When I was in college, I took several different religion classes, in the hope of getting a peek into the way different cultures think and believe. I only learned enough to make me realize how little I can truly know about others. That’s not such a bad thing. But there’s at least one thing from those classes that I still find useful: dharma. Dharma is a Hindu concept that defies a single definition. You could say it’s about staying on the right path, the one where you can best serve…everyone and everything. But that’s a little more terrifying than necessary. When I joined Alanon, I heard Western echoes of the Eastern idea of dharma in the less intimidating phrase: “Do the next right thing.”
For years as a journalist, and now as an author, I’ve often felt that I stand at an open door, watching great leaders, activists, and adventurers do things in which I don’t typically take part. Yes, I’ve traveled a lot and I’ve written a memoir, but sometimes I yearn to leap out front in a big way and lead a charge for positive change. This morning I read about a young man in Afghanistan who helped his sister escape an abusive marriage, gave up his own dreams of college to support his sister’s education, and went on to become a vocal women’s rights activist. My first feeling was inspiration that he was doing something truly important, followed by shame that I’d never taken up a banner for a cause. Then I reminded myself: just do your dharma, Cara. Just do the next right thing.
Yesterday, I began the process of volunteering to become a creative writing mentor to a troubled teenage girl on behalf of Lighthouse Writers Workshop. I only say “troubled” because it’s shorthand, because I don’t yet know who I’ll be mentoring or what her troubles are, and because even if I did I couldn’t tell you. I’ll see her for just an hour a week, starting in January. I hope to do this sort of thing for the next year. It might not change the world, but I’m confident it will impact at least two people’s worlds, hers and mine. This is my dharma, short and simple, not earth-shattering or newsworthy.
As for the rest of my life, I spend one or two days a week writing a historical novel about the struggles of Mexican and Chinese immigrants and their mixed-race children, which is really a story about how we all struggle to find belonging. I didn’t realize until recently that it’s also a story about sexual abuse and its consequences, which can reverberate in a family for generations. This is not a story I looked for. It found me, because although it’s fiction, it was inspired by family history. Writing this book has sent me traveling to China, Mexico, Texas, and California. But mostly it has deposited me in front of my computer. It’s not glamorous work. Sometimes I wear my PJ’s. Sure, I dream of the possibility that my words might be read by millions. But most authors never experience that, so it’s not a good reason to write. I’m simply compelled to tell this story, because I’m a storyteller and it’s the story God has given me to tell. This is my dharma.
Yesterday, I was in a long line at the post office, and another woman in line needed just one stamp, so I gave her one of mine. That too is doing my dharma. It might sound small—a stamp is downright tiny—but what if we all simply did the next right thing that was right in front of us? Instead of looking at the paths of others with longing, we might find joy in each following our own way. And we just might change the world…one stamp, one page, one person at a time.