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What Makes us Procrastinate?

Some authors have suggested that there are 2 reasons why someone might procrastinate:

1. Ambivalence – This is when we want to change, but are weighing the pros and cons. We are worried about how hard it will be to make the change. We think about family and friends and how they might react to the changes we make.

2. Identity – We worry that we won’t be the same person if we change. Will the people who are in our lives now reject us if we change? Fear of failure becomes a part of this, and so does fear of success. We wonder what will happen if we do or don’t change. Most of all we think, “when in doubt, put it off!

Do either of these resonate with you?

Although there can be many reasons why people procrastinate, I’m just going to focus on apathy and lethargy in this article, because Baha’u’llah tells us:

Nothing whatsoever can, in this Day, inflict a greater harm upon this Cause than . . . apathy, among the loved ones of God. Flee them, through the power of God and His sovereign aid, and strive ye to knit together the hearts of men, in His Name, the Unifier, the All-Knowing, the All-Wise. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 8)

So what is apathy and why does it harm the Cause? Let’s take a look at what the Baha’i Writings have to teach us.

First of all, the dictionary defines apathy and lethargy this way:

Apathy:

• Absence or suppression of passion, emotion or excitement
• Lack of interest in or concern for things that others find moving or exciting

Lethargy:

• The quality or state of being drowsy and dull, listless and unenergetic, or indifferent and lazy, apathetic or sluggish inactivity
• an abnormal state or disorder characterized by overpowering drowsiness or sleep

In the Writings we often see them paired together in quotes such as:

. . . the apathy and lethargy that paralyze their spiritual faculties — these are among the formidable obstacles that stand in the path of every would-be warrior in the service of Bahá’u’lláh, obstacles which he must battle against and surmount in his crusade for the redemption of his own countrymen. (Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, p. 148)

So we know they are obstacles that stand in all of our paths; and we must battle against them.

What Leads to Apathy?

Western influence and the loosening of the bonds of religion:

It is clear and evident that Western influence, the loosening of the bonds of religion, and the consequent waning vitality of the once powerful Muhammadan stronghold of Egypt are in a great measure to account for the indifference and apathy that now seem to characterize the attitude of the masses towards this important and vital issue. (Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration, p. 101)

Cynical view of human nature

At the same time, significant sections of the world community—including many social theorists, economists, and religious and secular leaders—cling to the view that human beings are incorrigibly selfish and aggressive and thus incapable of erecting a peaceful and progressive, world-embracing social order. Such a cynical view of human nature, with its attendant attitudes and behaviors, has contributed enormously to the ills plaguing society today, including poverty, unemployment, social strife, over-consumption, chauvinistic nationalism, war, and moral and spiritual apathy. (Bahá’í International Community, 1994 Jan 21, Global Action Plan for Social Development)

Massive disillusionment of entire populations

How tragic is the record of the substitute faiths that the worldly-wise of our age have created. In the massive disillusionment of entire populations who have been taught to worship at their altars can be read history’s irreversible verdict on their value. (The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace)

In case we think none of these apply to us, Shoghi Effendi has given us several more, including:

  • the gross materialism that engulfs the entire nation
  • the excesses and laxity of the extravagant age we live in
  • the idle neglect of the sacred responsibilities it is our privilege to shoulder
  • the silent compromise of the principles dearly cherished by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
  • our fear of unpopularity
  • our dread of censure
  • the attachment to worldly things
  • the fear and anxieties that distract our minds
  • the pleasure and dissipations that fill our time
  • the prejudices and animosities that darken our outlook
  • confusion
  • uncertainty

Not by merely imitating the excesses and laxity of the extravagant age they live in; not by the idle neglect of the sacred responsibilities it is their privilege to shoulder; not by the silent compromise of the principles dearly cherished by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá; not by their fear of unpopularity or their dread of censure can they hope to rouse society from its spiritual lethargy, and serve as a model to a civilization the foundations of which the corrosion of prejudice has wellnigh undermined.  (Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration, p. 131-32)

