At the same time those who show forth envies, jealousies, etc., toward a servant, are depriving themselves of their own stations, and not another of his, for they prove by their own acts that they are not only unworthy of being called to any station waiting them, but also prove that they cannot withstand the very first test – that of rejoicing over the success of their neighbour, at which God rejoices . . . Envy closes the door of Bounty, and jealousy prevents one from ever attaining to the Kingdom of Abhá. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, Vol. 6, No. 6, p. 44)
First of all, I wanted to understand the difference between envy and jealousy as they are often paired in the Bahá’í Writings. It seems that we envy people when we want what they have and we’re jealous when we want to keep for ourselves what belongs exclusively to us. Envy involves 2 people – me and the person who has what I want and it is what feeds the “keeping up with the Jones’s”.
If someone is jealous, on the other hand, they feel angry or bitter because they think that another person is trying to take a lover, friend or possession away from them, so it involves 3 people. It’s often what feeds suspicions of infidelity. Both come out of a lack of trust towards yourself (to manage your affairs) or to your partner (to be loyal).
With that in mind, we can understand the quote better. The problem is that when we give in to envy and jealousy, we deprive ourselves of our own station, close the door of bounty and prevent ourselves from ever attaining the Kingdom of Abha. If I don’t appreciate the bounties and blessings that are continually streaming forth for me, why would God give me any more?
Knowing that the solution to envy and jealousy is to rejoice over the success of my neighbors, I am grateful!
What jumped out for you as you read today’s meditation? I’d love it if you would share so we can all expand our knowledge of the Writings!
If you liked this meditation, you might also like my book Making Friends with Sin and Temptation
Help Keep This Site Alive
Recently I had an email from someone in a country where paying bribes is the norm. She wrote:
Parents in my country buy gifts and give money to their children’s teachers, so they will treat them favorably. A lot of teachers have a bad attitude towards children whose parents do not bribe them in this way. I really do not want to do this, but if I choose not to follow this tradition, there could be harm to my son. As a Bahai, I know we need to build a new community based on spiritual principles, so what kind of attitude and actions shall I take to face this challenge?
God has given you good intuition and you can trust it!
Your heart knows the right answer:
- I really do not want to do this.
It’s your head overriding what you know to be your truth:
- the teacher’s attitude towards my son will not be good.
- a lot of teachers will have a bad attitude to the children whose parents do not buy gifts or send money to them.
Every decision has both a material and spiritual dimension and this is why your head and heart are at war with each other.
It’s true, your son might suffer as a result of your decision, but he might not too! Your imagination can think up one scenario, so why not imagine a more positive outcome? To pass this test, it will be important to make your faith in God’s plan bigger than your fear of what might happen in the future.
Here are some quotes to consider:
Forsake thine own desires, turn thy face unto thy Lord, and walk not in the footsteps of those who have taken their corrupt inclinations for their god, that perchance thou mayest find shelter in the heart of existence, beneath the redeeming shadow of Him Who traineth all names and attributes. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 48-49)
If you make a different decision, you will draw closer to God (by finding shelter under His redeeming shadow), thereby achieving your purpose in life.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells us there are many factors to consider before these practices disappear:
If bribery and corruption, known today by the pleasant names of gifts and favors, were forever excluded, would this threaten the foundations of justice? . . . Should anyone object that the above-mentioned reforms have never yet been fully effected, he should consider the matter impartially and know that these deficiencies have resulted from the total absence of a unified public opinion, and the lack of zeal and resolve and devotion in the country’s leaders. It is obvious that not until the people are educated, not until public opinion is rightly focused, not until government officials, even minor ones, are free from even the least remnant of corruption, can the country be properly administered. Not until discipline, order and good government reach the degree where an individual, even if he should put forth his utmost efforts to do so, would still find himself unable to deviate by so much as a hair’s breadth from righteousness, can the desired reforms be regarded as fully established. (‘Abdu’l-Baha, Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 15-16)
These deficiencies have resulted from
- the total absence of a unified public opinion
- the lack of zeal and resolve and devotion in the country’s leaders
To overcome it will require:
- people to be educated
- public opinion to be rightly focused
- government officials are free from even the least remnant of corruption
- discipline, order and good government
- individuals unable to deviate by so much as a hair’s breadth from righteousness
So by taking a stand in this area, you are doing your part to educate and help change public opinion.
