I first joined Twitter in 2010. Being the nerd that I am, I saw it as a great platform for education and activism. I loved sharing views on justice and introducing people to fresh perspectives. I didn’t mind differing viewpoints, though I would get fired up when people sent me bigoted tweets. I would want to answer with something equally angry or hurtful. I knew it wouldn’t be constructive, but I wasn’t sure what else to do. On the one hand, I felt like it would be best to turn the other cheek and not give racists a platform. On the other hand, I felt a duty to respond, inform and educate.

This dilemma has stalked me since I was 11 years old — the first time someone called me a terrorist. I was in middle school, and our club soccer team had a game near Dallas, Texas. During our pregame equipment checks, the referee came straight to me and demanded that I let him pat down my turban, the traditional headwear of my Sikh faith.

“Hey, little terrorist! You’re not hiding bombs or knives in there, are you?” he said. “I know how you people like to blow (expletive) up.” My fists clenched tightly and my body tensed. I wanted to punch him. But in that moment, I decided to lean my head forward instead. I hadn’t ever let someone touch my turban before. But I wanted to play. And I was a kid.

You might praise me for not reacting with violence, but my response came from pragmatism, not principle. As an 11-year-old boy, I wasn’t about to fight a grown man.

I hated being put in that position, and I hated even more how I responded. For the rest of that game, the six-hour car ride home and in the days and nights that followed, I seethed with anger. I resented the referee for how he treated me — like a criminal — and I resented myself for not having the courage to take a stand.

After a few weeks of reflection and talking through it with my family, I became less angry with myself for giving in to an ignorant man’s racism. I started to see this interaction as a learning moment. I couldn’t change what had happened, but I could promise to do better in the future.

Decades later, I found myself mulling over those same choices of how to react in the realm of social media. Sometimes I would respond positively with the hope that I might create a moment of humanizing connection. Sometimes I would respond angrily, hoping to put racists in their place. Sometimes I would use humor, trying to show them the absurdity of their thinking and trying to win over people who might see me as unrelatable. The results varied, but one outcome remained the same for those first several months. Each interaction would set off a long internal dialogue, mixing anger, outrage, hope and confusion. I felt exhausted from putting all this energy into dealing with strangers online and frustrated that my effort seemed to be making little difference.

In the midst of this emotional confusion, I received my first credible death threat since those first few weeks after 9/11, when people the world over associated my appearance with fear, terror and intolerance. It came via mail, an envelope addressed to me at home with no return address. I opened it up and saw something I thought only happened in movies: To prevent their handwriting from being traced, the sender had cut letters out of a magazine and glued them to the paper.

My fists clenched tightly and my body tensed. I wanted to punch him. But in that moment, I decided to lean my head forward instead.

It was frightening enough to know someone would take the effort to create that letter. It was even more frightening to realize that whoever had sent this knew where we lived. I went to bed that evening feeling even more angry, frustrated and powerless than I usually did in situations like these. I remembered what my friend Carina once told me: “If you think American hate is ugly, imagine what activists go through.”

I was too bothered to sleep that night, so to distract myself I flipped through photos on my phone. I scrolled right past our family values document, and something told me to go back and read through it for the millionth time. Reading it, I could start feeling my power return.

I may not have been able to change how this person viewed me, but I could control how I chose to deal with the situation. Instead of being trapped in fear and rage, I made the conscious decision to respond based on the five values we had articulated all those years before.

  1. To live with faith meant that I would not compromise those aspects of my religious appearance that bothered racists.
  2. To live with integrity meant that I would continue to do what I thought was right in terms of racial justice and social justice activism.
  3. To live with love meant that I would continue on the path that a James Baldwin quote had put me on: that loving people means showing them what they cannot see on their own.
  4. To live with service meant that I would continue engaging and educating, not for my own benefit but for the enrichment of those around me.
  5. To live with excellence would mean to continue doing all of the above to the best of my abilities, fearlessly and unapologetically, and without compromising our family’s physical security.

Articulating each of these points helped me then and in the years since as threats of violence have increased. I share this approach with you because knowing my values turned out to be my saving grace at a time of confusion. Getting this clarity didn’t happen immediately and it didn’t happen on its own. It took intention and sustained effort — and that worked.

I became less angry with myself for giving in to an ignorant man’s racism. I started to see this interaction as a learning moment. 

I no longer find myself infuriated and outraged by attacks online, despite how toxic they might be. My entire online persona is now oriented around those five personal values: faith, integrity, love, service and excellence. Maintaining authenticity between the virtual world and real world has made it much easier to navigate the two.

This is not just because adopting a values-based approach has made me feel more at ease with my responses or even that engaging authentically comes more intuitively — it’s also that I now spend far less time and emotional energy on things that upset me. I am still cautious about risking our family’s safety and still mindful when I receive credible death threats; this comes with the territory of being visibly different in today’s America. The difference now, though, is that I no longer carry the psychological weight of these toxic and life-sucking emotions.

