Pausing to Count Our Blessings
A Reflection on The Challenge of Wanting
It’s been an exciting few weeks!
Publishers Weekly listed The Light We Give as one of the best books of 2022. The Many Colors of Harpreet Singh came out in Spanish as Los Muchos Colores de Harpreet Singh! And just today, librarians in Virginia announced Fauja Singh Keeps Going as the recipient of its statewide picture book award.
I’m so grateful for all of these wonderful developments and to everyone who has supported us along the way.
As I texted a friend earlier today, there’s so much for all of us to be grateful for, and it’s so easy to overlook our blessings in the midst of our daily busy-ness. I ate nourishing, home-cooked meals. I slept with safety and comfort in my own home. My girls had a fun Halloween weekend with their friends.
Here’s a funny observation about life: As much as there is to be grateful for, that’s how much we take for granted. This is our default way of living, including my own.
This morning a colleague asked me to suggest a quotation from Sikh teachings on gratitude for an article she’s compiling. I shared a line from Guru Arjan Sahib that I’ve loved for years and took a moment after our conversation to reflect on it.
ਸੋ ਕਿਉ ਬਿਸਰੈ ਜਿਨਿ ਸਭੁ ਕਿਛੁ ਦੀਆ ॥
How can we forget the one who has given us everything?
It’s one of those simple messages that cuts deep when we stop to think about it. We say thank you to so many people for the most mundane things. We notice when people give to us. We have a strong culture of appreciating others. Yet for some reason, we forget to be grateful to the ultimate source of our lives, the one who gives to us constantly. When I truly think about it, it seems so absurd: How can we all be so ungrateful?
Life is funny in this way. We’re constantly receiving gifts and blessings, yet we’re never satisfied, always looking for more. Guru Nanak has a powerful reflection on this in Japuji Sahib:
ਆਖਹਿ ਮੰਗਹਿ ਦੇਹਿ ਦੇਹਿ ਦਾਤਿ ਕਰੇ ਦਾਤਾਰੁ ॥
aakhahi mangahi dehi dehi daati karay daatar.
We always ask, “Give! Give!” And the Giver keeps on giving.
I often read this line as a commentary on generosity. If we want to be more like the Giver, then shouldn’t we focus more on giving than taking, on sharing over wanting? I reflect on this briefly in my book through the Sikh concept of vand chakna and the tradition of sharing what we have before consuming any of it.
But this week, I’m focusing more on the sharper edge of this line. What does it mean that Guru Nanak’s observation of humanity is that we’re constantly asking for more? That we’re never satisfied? That there’s no end to our wanting?
I’ll pause for a moment here to note that Guru Nanak’s language here is actually stronger than it seems in the English. The second word, mangna, has a connotation of asking with expectation of something in return. It’s often associated with begging, and it carries a connotation of transaction.
The following two words, “Give! Give!” are written as familiar second-person commands. These are not gentle supplications. They are demands, which read to me as coming from a place of entitlement. It’s what my daughters would say as babies when they wanted something, before they realized the world didn’t revolve around them.
And now, here is Guru Nanak, watching all of us and saying this is how we conduct our daily lives, expecting more constantly, as if we deserve any of it.
It’s a powerful rejoinder to each of us who walk through the world with our inflated egos. We forget that we did nothing to deserve what we have and that all of it can be taken from us in an instant.
So what can we do to live differently?
Perhaps one answer is in living with hukam, understanding that we do not have the power to command the world, but instead that we live within its command. Flipping this perspective takes us from a place of arrogance to humility, such that we might see ourselves in relationship with the world rather than being its master.
I think often about the balance of ambition and humility. We want to help the world. We want to have impact. We want to do good, and we want to do it well. And we also want to preserve our humility and compassion as we do it.
Gratitude can be a medicine for our self-centeredness and can help ground our aspirations. Instead of expecting and demanding what we want, we can be grateful for the gifts and opportunities we receive. The spirit of gratitude can move us to give more to others, rather than to take incessantly.
In a way, gratitude can help us transform what we want for ourselves into what we want for others, and this approach can help us become more selfless and less self-centered. It’s hard and it’s unusual, especially in a culture where we are constantly shouting “Me! Me!” alongside “Give! Give!”
But I find so much more joy in thinking “You, You” as we give to one another.
more of this, please. is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.