As I understand it, it’s spiritually damaging for the teacher to receive such gifts, so by not participating in this practice, you are helping protect her soul:
How foolish and ignorant must a man be, how base his nature, and how vile the clay of which he is fashioned, if he would defile himself with the contamination of bribery, corruption and perfidy towards the state! Truly, the vermin of the earth are to be preferred to such people! (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 344)
If, however, he abuse his position through corrupt or mercenary behaviour, he will be held in detestation at the Threshold of Grandeur and incur the wrath of the Abhá Beauty—nay, he shall be forsaken by the one true God and all who adore Him. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 344)
Here’s a prayer you can say for your son’s teachers:
O Lord! Dispel the darkness of these corrupt desires, and illumine the hearts with the lamp of Thy love. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Tablets of the Divine Plan, p. 58)
You can also ask God to give you some creative ways to approach the teacher, and let her know of the absolute importance of her role. These quotes might help you give her a priceless gift of inestimable value and win the confidence, respect and genuine support of those affected by your decisions:
Among the greatest of all services that can possibly be rendered by man to Almighty God is the education and training of children… It is, however, very difficult to undertake this service, even harder to succeed in it. I hope that thou wilt acquit thyself well in this most important of tasks, and successfully carry the day, and become an ensign of God’s abounding Grace; that these children, reared one and all in the holy Teachings, will develop natures like unto the sweet airs that blow across the gardens of the All- Glorious, and will waft their fragrance around the world. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá: Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. pp. 133-134)
Among the greatest of all great services is the education of children, and promotion of the various sciences, crafts and arts. Praised be God, ye are now exerting strenuous efforts toward this end. The more ye persevere in this most important task, the more will ye witness the confirmations of God, to such a degree that ye yourselves will be astonished. This verily is a matter beyond all doubt, a pledge that shall certainly be redeemed. (‘Abdul-Bahá, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 276)
Praise thou God that thou hast succeeded in becoming a teacher of young Bahá’ís, young trees of the Bahá Paradise, and at the same time art able to benefit the other children as well. According to the explicit divine Text, teaching the children is indispensable and obligatory. It followeth that teachers are servants of the Lord God, since they have arisen to perform this task, which is the same as worship. You must therefore offer praise with every breath, for you are educating your spiritual children. (‘Abdul-Bahá, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 273-274)
O thou teacher of the children of the kingdom! Thou hast arisen to perform a service which would justly entitle thee to vaunt thyself over all the teachers on earth. For the teachers of this world make use of human education to develop the powers, whether spiritual or material, of humankind, whilst thou art training these young plants in the gardens of God according to the education of Heaven, and art giving them the lessons of the Kingdom. The result of this kind of teaching will be that it will attract the blessings of God, and make manifest the perfections of man. Hold thou fast to this kind of teaching, for the fruits of it will be very great. (‘Abdul-Bahá, The Compilation of Compilations vol. I, p. 274-275)
You can pray that your son is protected from the teacher’s bad attitude. This is very important. When he goes off to school (and every day of his life), you can say:
O Lord! Protect us from what lieth in front of us and behind us, above our heads, on our right, on our left, below our feet and every other side to which we are exposed. Verily, Thy protection over all things is unfailing. (The Bab, Baha’i Prayers, p. 134)
At the same time, it’s possible that this prayer won’t be answered because God wants to strengthen both you and your son through this test. Sometimes doing the right thing as Bahá’ís causes temporary problems, which, when directed towards our children, can be hard for mothers to bear! It’s important, though, to remember that God’s plan is always better, and we WILL be rewarded for our “fortitude under His trials.”
You might also be interested in:
Religion and Ethical Attitudes toward Accepting a Bribe: A Comparative Study
Overcoming Corruption and Safeguarding Integrity in Public Institutions: A Baha’i Perspective (a statement p Prepared by the Baha’i International Community and presented at the intergovernmental Global Forum on Fighting Corruption II, in The Hague, Netherlands—28 May 2001):
What’s been your experience with bribery? Post your comments below.
A Presentation at the Newfoundland and Labrador Summer School, August, 2014
By Harry Connors
Our topic for this morning is “Wise and Un-Wise Uses of Technology”. I should be clear at the outset that the technologies that we addressing in this session are communications technologies – specifically, those technologies known through history under the terms newspapers, radio, television, telephone, e-mail, the “world-wide web”, and then latterly “converged” media which integrate elements of all of aforementioned communications technologies, and are those now utilized by both “mass media”, associations, sharing groups, families and individuals under the rubric “social media”.
Let me give you a road map to start off:
- A few comments on my background
- Section One – These communications technologies are arts and sciences which are gifts from God through the Manifestation, specifically foretold by the Manifestation and whose qualities were articulated by the Guardian and Universal House of Justice.
- Section Two – Because these technologies arise as a gift from God, there are certain responsibilities in use of these arts and sciences which are laid upon the users thereof, whether they are “mass media” or “social media”
- Section Three – The shift of communications from personal and direct interaction where the physical space is shared to communications where interactions are intermediated over distance via these communications technologies has impacts on each of us that may not be readily evident. A number of academic researchers and writers have identified several of these impacts. I have excerpted commentary and analysis from these writers, and I have placed alongside these excerpts guidance from the Universal House of Justice publication The Prosperity of Humankind, guidances which address how we might balance or offset these impacts.