The gross materialism that engulfs the entire nation at the present hour; the attachment to worldly things that enshrouds the souls of men; the fear and anxieties that distract their minds; the pleasure and dissipations that fill their time, the prejudices and animosities that darken their outlook, the apathy and lethargy that paralyze their spiritual faculties—these are among the formidable obstacles that stand in the path of every world-be warrior in the service of Bahá’u’lláh, obstacles which he must battle against the surmount in his crusade for the redemption of his own countrymen. (Shoghi Effendi: Citadel of Faith, p. 149)

There is such a confusion in the world today, so much uncertainty, so much materialism, that it is very hard to hold the attention of even the more spiritually minded people. (Shoghi Effendi, High Endeavours – Messages to Alaska, p. 49)

Finally, I find this one interesting:

If any soul speak ill of an absent one, the only result will clearly be this: he will dampen the zeal of the friends and tend to make them indifferent. For backbiting is divisive, it is the leading cause among the friends of a disposition to withdraw. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections From The Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, pp. 230-231)

Who among us can honestly say we are unaffected to some extent by many of these!

Paternalistic Attitudes that Lead to Apathy

Recently there was a discussion on a Baha’i Forum on this topic, where the following ideas were put forward:

• Treating junior youth, and even youth, like they are still children and have little to contribute to humanity.
• Limiting exploration of talents and interests of an individual, and going even further by asserting what those are and aren’t for her or him.
• Encouraging blind imitation of apathetic tendencies, rather than teaching, by example, to take action and serve.
• Providing rigid dogma from institutions with no real authority, and saying that, if these formulas are followed, all problems will magically disappear.
• Dehumanizing humans by claiming that we are just cogs in the machine of consumerism.
• Describing teachers as those who feed knowledge to students, not as guides who help students discover truth for themselves just as scientists do.
• Describing students as empty receptacles to be mechanically filled with knowledge, not as dignified beings who are already filled with capacities which can be manifested in the field of service.
• Failing to distinguish selfish service from selfless service, to the point where those who participate in the former feel no need to do anything more.
• Defining, in advertisements, success, happiness, beauty, power, and other values and ideals so that they revolve around the self.
• Propagating images of women as sexualized, fragile, and vulnerable objects to be gained and used.
• Propagating images of men as sexualized, violent, and dominant animals with little to no self-control.
• Over administration, backbiting and pretenses in the community.
• As long as we assume there is or should be someone (else) in charge and our responsibility is to be obedient, we will wait for these supposed authorities to tell us what to do
• Many parents in the past prioritized the Faith way above the needs of their kids in the name of “teaching.”

One person had this to say:

Until recently, most people didn’t have time or resources to maintain an attitude of self-motivation and constant assessment and appraisal of one’s actions. Now more people can, but it is still a social change of habit which is difficult and sometimes even controversial. We thought we could get justice by listening to a superior, but now we have to take responsibility. If we are not aware of this internal struggle, we can be taken advantage of by those who seek power by recruiting us as followers and dependents.

Absolutely! No matter the cause, we have to take responsibility to overcome it!

What Happens when We are Apathetic?

In one of my favorite books, If You’re Going to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat, author John Ortberg describes the cycle well:

In any arena where you are concerned about failure, the single most destructive thing you can do is nothing. Psychologist David Burns writes about what he calls the cycle of lethargy: When I’m faced with a challenge and I do nothing, it leads to distorted thoughts – that I am helpless, hopeless, and beyond change. These in turn lead to destructive emotions – loss of energy and motivations, damaged self-esteem, feeling overwhelmed. The end result is self-defeating behaviour – procrastination, avoidance, and escapism. These behaviors then reinforce negative thoughts, and the whole cycle spirals downward. (John Ortberg, If You’re Going to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get out of the Boat, p. 143)

When we become Baha’i, we join millions of others around the world who are working to implement His teachings, so that we can help lead the world towards the Most Great Peace. It’s a heavy responsibility that needs the actions of everyone.

