”
I was in no hurry, so I did. He offered me a cigarette. I shook my head.
“You know, Mr Singh” - yes, he even knew my name! - “I would like you to write my life-story. It’ll make a very interesting book. Believe me, there are things the world should know.”
I looked at him and nodded, not sure what to say. And wondering how I could move on without appearing rude. Just to be polite, I said: “Tell me … like, what sort of things?”
Out came a torrent of words. He’d obviously rehearsed this moment: a string of snippets designed to catch my attention. No details; just enough to prevent me from getting up and walking away.
He told me of being abandoned as a child. Of a life in an orphanage and foster homes. Of violence and hunger. Crime. Prison. Drugs. Police. Homelessness. Religion. A job in the construction industry. Ill health. Retirement. Mental illness. Committal. Poverty. Survival.
And loss of faith.
He wasn’t railing. He sounded tired. He just wanted the world to know what he’d been through.
How old are you, I asked.
Fifty-four, he said. Strange, I had thought he was in his 80s.
What could I say? I said: let’s talk more, I would like to hear your stories.
“I’ll be here, whenever you’re ready,” he said as I headed home.
There are eight churches in my neighbourhood, almost all of them on the street where I live. I would’ve noticed him if he had ever been on my street. But never saw him once go in or out, or going to one, or back from one. Maybe because he has no Sunday clothes. Because he has lost faith? Maybe because he never had any. Who knows.
* * * * *
I have often pondered over my own life and always viewed it as an ordinary and boring one.
Not through an overdose of humility but when I look around at others, I am bowled over by the magnitude of what others have experienced, of what they’ve had to overcome, of what they’ve achieved in the face of heavy odds.
My own journey pales in comparison. And I am reminded of it every time I get to sit down with any person and find out about his or her story: there’s always an epic story lurking in there.
So much so that I’ve always believed that I can pick out a man (or woman) off the street, totally at random, and spending a mere hour or so with him, unearth a story of triumph and tragedy - stuff that can easily be turned into a blockbuster movie in the hands of a Spielberg or Scorsese.
And then, I look at my own life.
Boring. A good one. But dull and boring. A happy childhood. A loving family. Middle-class and well provided. Education and schooling. Dreams fulfilled. A fulfilling career. Pleasures galore, even some luxuries. Lots of love, given and received. World travel. Recognition. Good health. No war. No famine. No natural disasters. No cataclysmic upheavals, either in my life or around me.
I must confess there’s been a tinge of envy whenever I have heard others tell me their lives. They’ve lived sagas! I have felt deprived.
Then, one day not long ago, I shared this sentiment with my daughter. She laughed at me.
“Your life? Boring?” she scoffed. And then proceeded to summarize my life from her perspective.
A lonely childhood in boarding school. Bullied throughout. Conflict in university, and lost years. Uprooting and displacement to a new, foreign land. A bad marriage. Divorce. Lifelong single parenthood of a child starting at age 3. Years of struggle: odd jobs, hard work. Always embroiled in public conflict and clashes, albeit through activism. Traumatic personal experiences. Living alone.
I shook my head in utter disbelief. Amazed at how I could see my life in one way, others in a completely different way.
True, all those things that had been listed were indeed markers in my life. But I had always seen them as positive events, some memorably delightful.
Sure, there was loneliness in boarding school, but it was also a lot of fun … while it transpired, not merely through the golden glaze of hindsight. Yes, I was bullied. Everyday. But I truly thought that I was somebody special, because I was being singled out. And began to look forward to the excitement of daily combat … not unlike a “fight club”.
Immigration? Loved it! To go to a new land of your choice and to start life anew … there’s no greater adventure.
A failed marriage? Divorce? I had concluded that it was my own failings that had contributed to the failure. And to have gone through a divorce virtually unscathed … I’ve always considered it one of the greatest blessings of my life.
Single-parenthood? It was a joy. It was like getting to enjoy being a parent, only twice as much.
Struggles to find work? If I had found it easy in the beginning, I’d still be wallowing in a steady, dull, decent but mind-numbing job, four decades later. Instead, I was forced to dip into the deepest of my inner well-springs, and emerged with a life-long career which allowed me to fulfill all of my dreams.
Sure, I live alone, a confirmed bachelor and it has its lonely moments. But it gives me the freedom to live life to the fullest, while still having the joys of a loving family. I look at all the marriages around me, whenever I sense any danger … ergo, mercifully, I’ve remained safe.
And so on and so forth …
Don’t get me wrong. It hasn’t been all rosy. There have been times I’ve stood in utter darkness and stared into the abyss.
But I’ve always been blessed with the strength and the opportunity to find my way out and head for the peaks again.
Is that why I’ve never had a crisis of faith, even though I’ve had my fair share of challenges?
I‘ve often wondered why I’ve been immune from total despair. I have carefully sifted through each phase of my life - I have lots of time and opportunity now - to understand the blessings I have received.
I’m quite sure they have been undeserved and unearned. There is nothing in me as a person that can take any credit for never having to question my faith, or to rail at God … or at the world. I am troubled every time I come across others who do, and am always puzzled.
And then, I wonder why I’ve been spared.