- Section Four – The Universal House of Justice has offered a number of guidances regarding the use of these technologies and the application of the principles of consultation, and we will explore a few of those.
- Section Five – I will end this presentation with a brief excerpt from an essay that touches on the hopes that many held for these communications technologies.
- Worked as an editor/reporter for a daily newspaper 1966-1973
- First computerized newspaper in North America in 1969-70 made it evident that these technologies would impact news gathering and presentation
- University 1973 – 1977, degree in English Literature, with 8-course “minor” in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology; designed primarily for engineering and science students
- 1973 – 1977 worked as reporter/researcher for CBC Radio, which also gave insight into the language and writing differences used in the same story presented by newspapers and radio
- 1973 – 1977 worked for Dean of Engineering, and Dean of Science and Associate Dean of Science (David Rendell), as a “science writer” developing stories regarding science and technology research at MUN; stories carried by Canadian Press and regional news magazines
- 1977 – 2003 worked with Bell Aliant, telecom and IT company, including 4 years in Ottawa with national consortium of telecom and IT companies. What attracted to me to the company was the challenge of sharing information within a company that employed 1,300 employees spread throughout Newfoundland and Labrador; when I retired 26 years later, I was a vice-president of a company that employed 10,000 people in 40 countries in telecom, IT and satellite communications – so the challenge of sharing communications and information didn’t go away, it just got bigger.
So I have had a fairly long and consistent interaction with these communications technologies as they have evolved, but my basic orientation really began with that set of history and philosophy courses; hence my tendency to take a somewhat philosophical approach to these matters. I admit that I tend to “cast a cocked eye” whenever I hear of the latest “new thing”, but I do try to pull my thinking back to appreciating what these gifts can provide, while remaining aware of the perhaps unintended impacts these technologies may have on us as individuals and society.
Section One: Arts and Sciences a Gift from God through the Manifestation
Knowledge is one of the wondrous gifts of God. It is incumbent upon everyone to acquire it. Such arts and material means as are now manifest have been achieved by virtue of His knowledge and wisdom which have been revealed in Epistles and Tablets through His Most Exalted Pen—a Pen out of whose treasury pearls of wisdom and utterance and the arts and crafts of the world are brought to light.
In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. …They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing. (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, pps 39-40)
A mechanism of world inter-communication will be devised, embracing the whole planet, freed from national hindrances and restrictions, and functioning with marvellous swiftness and perfect regularity. (Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh, p 203)
The system, so prophetically foreseen sixty years ago by Shoghi Effendi, builds a sense of shared community among its users that is impatient of either geographic or cultural distances. (Universal House of Justice, Century of Light, p 133)
I have pulled out some brief excerpts for discussion, and italicised them.
Such arts and material means as are now manifest have been achieved by virtue of His knowledge and wisdom
In studying the history of various religions, we tend to assume that the religion arises as a result of the presence of certain capacities; however, the reality is opposite. It is the Manifestation, through the Power of Revelation, Who articulates the capacities and means required for the unity of the age, and the research and application of insight which gives rise to these means comes from the release of this creative power by the Revelation.
Religion is not an artifact of the civilization in which it is observed, ie a set of ideas created as a result of its era; rather Religion is the creator of the civilization associated with it, ie it is the generator of skills and capacities which owe their existence to divine creative impulse. When in the play/movie Jesus Christ Superstar, Judas laments anachronistically that the Christ should not have proclaimed His truth as Israel had no mass communications, the writer is suggesting, unintentionally perhaps, that the spread of Christ’s teaching would have been easier or was dependent upon technology. This was not and is not so, even as Christ said “the stones will cry out”, and as Baha’u’llah has said the Message is to be passed “mouth to mouth”.
It seems to me that such capacities, when considered as a gift from God, are endowed with a greater meaning, and require that each of us consider carefully for what purpose did God, through His Manifestation, allow these to enter into the world of discovery, the world of being. In this regard, we should approach such gifts as the native peoples regard whatever comes into their path each day – that the Creator has placed something as a gift to be used for wise purposes. That suggests a sense of humility, of moderation, that we use these gifts to the spiritual benefit of ourselves and others.
Let’s move on – Consider the following phrase of Baha’u’llah: a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech
An interesting aspect of Revelation is that when the Manifestation reveals a truth, we understand it in a certain way, but as the power of the Revelation and its creative impulse leads to greater discoveries and gifts in the arts and sciences, our understanding of the truth grows. So, when I first read this phrase about newspapers, I understood that they have pictures and carry quotations – but now I understand that the endowments of “newspapers” includes all of the aspects of the senses cited by Baha’u’llah. Certainly all of the responsibilities He lays upon the writers of the newspapers – to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing – all of these requirements apply to the presenters of radio and television, and equally so to the users of the Internet, e-mail, and social media, like Facebook and Twitter. In a sense, we live in a time when we are all journalists, sharing information, opinions, videos, and so on. In this regard, we all have responsibilities in the ways in which we use these media.