As you note, one of the objectives of the Nine Year Plan is universal participation in Bahá’í community life. This can be possible when each believer understands that his personal spiritual life will be enriched and universal blessings will descend only if each Bahá’í participates in contributing, however poor he may be, however small the contribution, and in whatever form it is offered. (Universal House of Justice, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 64)

For more information please see:

Encouraging Universal Participation

The Theory of the Big Toenail

Why is it so Bad?

At so critical a period in history, we can’t be allowed to lose our vital power and driving force:

At so critical a period, at so challenging an hour, the members of a community, invested by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with a primacy which can, through neglect and apathy, be allowed to lose its vital power and driving force, are immersed in a task, and are faced with responsibilities, which a World Spiritual Crusade, …has thrust upon them before the eyes of their admiring and expectant sister communities throughout the world. (Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, p. 127)

It extinguishes hope and causes spiritual damage:

Underlying all these outward afflictions is the spiritual damage reflected in the apathy that has gripped the mass of the peoples of all nations and by the extinction of hope in the hearts of deprived and anguished millions. (The Universal House of Justice, 1985 Oct, The Promise of World Peace)

We waste away the brilliance of our birthright, our native competence and inborn understanding:

Is it commendable that you should waste and fritter away in apathy the brilliance that is your birthright, your native competence, your inborn understanding?
(‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 91)

It paralyzes our spiritual faculties:

The apathy and lethargy that paralyze their spiritual faculties—these are among the formidable obstacles that stand in the path of every world-be warrior in the service of Bahá’u’lláh, obstacles which he must battle against the surmount in his crusade for the redemption of his own countrymen. (Shoghi Effendi: Citadel of Faith, p. 149)

It lowers the standard of dedication and efficiency in winning the goals:

The standard of dedication and of efficiency, attained, while pursuing the goals it has pledged itself to achieve, must never be allowed, through apathy, neglect or faint-heartedness, to be lowered. (Shoghi Effendi, Messages to Canada, p. 69)

We will yield no fruit and be counted among the dead:

The basest of men are they that yield no fruit on earth. Such men are verily counted as among the dead, nay better are the dead in the sight of God than those idle and worthless souls. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Persian Hidden Words 81)

How to Overcome Apathy:

We need education and training

There are many things which will, if neglected, be wasted, and come to nothing. How often in this world do we see a child who has lost his parents and who, unless attention be devoted to his education and training, can produce no fruit. And better off dead than alive is he who produceth no fruit. (Bahá’u’lláh, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 247)

Don’t allow this opportunity to be irretrievably lost:

Once again—and this time more fervently than ever before—I direct my plea to every single member of this strenuously laboring, clear-visioned, stout-hearted, spiritually endowed community, every man and woman, on whose individual efforts, resolution, self-sacrifice and perseverance the immediate destinies of the Faith of God, now traversing so crucial a stage in its rise and establishment, primarily depends, not to allow, through apathy, timidity or complacency, this one remaining opportunity to be irretrievably lost. (Shoghi Effendi, Citadel of Faith, p. 157)

Don’t remain idle or seek what would give us comfort or inner satisfaction:

No true and faithful Bahá’í should in this day remain idle or seek what would give him comfort or even inner satisfaction. We should be constantly assailing the forces of darkness that have enveloped the earth and hasten the dawn of the new day foretold by Bahá’u’lláh. (Shoghi Effendi quoted in Hooper C. Dunbar’s “Forces of Our Time, The Dynamics of Light and Darkness”)

Exert their utmost:

But the friends should also exert their utmost, lest through neglect and apathy its progress be impeded. (Shoghi Effendi, The Unfolding Destiny of the British Bahá’í Community, p. 102)

Strive to free ourselves from attachment to worldly pursuits:

Now as never before should you strive mightily to free yourselves from the obstacles of apathy, attachment to worldly pursuits, and lethargy, which stand in the way of so glorious a realization. (The Universal House of Justice, Ridván 153, 1996 – North America, p. 1)