It may have something to do with the challenges I faced early in life and my father’s reinforcement that troubles will go as sure as they will come. I’ve had my share of troubles, and still do. But I know - and it’s never been otherwise - that they disappear into the very same thin air that they came from. Not unlike the successes and the accolades, which also come and also go.
It is the way of life.
Initially, you claim credit for the highs and the victories, and forget to share it.
And throw the blame for the lows and the failures on others. The greater the pain and the losses, the bigger and wider the blame. It was your parents’ fault. Your spouse. Your children. Your boss. The politicians. Society.
Your faith has failed you. Nay, God has failed you.
I have never had the luxury of passing on the blame to others. For a simple reason: I have learnt from Sikhi that we are accountable for our actions, and have to bear their consequences. No one else will wash away my ‘sins’ or stand in my stead on doomsday. No proxy in Sikhi.
There’s no magic or gobbledegook either. You can’t jump into a river a few times and escape accountability for your actions. You can’t give a bit of money away and buy a “Get Out of Jail” card. You can’t repeat a few mantras and then expect things to appear, or disappear, magically. You can’t surrender all responsibility to a stone or an image.
Because Sikhi has taught me to have no faith in these methods, I never get to blame the imagined sponsors of these supernatural feats when they don’t materialize.
My faith gives me the tools and shows me the path to seek grace. The rest is for me … to do my best. At times, I will fail … because I’m human and I’m imperfect. At times, I’ll prevail … if I continue to strive, to learn, to persist, to commit …
Sikhi teaches me not to carry around any guilt when I fail, or bask in the sun for too long when I do well.
Sehaj is the word … equilibrium. Equipoise.
I knew when my marriage failed that I had failed myself. So, there was pain but no need to blame anyone else. No, it wasn’t her fault. Or anyone else’s. Certainly not God’s.
When I was riding high and touching the clouds, I knew I shouldn’t jump up and down too much because I knew I had done little to deserve it all. I had been the recipient of gifts, real and circumstantial. But when I stood before the mirror, alone at night when I got home, I could see I had no clothes.
When fingers are pointed at me, I have learnt to accept that too. I try to do it with grace, though I don’t always succeed, but I have learnt that each fall too is a gift and opens new doors.
I look around me and I see that all life goes through these cycles.
The mangoes sitting in the fruit basket. They are sweet because it is in their nature to be sweet. In time, they’ll get eaten and cease to exist in their glory. Those I don’t get to on time, will develop blemishes. Decay. Due to no fault. It’s nature. With enough passage of time, and if not consumed in their prime, they will age and deteriorate and die.
At no stage is any blame involved. Or meaningful.
If a few have decayed in my custody, next time I’ll get fewer. Or keep them in the fridge. Or eat them sooner.
But their ultimate fate will not change. It is the way of life.
There’s no blame due.
Conversation about this article
1: T. Sher Singh (Mount Forest, Ontario, Canada), September 08, 2012, 10:21 AM.
Life is full of ironies. Last night, while it was still light outside and I was at my computer writing this piece, I glanced out of my window. Right across the road is a delightful little Anglican church. I noticed something unusual, right on the lawn outside its front entrance, midway between the road and the doors: I could make out a human figure, sitting on the ground with legs outstretched, the head resting in one hand. Not a normal or common sight in these parts. I went out to check and found a middle-aged woman, dressed all in black, a half-empty bottle of whisky in one hand, sobbing away and talking to herself incoherently. Had never seen her before. I asked her if I could help. She offered me a swill from the bottle, which I politely declined. I asked if she wanted me to call the Minister of the church. She had some unkind words for God in general, and wanted nothing to do with the church. I left her staring up at the bell-tower, the bottle raised to the sky, saying something angrily but unintelligibly. I kept an eye on her through my window, as I worked on my keyboard. At one point, I noticed she was gone, driven away, I suspect, by the start of a downpour.
2: N. H. (Illinois, USA), September 08, 2012, 12:51 PM.
Thank you for this piece! Going through a crisis of faith in God, in family, in myself and everyone I love or used to love. Reading this just touched the right chord, and gave me the strength to make the effort to put my faith back where it belongs. But I have a long way to go ... hope to always receive daily dose of simple wisdom from Sher Singh ji. Thanks, again!
3: Harmit Kaur (Singapore), September 10, 2012, 12:50 AM.
Dear Sir: May Waheguru always be with you.
4: Sarjit Kaur (Pennsylvania, USA), September 10, 2012, 5:00 PM.
Inspiring. Thank you, Veer ji. Kudos to Sikhs who thrive in cold, harsh western climates, and keep Sikh values intact. Impressive, indeed!
5: Sarjit Kaur (Pennsylvannia, USA), September 11, 2012, 12:04 PM.
T. Sher Singh ji: I would like to add that maybe Guru jio is having you meet such lost souls daily, so you could guide them towards the chardi kalaa spirit, come what may in life, as per Hukam ...
6: Mahanjot Sodhi (Mississauga, Ontario, Canada), September 11, 2012, 4:33 PM.
T. Sher Singh ji: My admiration for you increases on a daily basis. Thanks once again for an awesome perspective, full of chardi kalaa. As someone who has seen lots of ups and downs in life as well (like any other normal human being), I could relate to the article. Hoping to meet you someday! God bless.