Let’s look at another phrase, in the second quotation where the Guardian foretells so accurately the rise of these social media: freed from national hindrances and restrictions. The core of my technological work was telephony. During the late 1980s, I was working in Ottawa with the national telecom system. In those days, it was still true that to call many countries, you had to place that call through an operator – think of that! During my four years with the national system, we enjoyed such a sense of growing excitement as one by one various countries of the world adopted what we termed Direct Distance Overseas (DDO) which mean that you were now permitted to dial your call to an overseas location direct. Those countries no longer wished to “control” such calls to or by their citizens! Now think of what the Guardian said in the 1930s – that such technology would embrace the whole planet, that it would be marvellously swift and regular, and freed from national hindrances or restrictions! And now look around us today.
To this the Universal House of Justice adds this technology could create: a sense of shared community among its users that is impatient of either geographic or cultural distances. How true this is becoming!
Section Two: Responsibilities arising from the gift of media arts and sciences
O newspapers published throughout the cities and countries of the world!Have ye heard the groan of the downtrodden, and have their cries of anguish reached your ears? Or have these remained concealed? It is hoped that ye will investigate the truth of what hath occurred and vindicate it.(From a Tablet of Bahá’u’lláh,translated from Arabic ‑ passage #2 in compilation ‘Proclaiming the Faith Through the Mass Media’, distributed by the Universal House of Justice, 23 Oct, 1991)
(Vindicate: To make or set free; To clear from censure, criticism or doubt, by means of demonstration)
The code of conduct of the press must embrace the principles of consultation as revealed by Bahá’u’lláh. Only in this way will the press be able to make its full contribution to the preservation of the rights of the people and become a powerful instrument in the consultative processes of society, and hence the unity of the human race.(Statement issued by The Universal House of Justice to the National Spiritual Assembly of the United States, 1988, pp 17-18.)
“The media have both a powerful influence on people’s attitudes and perceptions … Currently, a great deal of media attention is focussed on the seemingly insurmountable differences that divide peoples and nations … The media have a responsibility to help people understand that diversity … can be a powerful resource for social development. … The media should highlight the honour of serving humankind.” (Baha’i International Community, 1994)
It is hoped that ye will investigate the truth of what hath occurred and vindicate it. This Tablet was addressed to The Times of London, and in it, Baha’u’llah is unveiling the truth of the innocence and nobility of the Seven Martyrs of Tehran. However, it is true that when the Manifestation speaks to a specific concern – the obligation of the media to be truthful and to hold blameless the victims of oppression – these same injunctions apply both to the specific situation and the condition and activities of the media in all such matters, wherever they may occur.
This next excerpt really jumped out at me: The code of conduct of the press must embrace the principles of consultation as revealed by Bahá’u’lláh. Again, the word “press” should be read as to include the electronic media, and the electronic media should be read as to include all media, as we are all journalists now. Baha’i scholars such as Dr. Michael Karlburg have been investigating methods of applying consultative principles, to quote him briefly:
“Consultation is more than a skill to be applied within localized contexts, for the purposes of making a decision or solving a problem…consultation must be understood as an inter-related set of principles … applied … across all field of human discourse – from inter-personal groups to mass-mediated settings – for the over-arching purpose of effecting unity in human affairs.” (Michael Karlberg, Applying Consultative Principles and Objectives in a Mass-Mediated Setting)
The last excerpt from a statement of the Baha’i International Community addresses itself to the opportunities provided by these media: The media have a responsibility to help people understand that diversity … can be a powerful resource for social development. … The media should highlight the honour of serving humankind.
Section Three: Impacts of Using Social Media and How we can balance/offset those impacts
Dr. Karlburg provides a good segue for me for this next section, as concerns regarding the opportunities and impacts of these new media go well beyond the Baha’i community. Many proponents of and researchers into the impacts of inter-mediated communications have offered helpful considerations regarding how these impact us as individuals and groups. So, I want to emphasize that I am not one who rejects such media, but I just wish to emphasize we should be aware of these impacts so that we may use them wisely. I have drawn on a number of writers and I have ended each segment with a balancing quotation from the Universal House of Justice publication The Prosperity of Humankind.