Values-based living is life-giving because it releases us from the bondage of other people’s hate. Where my focus was once on responding to what happened to me, this document has given me a way to act with clarity and purpose. The circumstances may be the same, but how we experience them can be radically different.

I was fortunate that my parents had the wisdom and wherewithal to instill these concepts in us from a young age and to build them into our family structure. When we first articulated these values together, we believed they would serve as guideposts for better decision-making. I didn’t realize then that this values-based approach could help protect the things we held most dear.

Another example that comes to mind most immediately has to do with the time I almost lost my dream job within a month of getting it.

Since Day 1 of my 10-year journey in graduate school, I set a goal of returning to teach at my alma mater, Trinity University. Just before completing my doctorate degree, I was hired to teach there. Although I would have preferred to teach Sikh studies, there were only a handful of jobs in North America in that field — and all of them were filled. I knew this going into my training, and my advisers had insightfully suggested that I become proficient in teaching multiple traditions — including Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism — in order to be more flexible in my teaching abilities. This advice proved to be wise. I couldn’t have been more thrilled to receive an offer from my alma mater to return home and teach in their religion department about the Islamic tradition, including its history, the Qur’an and global Muslim communities.

Before joining Trinity’s faculty, my new department colleagues and I agreed that I would not slow down my social justice activism. I would continue working on civil rights with the Sikh Coalition, participating in racial justice campaigns at the national level and speaking against hate openly and unapologetically.

Here I was, a turbaned Sikh guy teaching about Islam and talking openly about racism in the middle of Texas. I knew my activism would rub some people the wrong way, but I didn’t realize how many within the local community would be upset and how quickly they would organize against me. Within a month of my arrival (and before I even made it onto the Professor Watchlist), there was a campaign to have me fired. I know this because I received a call from our university president’s office one morning informing me that their phones had been ringing off the hook with people demanding that I be removed from the job. The day before, school authorities and police officers in Irving, Texas, had detained and arrested a young Muslim boy, Ahmed Mohamed, because they wrongly presumed the clock he had brought to school was a homemade bomb. I had a sense of how humiliated the boy must have been and I felt moved to post a note of solidarity. I tweeted a photo of myself holding a clock with the caption: “Brought my clock to work today in solidarity.” Unbeknownst to me, that tweet went viral, making it on national morning and evening news shows. Because of this tweet, people were calling on the university to fire me.

When asked why they were upset, the complainants claimed that I had a track record of making hateful statements online — a charge I knew was untrue. I hid the concern in my voice and asked what I could do to address the accusation. The representative with whom I was speaking, an assistant vice president at Trinity, told me to hang tight and that she would reach out again after their team reviewed the facts.

To live with integrity meant that I would continue to do what I thought was right in terms of racial justice and social justice activism.

The next two hours felt like two weeks. I sat in my office staring at my phone, willing it to ring. When it finally did, I was relieved to learn that the university would be putting out a statement on my behalf. I breathed a second sigh of relief when the vice president assured me that my job was safe. When I thanked her and asked why, she explained that university administrators had gone through all my social media history and couldn’t find a single post or comment to suggest the kind of hate or anger people were accusing me of. Scrolling through my posts had shown her that, if anything, I was consistently posting about two topics: love and justice.

I had never planned to create an online persona that would help protect me. The idea had never crossed my mind. Yet one month into my professional career, the reward couldn’t have been more evident. Having a clear sense of my values had rescued me from emotional tumult years earlier. Now it had just saved my dream job.

A values-based approach to life is like a compass, both clarifying and instructive. It’s so easy for us to get caught up in the ups and downs of our busy lives, losing sight of what we’re doing and why. This is normal. It’s part of being human.

We fall into problems when we’re not purposeful about our decisions. So where do we turn in times when we realize that we have lost our way? How do we deal with these moments of crisis so that we come out stronger and not weaker? And what are we actually doing proactively to save ourselves from the pain and difficulty of personal crisis?

If you feel like you could be doing more to find coherence and direction within yourself, try this simple exercise. Create a list of 20 or so qualities you wish to embody. From that list, identify five that feel central to who you are and who you aspire to be. For instance, your list might include honesty, generosity, courage, service and humility. Once you have identified your top five values, try to come up with one action you will take each day to practice each of them. For example, if you chose generosity, you might commit to giving three compliments a day to people in your life. Now ask yourself: What will you do to hold yourself accountable to each commitment? Will you record it in a daily journal? Will you have an accountability buddy you check in with at the end of each week?

This exercise may feel anodyne, but it has real import. It can help you develop more clarity around what values matter most to you; more intention and power behind your actions; and more self-love and self-confidence as you begin taking steps toward becoming who you truly aspire to be. 

Simran Jeet Singh is executive director for the Aspen Institute’s Religion & Society Program. This  essay is an excerpt from his book “The Light We give:  How Sikh Wisdom Can Transform Your Life.” Published by arrangement with Riverhead, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022.

This story appears in the April issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.