I grew up in a Sikh household and the teachings of Guru Nanak were a big part of my upbringing. My father is a quintessentially jovial, hard-working and sometimes scary sardarji who always taught me to do the right thing. It is his personality and philosophy that has kept me close to my Sikh roots, no matter where I’ve drifted in life. My mother encouraged me to do seva (selfless service) and listen to soulful kirtans. My naani, who is a force unto herself, inspired me to be brave and tread my own path.
Sikhs are known for their seva, the practice of helping other people without the expectation of any reward. You’ll typically find this community at disaster sites all over the world, setting up oxygen langars and feeding hungry people. During the pandemic, I wrote a book, Seva: Sikh Secrets on How to be Good in the Real World which explains the motivation behind these actions. After examining my own upbringing, looking at Sikh history, digging up studies from the social sciences and speaking to many Sikhs from all over the world, I’ve come to the conclusion that seva stems from other behaviours and attitudes that Sikhs embody, myself included. The parts of my personality that I am proudest of finds roots in my Sikh upbringing.
Below I explain three things I’ve learnt from the Sikh community that have helped me become a better person:
1. Helping strangers regularly: I started doing seva when I was seven or eight years old. In Sikh gurdwaras, cooking for others or looking after the devotees’ footwear is considered as important as praying. Doing seva is second nature to us and doesn’t feel sacrificial or special. It’s part of our daily routine like cooking or cleaning the house.
According to psychological studies, shifting our focus from our own problems to helping others makes us healthier and happier. I’m the perfect example. Shortly after the pandemic hit, I’d had a baby and seen multiple family members fall sick. One particular day I had a breakdown and after I wiped my tears, I went to the kitchen and cooked a big pot of my grandmother’s biryani. I distributed it to two friends who were living away from their families and missed home-made food. Unsurprisingly, the act gave me joy and my day got much better.
Tip: Want to do more good and help others? Set yourself a kindness challenge for a week and do one nice thing every day for a week. On Monday help your staff set up online banking, on Tuesday cook something for a neighbour, on Wednesday help your parents clean out a cabinet and so on. If you enjoy the experience, carry on.
2.Building resilience: Could resilience be any more relevant than in 2021? The pandemic has been hard on most of the world’s population in one way or the other, and learning how to rise above our problems goes a long way in being functional, happy adults. Sikhs have experienced traumatic events like the India-Pakistan partition, 1984 violence and post 9/11 hate crimes and they still (for the most part) channel joy and lightness. Building resilience was my top resolution for 2021.
Truth is, I feel just as defeated as anyone when life deals me a blow, but I take inspiration from my community. Halfway through writing my book manuscript, I came home one day to see all my research and notes had been accidentally thrown away by my domestic helper. I was devastated and couldn’t write for a month. I decided to make a resilience plan to get over the misfortune. I called my mentor and close girl friends for support and validation. I read Sheryl Sandberg’s book Plan B about how she overcame the untimely death of her husband. I told myself that the bad times won’t last forever nor do they affect every part of my life. It turns out, focusing on positive moments and situations goes a long way in building resilience and it also helped me get back to writing.
Tip: start a gratitude journal to train your mind to savour positive moments and things. This counters our in-built negativity bias and helps us look at life from a place of abundance. We are able to work through our own problems, connect with anyone who has struggled through life and eventually make room in our heart to help others.
3.Laughing easily and at myself: Call it the Sikh superpower or secret weapon, laughter is health-giving in many ways. Humour has the power to persuade people of your point of view, studies say. Sikhs are known to be funny and also take jibes at their intellect in their stride. Sardars and sardarnis work hard, help others and stand up for the right cause so they’re secure in their self-worth. Some silly jokes don’t have the power to hurt their pride. On the contrary, often Sikhs have the largest repertoire of sardarji jokes and laugh the hardest at them.
Self-depreciative humour has helped me be more resilient and brought joy into my life. Juggling a baby and a book was no easy task during the pandemic but humour is what made it doable for me. I made jokes about motherhood on social media and this helped me forge beautiful friendships, gave me room to make mistakes and made me likable. Today I am part of a community of moms who are enjoying the circus that is parenting.
Tip: The simplest way to incorporate more humour in your life is to laugh more. When you live life looking for a reason to smile, you’ll find many. Another way to be funnier is to observe your own idiosyncrasies and make a list of them. For example, here’s one of mine: I constantly want to know what time it is but I refuse to wear a watch. As a result, all day I’m bugging my family and staff by asking them what time it is. Once you can laugh at yourself, you become better at dealing with adversity and also become popular for all the right reasons.
Jasreen Mayal Khanna is the author of Seva: Sikh Secrets on How to be Good in the Real World