Simran Jeet Singh: Articles of Faith

A bicycle crash leaves me asking, ‘My faith or my health?’

Hair, including beards, has a lot of significance for Sikhs. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

(RNS) — Whenever I have imagined having an accident on my bicycle — you don’t ride in New York City regularly without constant visualizations — I thought I would have more control. But as I actually found myself flying over my handlebars a couple of weeks ago, I hardly had time to brace, much less land with any forethought.

My hands stuck straight out and took most of the initial impact, which immediately radiated through my right arm, fracturing it near the elbow. As I skidded, thankfully away from traffic, my chin dragged on the road as well.

With the help of a good Samaritan named Victor, I finally got to my feet. That was when I noticed the blood dripping from my face. It took us a few moments to determine its source: an opening on my chin, somewhere under my beard. Victor couldn’t see it well and neither could I. But as it didn’t seem to be bleeding too badly, I washed myself up in a Starbucks bathroom, walked over to the subway and made my way to my office.

The bleeding hadn’t slowed by the time I got to my office, and in the bathroom I still wasn’t able to see the damage as it was completely covered by my beard. I applied pressure with wet paper towels, trying to will my body to close up the wound. Two hours later it was still bleeding, and although my arm was starting to hurt, I still had not accepted that I needed to go to the emergency room.

Aside from an aversion to medical care and a general disposition toward minimizing my needs, a large part of my calculus was that at the hospital they might ask to shave part of my beard. I found myself avoiding the emergency room because I didn’t want to be asked to choose between my faith and my health.

Hair has a lot of significance for Sikhs. There are diverse interpretations for Sikhs as to why it’s important to them. Some describe it as a way of respecting how God made us originally; others speak to the power of hair through examples in sacred literature; and others still speak to its metaphysical capabilities.

For me and for many of my Sikh sisters and brothers, it’s less a logical explanation than a matter of love. Our hair is a gift from our Guru, and therefore we cherish it. It represents to us a loving relationship, one that is unconditional and uncompromising and unapologetic. This is why it’s so hard for me, and for so many of us, to simply let it go, even in moments of difficulty. For me, this relationship of love is far more permanent than my own health or this physical body.

An illustration of a bicycle accident. Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Sikh memory is a guide here as well. There are countless stories of devout Sikhs who, amid persecution, have been forced to choose between their physical lives or renouncing their faith. This choice was often presented as either cutting a Sikh’s hair or torture and execution.

When so many Sikhs have given up so much in order to honor their own identities, it’s hard for me to imagine cutting my beard for something so trivial as a split chin.

A moment for an obvious insight: Not all Sikhs practice their faith in the same way or have the same relationship with their hair. When life gets hairy (sorry!), people make different decisions. I know Sikhs who have trimmed their beards to get the medical attention they needed. I know some who have opted out of treatments for cancer because of how chemotherapy would affect their hair. I can respect and understand both sides.

My own response, once I’d admitted that I was not going to get the bleeding to stop on my own, was to begin searching online for the possibility of sutures without hair removal. I met with futility. Next I turned to social media. “Question for medical folks: Can doctors do stitches underneath facial hair without removing any of it? Cutting or shaving my beard isn’t an option. Appreciate any guidance!”

After receiving positive feedback from a variety of folks in the medical field (including my own wife, a physician, who happened to be at a conference across the country), I reluctantly decided to go to the hospital.

Medically, the story ends a bit anticlimactically. The doctors were able to set my arm and stop the bleeding in my chin without a single stitch. But what I got out of my flight over the handlebars was more interesting. It brought to the fore an issue with which I haven’t dealt before — a tension between religious practice and physical health. What would I have done if the injury had been more serious? What about other medical situations that might compromise a Sikh’s hair?

Thankfully, I had not faced these questions in a case of life or death, or faced with religious persecution. God willing, I remain healthy forever, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect on it all before the decision is more complicated.

(The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)

About the author

Simran Jeet Singh

Simran Jeet Singh is a scholar of religion currently based at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media. He is also senior religion fellow for the Sikh Coalition.

11 Comments

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  • I think people often (maybe this writer maybe not) put too much emphasis on externals when it is what is on the inside that matters. An article after the attack at the synagogue from a Rabbi was about wearing the kippah. He talked about how many Jews have stopped wearing it in public and he was thinking about wearing it in defiance–which I pointed out sounded like the opposite reason of why he should wear it.

    I think that IF there is a God (and I am an Atheist) he/she/it wouldn’t care about externals only what is on the inside–in your heart and mind. That is all that I care about!

  • Rarely does anyone not argue for the righteousness of their actions. Victor the Good Samaritan might be an exception. Extreme acts for people for God have a way of explaining themselves.

  • For those of faith or certain other institutions, tradition is what links today to the past. There is power for the believer in being associated with the past via tradition; that is why atheists, modernists, anarchists continuously attack the tradition of the RCC and US constitution – because by destroying tradition; you destroy the entity itself.
    You are correct, God (yes Susan, there is a God…) will judge us on our actions and on our heart. But for those of us humans that need or desire a bit of tradition to help us along the way; why not?

  • No Parker there isn’t. God exists only in your and other folks imagination. The problem is that far too many folks can’t imagine a God that isn’t judgmental, a God that can see past superficial appearances, A God that would care more about how people behave towards each other than how they behave towards him/her/it!

  • Spoken like the selfish, self-absorbed person you are. You speak of God as if he were not supernatural.
    God is a merciful God; but he is a just God. A God who demands justice.
    Folks like you dismiss God because you are afraid of your own conscience. You fear the judgement and punishment of a loving Father; and you should. But you should also know the love and the mercy provided. But you won’t, because you are too focused on yourself.

  • This is interesting. It’s not out of a sense of legalism, guilt, obligation, obedience, or fear of judgement that he is so reluctant to cut his hair. It’s out of love. Literal love of the physical strands of hair.

    This is why it’s so good for health care workers to learn about religion. Take a situation where someone like the author needed to lose hair for a medical procedure. If a doctor tried to make an ethical argument about how it’s ok to break a with tradition for the sake of health, that wouldn’t work, because it’s not really about ethics or rules. But maybe listening compassionately and helping the patient understand that their entire body is also a sacred gift and needs care (not just the hair) might help the patient make the decision.

  • “Stories of devout Sikhs who, amid persecution, have been forced to choose between … cutting a Sikh’s hair or torture and execution”, remind me of similar “stories” of THE Christ Jesus of the gospels, epistles and revelation:

    (1) In Isaiah 50:6 – “[He] gave [His] back to those who strike, and [His] cheeks to those who pull out the beard; [He] hid not [His] face from disgrace and spitting.”

    (2) In Matthew 26:59-60, 67-68 – “The chief priests and the whole council [of the Jews] were seeking false testimony against Jesus that they might put him to death, but they found none … Then they spit in his face and struck him. And some slapped him, saying, ‘Prophesy to us, you Christ! Who is it that struck you?'”

  • Never understood why there is such a fuss if a man wears a beard. It would be similar to dictating how a woman should wear her hair.

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