1. Social Media Challenges to Modes of Learning
“Information anxiety is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand. Information anxiety is the black hole between data and knowledge. … We read without comprehending, see without perceiving, hear without listening…. It can be … a chronic malaise, a fear that we are about to be overwhelmed by the very material that we need to master in order to function…” (Richard Saul Wurman, Information Anxiety)
“The freedom to investigate the purpose of existence and to develop the endowments of human nature that make it achievable requires protection. Human beings must be free to know. That such freedom is often abused and such abuse grossly encouraged by … contemporary society does not detract … from the validity of the impulse itself. … Since the challenge is … empowerment … through a vast increase in access to knowledge, the strategy that can make this possible must be constructed around an ongoing and intensifying dialogue between science and religion…. People need to learn how to separate fact from conjecture … to distinguish between subjective views and objective reality; the extent to which individuals and institutions so equipped can contribute to human progress, however, will be determined by their devotion to truth and their detachment from the promptings of their own interests and passions. (The Universal House of Justice, The Prosperity of Humankind)
Information anxiety is the black hole between data and knowledge. … We read without comprehending, see without perceiving, hear without listening.
I think these anxieties arise when we encounter information without context, including times when information that is highly personal and intimate is shared without our being able to place it within the fullness of a mature relationship with the other person. Certainly, there are times when we will feel we have too much information, even when it is non-contextual or non-intimate: the sheer volume overwhelms our senses. And consider that impact – Baha’u’llah says that these media are endowed with certain senses, and yet on times it happens that the volume of information flow operates to overwhelm or even shut down these senses, leaving us feeling helpless, perhaps frustrated, and prone to other emotions such as upset or anger or even apathy.
People need to learn how to separate fact from conjecture … to distinguish between subjective views and objective reality; the extent to which individuals and institutions so equipped can contribute to human progress, however, will be determined by their devotion to truth and their detachment from the promptings of their own interests and passions
The admonition to be detached from our passions, especially in the use of such media, is an essential matter. Abdul Baha references an authoritative Tradition as follows: “As for him who is one of the learned: he must guard himself, oppose his passions, and obey the commandments of his Lord’…”, and then goes on to say:
“ ‘… opposes his passions’ How wonderful are the implications of this deceptively easy, all-inclusive phrase. This is the very foundation of every laudable human quality; indeed these few words embody the light of the world, the impregnable basis of all the spiritual attributes of human beings. This is the balance wheel of all behaviour, the means of keeping all man’s good qualities in equilibrium.” (Secret of Divine Civilization, pps 59-60)
2. Social Media Impact on Relationships
“Social roles (ie. the social “place”) can be understood … in terms of social situations, which, until recently, have been tied to physical place, and … the logic of situational behaviours has much to do with patterns of information flow, that is, much to do with the human senses and [these] technological extensions. … Evolution in the media …[changes] the logic of social order by restructuring the relationship between the physical place and the social place and by altering the ways in which we receive and transmit social information.” (Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place)
“The word discourse itself contains part of the explanation of this tendency. Discourse implies a long process: an indirect approach and a kind of winding movement involving successive approximations [of reality] . …the invasion of the verbal realm by images results in role reversal and domination … the humiliation of the word… we are dealing with … the disappearance of one sort of thinking” (Jacques Ellul, The Humiliation of the Word)
“Central to the task of reconceptualising the system of human relationships is the process that Baha’u’llah refers to as consultation. “In all things it is necessary to consult,” is His advice. “The maturity of the gift of understanding is made manifest through consultation.” (The Universal House of Justice, The Prosperity of Humankind)
Evolution in the media …[changes] the logic of social order by restructuring the relationship between the physical place and the social place and by altering the ways in which we receive and transmit social information
A world that was once very ordered and formal in its social communications has become immediate and intimate and informal, often with neither introduction nor warning. Once we shared intimacies with individuals we had known for a long time, now we tell the world of our trials, errors, successes, achievements and failures. And those of everyone else we might or might not know. We connect with everyone but there is no contextualizing and binding mortar. In business, it was not so long ago, up to the 1980s, somewhat uncommon to call someone in a business we did not know directly but would first write a letter, requesting the opportunity to speak. Now, the e-mail comes, and we are expected, or feel obligated, to respond, regardless of the lack of direct familiarity with the person. We are invited to be “friends” by, … who? Someone who knows someone who knows someone … The social order is upset, and this will continue, so the question is how are we to operate in this new world?
we are dealing with … the disappearance of one sort of thinking
Communications which is focussed on reading or listening to the words another is using is significantly impacted by the addition of images, videos and so on. Images create an interpretation of the words, are sometimes unintentionally disconnected from the speakers/senders own meaning. They impose on the reader/listener, deny the freedom of imagination and thought. Music videos did kill radio music – I realized that if I had seen a music video, I could no longer listen to the record without the promptings of the images, and I could create none of my own. Again, it is a question of how do we re-balance.
Discourse implies a long process: an indirect approach and a kind of winding movement involving successive approximations [of reality]
Is this not an apt expression of the dynamics of consultation? It suggests space and time and freedom to exchange ideas and views.
“Central to the task of reconceptualising the system of human relationships is the process that Baha’u’llah refers to as consultation.