Reflect on whether you want to die in comfort or as a martyr:

Ponder and reflect. Is it thy wish to die upon thy bed, or to shed thy life-blood on the dust, a martyr in My path, and so become the manifestation of My command and the revealer of My light in the highest paradise? Judge thou aright, O servant!  (Bahá’u’lláh, The Arabic Hidden Words 46)

Be unashamed and unafraid:

Unashamed and unafraid when challenged to assert in its entirety the stupendous claim of Bahá’u’lláh, Bahá’ís, whether laboring as individuals or functioning as an organized community, feel certain that in the face of the apathy, the gross materialism, and the superficiality of society today, a progressive disclosure of the magnitude of the claim of Bahá’u’lláh would constitute the most effective means for the attainment of the end so greatly desired by even the staunchest and most zealous advocate of the Faith. (Shoghi Effendi, Bahá’í Administration, p. 125)

Open your mind’s eye and see the great and present need:

You were the fountainhead of learning, the unfailing spring of light for all the earth, how is it that you are withered now, and quenched, and faint of heart? You who once lit the world, how is it that you lurk, inert, bemused, in darkness now? Open your mind’s eye, see your great and present need. Rise up and struggle, seek education, seek enlightenment. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 91)

Persevere and do our best, knowing that conditions will eventually change if we follow Baha’u’llah’s pattern:

But we must persevere and do our best knowing this is our duty and that conditions will eventually change completely and follow Bahá’u’lláh’s Pattern. (Shoghi Effendi, High Endeavours – Messages to Alaska, p. 49)

Have faith that the hosts of the Kingdom are on your side:

Though single-handed, and no matter how great the apathy of the people around you may be, you should have faith that the hosts of the Kingdom are on your side, and that through their help you are bound to overcome the forces of darkness that are facing the Cause of God. Persevere, be happy and confident, therefore. (Shoghi Effendi, Quickeners of Mankind, p. 50)

Depend on the assistance of God:

Also the inaction or the movement of man depend upon the assistance of God. If he is not aided, he is not able to do either good or evil. But when the help of existence comes from the Generous Lord, he is able to do both good and evil; but if the help is cut off, he remains absolutely helpless. This is why in the Holy Books they speak of the help and assistance of God. So this condition is like that of a ship which is moved by the power of the wind or steam; if this power ceases, the ship cannot move at all. Nevertheless, the rudder of the ship turns it to either side, and the power of the steam moves it in the desired direction. If it is directed to the east, it goes to the east; or if it is directed to the west, it goes to the west. This motion does not come from the ship; no, it comes from the wind or the steam. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 248)

The Advantages of Becoming Active

We’re able to participate in the redemption of our countrymen:

The apathy and lethargy . . . are among the formidable obstacles . . . which he must battle against and surmount in his crusade for the redemption of his own countrymen. (Shoghi Effendi: Citadel of Faith, p. 149)

In last year’s Ridvan Message, the House of Justice told us:

Everyone has a share in this enterprise; the contribution of each serves to enrich the whole. The most dynamic clusters are those in which, irrespective of the resources the community possesses or the number of activities being undertaken, the friends appreciate that their task is to identify what is required for progress to occur—the nascent capacity that must be nurtured, the new skill that must be acquired, the initiators of a fledgling effort who must be accompanied, the space for reflection that must be cultivated, the collective endeavour that must be coordinated—and then find creative ways in which the necessary time and resources can be made available to achieve it. (Universal House of Justice, Ridvan Message 2014)

When we are active and have overcome the shackles of apathy and lethargy that keep us back, we will be free to take our place confidently in the community building process Baha’is all over the world are engaged in; and help build up the New World Order! Life just doesn’t get better than this!

I’d like to finish with this plea of ‘Abdu’l-Baha:

How long this lethargy, how long this negligence! (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 104-105)

Please God, let us overcome it; so that we can hasten the day when Your will for humanity is realized!