A Time to Breathe, A Time to Push

Thursday, March 16, 2017 - 5:00 am

A Time to Breathe, A Time to Push

Martin Luther King once told us that when the night is darkest is when we can see the stars most clearly.

These are dark days, difficult nights of the soul for many of us in America. Perhaps it is not a coincidence that the same dark nights of the soul are witnessing many stars shining bright. Some of these are old and ancient stars that have been shedding light for what seems like centuries. Others are newer, bright and bold lights.

Today I wanted to share one of these lights who has been bringing light to my own heart, and I pray, will also bring light to you. Hers is a name not so familiar to many of us: Valarie Kaur.

She speaks out of the depth of a tradition that is all too often absent from the landscape of where many look for spiritual wisdom: the Sikh tradition. We hear of our Sikh brothers when they are attacked, harassed, and occasionally shot because they wear a turban that reminds their attackers of Muslims. We hear now and then of Sikh gurdwaras being attacked. But how rarely do we hear from the heart of the Sikh tradition in the same frequency as we do Buddhism and Judaism and prophetic Christianity and mystical Islam. May that change, and may it change by lifting up voices of prophetic sisters like Valarie Kaur.

There are two pieces from Valarie that have touched my heart so. They are both beautiful, and I wanted to share both. The first one is a prayer that she wrote for America on the day after the election: “A Sikh Prayer for America on November 9, 2016.”

In it, she asks the boldest question I have heard in the post-Trump world:

What if this darkness
is not the darkness of the tomb,
but the darkness of the womb?

Tapping into the life-giving wisdom of mothers and midwives, Valarie also asks us to remember the advice during birth pangs:

then push.

Here is the full text of it:

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh

In our tears and agony, we hold our children close and confront the truth: The future is dark.

But my faith dares me to ask:

What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb?

What if our America is not dead but a country still waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor?

What if all the mothers who came before us, who survived genocide and occupation, slavery and Jim Crow, racism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, political oppression and sexual assault, are standing behind us now, whispering in our ear: You are brave? What if this is our Great Contraction before we birth a new future?

Remember the wisdom of the midwife: “Breathe,” she says. Then: “Push.”

Now it is time to breathe. But soon it will be time to push; soon it will be time to fight — for those we love — Muslim father, Sikh son, trans daughter, indigenous brother, immigrant sister, white worker, the poor and forgotten, and the ones who cast their vote out of resentment and fear.

Let us make an oath to fight for the soul of America — “The land that never has been yet— And yet must be” (Langston Hughes) — with Revolutionary Love and relentless optimism. And so I pray this Sikh prayer:

Nanak Naam Chardi Kala,
Tere Bane Sarbat Da Bhalla

“In the name of the Divine within us and around us, we find everlasting optimism.
Within your will, may there be grace for all of humanity.”

Waheguru Ji Ka Khalsa Waheguru Ji Ki Fateh 

She returned to the same bold and prophetic question in a talk that she gave, and I invite you to watch the fire of the spirit pouring through her:

“Yes Rabbi, the future is dark, on this watch night,
I close my eyes and I see the darkness of my grandfather’s cell.
And I can feel the spirit of ever rising optimism
(in the Sikh tradition ‘Chardi Kala’) within him.
So the mother in me asks,
‘What if?
What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb,
but the darkness of the womb?….

What if this is our country’s great transition?”

Thanks be to God for giving us these stars on these dark nights of the soul.

May we breathe, and may we push, through the darkness of the womb, and witness the birth of a new America. May we be the midwives and mothers of an America that does not exist yet, but we must give birth to.

Let us breathe, and let us push…

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is a columnist for On Being. His column appears every Thursday.

He is Director of Duke University’s Islamic Studies Center. He is the past Chair for the Study of Islam, and the current Chair for Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion. In 2009, he was recognized by the University of North Carolina for mentoring minority students in 2009, and won the Sitterson Teaching Award for Professor of the Year in April of 2010.

Omid is the editor of the volume Progressive Muslims: On Justice, Gender, and Pluralism, which offered an understanding of Islam rooted in social justice, gender equality, and religious and ethnic pluralism. His works Politics of Knowledge in Premodern Islam, dealing with medieval Islamic history and politics, and Voices of Islam: Voices of Change were published 2006. His last book, Memories of Muhammad, deals with the biography and legacy of the Prophet Muhammad. He has forthcoming volumes on the famed mystic Rumi, contemporary Islamic debates in Iran, and American Islam.

Omid has been among the most frequently sought speakers on Islam in popular media, appearing in The New York TimesNewsweekWashington Post, PBS, NPR, NBC, CNN and other international media. He leads educational tours every year to Turkey, Morocco, or other countries, to study the rich multiple religious traditions there. The trips are open to everyone, from every country. More information at Illuminated Tours.

Share Your Reflection


  • Gabby

    It is indeed a time for each of us to ask how we can emerge better and stronger from the crises through which we pass (I have been rereading Victor Frankl) and what role we might and should play in birthing a better place for all of us.

  • Sue

    Thank you for sharing this, Omid. I continue to learn on my journey. I have felt for a long time that a change was necessary and could not fully understand how it was to happen. Yes, change is coming and out of this chaos comes opportunities for us all. I will become a part and know that others are awake and moving towards a better democracy where ALL of us can be heard with respect for each person.

  • Marcus

    This comes to mind … “The pain and uncertainty of life is not wrong. It is as right as the joy and wonder of life.” Richard Moss (born 1947) in The Black Butterfly – an invitation to radical aliveness, 1986 [page 275 of 300 pages]

  • Beautiful!

  • Suzanne Henley

    Thank you for spreading the word about Valarie Kaur! She’s who I want to be when I grow up (says the 74-year-old). And she will be here in Memphis April 1 keynoting the annual Gandhi/King Conference! But, before that, March 22 and 23, so many of us are anticipating your appearance here at the 90 year old preaching series at Calvary Church! What a heady combination! (Have I used enough exclamation points yet?)

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