It is fascinating that social media could have such impacts on our communications and our relationships, and that The Universal House of Justice would direct our attention to the process of consultation as the means of reconceptualising human relationships. So we need to ask ourselves, what is in the principles and practices of consultation as defined by Baha’u’llah that would allow us to re-balance the impacts of these media.
3. Social Media Impact on the ability to absorb and synthesize information
“… one way to characterize ourselves is as ‘hunters and gatherers of an information age’. Our shared sphere of interaction is informational rather than physical … Like hunters and gatherers who take for granted the abundance of food ‘out there’ and therefore only hunt and gather enough to consume immediately, we are becoming increasingly a ‘subsistence information society’…. people are beginning to believe that information is available ‘out there’ and that individuals do not need to stockpile it. … even many scholars have begun to steer away from storing in their minds the long, linear arguments [that characterized] literacy, that linked new discoveries to old, and that pointed to the future. The computer is increasingly used as an abundant jungle of bits and pieces of ‘data’ … the connections found are often consumed and digested immediately without being painstakingly linked to other knowledge and ideas.” (Joshua Meyrowitz, No Sense of Place)
“Another capacity that science must cultivate in all people is that of thinking in terms of process, including historical process …” (The Universal House of Justice, The Prosperity of Humankind)
storing in their minds the long, linear arguments [that characterized] literacy, that linked new discoveries to old, and that pointed to the future
You will note perhaps the similarity between Meyerowitz’s description of literacy and Ellul’s description of discourse. The ability to hold within our minds long chains of reasoning, of different ideas, of information gathered from divers sources, this regular re-reading and combining of personal discovery, guidance and experience. It is the sustaining of this kind of thinking that Ellul urges upon us, to not let such gifts be overwhelmed and lost in the use of otherwise gifted technologies which can provide the immediate, the ever-present, the instantly accessible.
Another capacity that science must cultivate in all people is that of thinking in terms of process, including historical process
I ask you to consider the manner in which The Universal House of Justice models for us “thinking in terms of process, including historical process”. Consider prior to this current series of plans publications such as The Peace Statement, Century of Light, The Prosperity of Humankind, how these act to provide us with insight into the experiences of humanity since the advent of Baha’u’llah’s Revelation. Even before these current Plans, did not The Universal House of Justice encourage upon us study of certain letters of the Guardian to the United States, which letters contextualize the developments of the world and the Faith up to the 1950s. Similarly, within the current Plans, consider the approach of the annual Ridvan Messages, and the ever-increasing flow of reflections regarding the institute process and the increasing penetration of programs supporting personal growth and community transformation. These are models of connecting chains of reasoning, of experience, of contextualizing data.
4. Social Media Impact on the power of reflection
“In Time and Free Will, Henri Bergson [asks]: ‘Suppose some mischievous genius could so manage things that all the motion in the universe doubled in speed, and everything happened twice as fast as at present. How could we detect this fraud? …Easily, [by] the impoverishment of our conscious lives. The contents of our minds would be reduced.’ Apply that criterion to those … [for whom] … speed is of the essence… Do they not rather despise anybody who pauses long enough to acquire a mental content from reflection, or to win a wisdom which will only cut down his speed in making for the goal? And is it strange that those who travel so fast and light should arrive in a nude and starving condition?” (Marshall McLuhan, The Mechanical Bride)
“A superficial culture, unsupported by a cultivated morality, is as ‘a confused medley of dreams’ …” (Abdul Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization)
“Through the faculty of meditation man attains to eternal life … the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation. … This faculty brings forth from the invisible plane the sciences and the arts. Through the meditative faculty inventions are made possible, colossal undertakings are carried out; through it governments can run smoothly. … The meditative faculty is akin to a mirror … if you turn the mirror heavenwards … the rays of the Sun of Reality will be reflected in your hearts, and the virtues of the Kingdom will be obtained.”(Abdul Baha, Paris Talks)
everything … twice as fast … the impoverishment of our conscious lives. The contents of our minds would be reduced
Bergson’s provides a concise and apt description of the impact of the speed and volume of information enabled by these communications technologies, and these comments are enhanced by McLuhan’s critique (and you didn’t think we were going to complete this session without McLuhan, did you). Someone send you an e-mail, after an hour they call you to ask if you have read it, they want an answer before you can think of what is the question.
A superficial culture, unsupported by a cultivated morality, is as ‘a confused medley of dream
We need to avoid a shallowing or hollowing out of our capacities in using these technologies. With regard to cultivated morality, I think Abdul Baha is suggesting a morality with is worked at, like a garden, where our thinking is guided by a Gardener.
the bestowal of the Spirit is given in reflection and meditation.
As with thinking in terms of process, the importance of meditation and reflection is key to balancing the impacts of these media. Studies such as Thinking, Fast and Slow can really help us to understand the necessity to be moderate and balanced, to recognize these impacts.
