By Saroj Misra, DO, FACOFP; ACOFP Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Task Force Member; ACOFP Governor

November 2 marks the first day of Diwali or Deepavali—as it was traditionally written—this year. Deepavali means a row (“avali”) of clay lamps (“deepa”) that are lit during the five days of this important celebration for billions of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists around the world. Many people not of these faiths may recall the humorous episode of “The Office” in which Michael Scott and the rest of his office staff were invited to a local Diwali celebration. The episode was fantastic because it managed to be respectful, funny and cringeworthy all at once (I’ll explain in a minute, promise).

Diwali is often referred to as the “Festival of Lights” and generally represents the triumph of light over darkness and good over evil. The celebration lasts five days, with the most important day being the third, known as “Lakshmi Puja.” On this day, families will visit family members and wear their best clothes, new ones if they can afford them. They will eat together and, at night, fill their homes with light (often lighting fireworks as well). A prayer ceremony (“puja”) will occur and be dedicated (for most Hindus) to the Goddess Lakshmi, who is the goddess of prosperity and good luck (as a kid, I thought her name was actually spelled “LUCKshmi” for that reason). If not already done, the home will be cleaned to renew it for the coming year. Growing up as a first-generation Indian in the United States (and focused on “fitting in” to whatever it meant to be American), I loved Diwali because it was a rare opportunity to celebrate everything I loved about being Indian: music and laughter and love and light, all with the most important people in my life—my family.

As I have grown up, the most important aspect of Diwali to me is the celebration of knowledge over ignorance—a time when we use our inner light to reveal and reflect on who we are. We can take time to acknowledge our biases and reflect on our negative behaviors and bad habits. And, by reflecting, we can take the next step to commit to shining our inner light so we can discover who we wish to be moving forward. On a community level, people will use this time of renewal to settle differences and forgive outstanding debts with others. We move forward not just for ourselves, but also for those around us.

As physicians, Diwali is an opportunity to renew and revitalize our sense of compassion for our patients. It gives us a chance to help others overcome ignorance and misinformation that can lead people astray—something particularly resonant in today’s pandemic-stricken world. No matter what we choose to communicate to others, we should do so in a loving, caring and respectful manner. You will never win the hearts and minds of people by attacking their beliefs or being condescending toward them; challenge yourself to shine a warm light instead of a harsh, cold light when talking with others on sensitive subjects.

If you want to celebrate Diwali or be respectful of it for your friends and acquaintances, there are several simple things you can do. (Safely) light a single candle and stare at it. Let the light shine so you can see your challenges and then close your eyes and visualize who you want to be going forward and how you will shine your inner light going forward. Make peace with those you have struggled with; find kindness for those who have struggled with or without you. Be generous to those in need. Go out (or stay in) with friends or family and reflect on the past year and what good things this year will bring…and do it while eating some good food (hint: Indian food is amazing)!

And, if you can, watch the episode of “The Office” I mentioned. Michael Scott’s impromptu “Diwali Song” was simultaneously the kindest and most cringeworthy thing I have ever seen. And even though it wasn’t quite perfect, it came from the heart and warmed the crowd who listened. Their applause showed that they could give grace and space to people even when their attempts to be respectful can be a little off-key (pardon the pun). As we create a new world where diversity, equity and inclusion have real meaning and value, remember to do the same for others.

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