Section Four: Wisdom in the use of Social Media: Guidance of The Universal House of Justice
Essentially, the position of the House of Justice is that the Internet offers Bahá’ís a very valuable communication tool. As with all other forms of consultation, however, such exchanges are spiritually and intellectually helpful to a believer to the extent that they take place within the context of Bahá’í principle. (The Universal House of Justice, 1999 Nov 22)
– Notice the reference to the Internet as a form of consultation, and the need to apply requisite Baha’i principle.
As you well appreciate, the extent to which such technology advances the work of the Faith depends, of course, on the manner in which it is used. As a medium for Bahá’ís to exchange views, it imposes on participants the same requirements of moderation, candour, and courtesy as would be the case in any other discussion. Likewise, those involved should avoid belittling the views of one another. (The Universal House of Justice, 1997 Aug 13, Science and Religion, p. 6)
– The descriptions of the behavioural qualities are exactly the same as those which apply to the process of consultation
The ease and relative impersonality of the electronic medium require in some ways an even higher level of self-discipline than is the case in situations where a spirit of unity is reinforced by the opportunity for direct personal contact and social interaction. In the pursuit of such a spirit of unity, Bahá’ís will, without doubt, wish to assist the consultative processes by sharing and discussing relevant Bahá’í texts. This will itself have the further effect of drawing attention back to the framework of Bahá’í belief. (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)
– We should reflect on why The Universal House of Justice states that these media require an even higher level of self-discipline. A typewritten letter which must be physically mailed might provide an opportunity for sober second thought; the “magic” send or enter buttons on a computer can be a blessing or a curse.
– These next two excerpts fall within the framework of “Protection of the Faith”
It is natural that the friends would discuss such matters among themselves, as you and your correspondent have been doing on your Internet discussion group; how otherwise are they to deepen their understanding of the Teachings? But they should recognize that the resolution of differences of opinion on such fundamental questions is not to be found by continued discussion, but in referring to the Universal House of Justice itself, as you have done. Prolonged, unresolved, public discussion of these fundamental questions can do nothing but breed confusion and dissension. (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)
The principle which should guide our efforts to share the fruits of Bahá’í scholarship has been made clear for all of us in this passage from Bahá’u’lláh’s Writings: “Thou hast written that one of the friends hath composed a treatise. This was mentioned in the Holy Presence, and this is what was revealed in response: Great care should be exercised that whatever is written in these days doth not cause dissension, and invite the objection of the people. Whatever the friends of the one true God say in these days is listened to by the people of the world. It hath been revealed in the Lawh-i-Hikmat: “The unbelievers have inclined their ears towards us in order to hear that which might enable them to cavil against God, the Help in Peril, the Self-Subsisting.” Whatever is written should not transgress the bounds of tact and wisdom, and in the words used there should lie hid the property of milk, so that the children of the world may be nurtured therewith, and attain maturity. We have said in the past that one word hath the influence of spring and causeth hearts to become fresh and verdant, while another is like unto blight which causeth the blossoms and flowers to wither. God grant that authors among the friends will write in such a way as would be acceptable to fair-minded souls, and not lead to cavilling by the people. (The Universal House of Justice, 1992 Dec 10, Issues Related to Study Compilation)
“With the physical unification of the planet in this century and acknowledgement of the interdependence of all who live on it, the history of humanity as one people is now beginning. The long, slow civilising of human character has been a sporadic development, uneven and admittedly inequitable in the material advantages it has conferred. Nevertheless, endowed with the wealth of all the genetic and cultural diversity that has evolved through past ages, the earth’s inhabitants are now challenged to draw on their collective inheritance to take up, consciously and systematically, the responsibility for the design of their future.” (The Prosperity of Humankind)
– We are at the beginning of Revelation, whose power is steadily bringing forward an ever-advancing civilization, a process which will take a considerable time and require endless adjustment of our understandings and behaviours. We can be patient, thoughtful and reflective, as well as alert to the impacts of such discoveries.
I wanted to end on a personal note, a note which I think reflects a quality of hopefulness about these communications technologies when they were fresh and new in the world. MY father wrote this essay when he was just a few months past his 16th birthday – just over a year beyond what we would refer to as a “junior youth” – when he was a first year student at St. Mary’s University in Halifax. The occasion for this essay in the student newspaper, in 1931, was the fact that there were now 16 originating and transmitting radio stations in North America. A radio station would be established in Newfoundland in 1932, a year after this essay, and it reflects the sense of real hope held by many for the expected benefits of these new technologies. So I will end on this note:
A Family Note on the Impact of Technology
…what a blessing Radio is to us. …Rich and poor, urban and rural, educated and illiterate, all are absorbed … with the same degree of interest. Every evening we are passing the time in the company of people of at least ten different nationalities. … No longer do we have to crowd around bulletin-boards to hear the latest dispatches. … At first the mere thought of sound picked out of the air fascinated us; now programs from foreign lands merely form part of the daily broadcast. The interest, however, has not diminished inasmuch as they contain an element of the unknown. ….It can be best left to the imagination to picture for itself what Radio holds in store for us. Myths at which our grandfathers scoffed have become realities within the century. Who, then, can say what Radio will not accomplish? It is full of possibilities and already glorious with success. When the fruit is ripe for the plucking, we shall see. (JJ Connors, age 16, St. Mary’s University, 1931)
How has this helped you understand the topic further? Post your comments below!
As we learned in the previous blog posting, the Bahá’í Writings tell us the poor are “very dear to God”; “the mercies and bounties of God are with them”; they are “never forgotten” and they are “nearer the threshold of God”.
The mercies and bounties of God are with them. The rich are mostly negligent, inattentive, steeped in worldliness, depending upon their means, whereas the poor are dependent upon God, and their reliance is upon Him, not upon themselves. Therefore, the poor are nearer the threshold of God and His throne. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33)
This is particularly appealing to someone like me, who doesn’t feel loved by any of the significant people in her life (parents, siblings, spouses or children). I want to know that someone I can trust loves me! If that keeps me poor, then so be it!
I can see where people might be confused on this issue. On the one hand, we read quotes such as these, which suggest that we need wealth, acquired through crafts or professions:
Having attained the stage of fulfilment and reached his maturity, man standeth in need of wealth, and such wealth as he acquireth through crafts or professions is commendable and praiseworthy in the estimation of men of wisdom. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 437)
And that if you want wealth, the secret is to engage in crafts and professions:
Thus it is incumbent on every one to engage in crafts and professions, for therein lies the secret of wealth, O men of understanding! For results depend upon means, and the grace of God shall be all-sufficient unto you. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 2, p. 281)
And that we have an obligation to expend our wealth on ourselves and our families (in that order):
The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred for the love of God, the Lord of all worlds. (Baha’u’llah, Hidden Words, Persian 82)
On the other hand, you don’t want to have too much wealth, because the rich are described in negative terms:
The rich are mostly negligent, inattentive, steeped in worldliness, depending upon their means . . . (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33)
Wealth is described as a “mighty barrier” between us and God:
Know ye in truth that wealth is a mighty barrier between the seeker and his desire, the lover and his beloved. (Baha’u’llah, The Persian Hidden Words 53)
Very few rich people attain the court of God’s presence, or are content and resigned:
The rich, but for a few, shall in no wise attain the court of His presence nor enter the city of content and resignation. (Baha’u’llah, The Persian Hidden Words 53)
God hasn’t promised mansions to those who associate with the rich:
God has not said that there are mansions prepared for us if we pass our time associating with the rich, but He has said there are many mansions prepared for the servants of the poor, for the poor are very dear to God. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33)
As long as there are poor people, those with colossal wealth should not exist:
A financier with colossal wealth should not exist whilst near him is a poor man in dire necessity.
Excessive of wealth is associated with tyranny:
A financier with colossal wealth should not exist whilst near him is a poor man in dire necessity. When we see poverty allowed to reach a condition of starvation it is a sure sign that somewhere we shall find tyranny. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 153)
According to the Writings, their wealth has been found by “idle fancy” and they don’t know how to be self-sacrificing:
In idle fancy they have found the door that leadeth unto earthly riches, whereas in the manifestation of the Revealer of knowledge they find naught but the call to self-sacrifice. They therefore naturally hold fast unto the former, and flee from the latter. (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Ian, p. 28)
Having wealth can prevent you from entering the Kingdom of Heaven:
. . . riches do prevent the rich from entering the Kingdom; and again, He saith, ‘It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.’ If, however, the wealth of this world, and worldly glory and repute, do not block his entry therein, that rich man will be favoured at the Holy Threshold and accepted by the Lord of the Kingdom. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 195)
If the wealthy are able to use their wealth in service to God, it is highly meritorious. I’m not sure how many of us are able to attain this level of generosity, self-sacrifice and detachment, as we’ve seen in previous quotes, so it’s better for us to avoid it:
If wealth and prosperity become the means of service at God’s Threshold, it is highly meritorious; otherwise it would be better to avoid them. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 437)
When you’re poor, you need to rely on God to supply your needs and be patient. There’s a lot more obligation and responsibility on those who are wealthy:
Fear the sighs of the poor and of the upright in heart who, at every break of day, bewail their plight, and be unto them a benevolent sovereign. They, verily, are thy treasures on earth. It behoveth thee, therefore, to safeguard thy treasures from the assaults of them who wish to rob thee. Inquire into their affairs, and ascertain, every year, nay every month, their condition, and be not of them that are careless of their duty. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 236)
Men must bestir themselves in this matter, and no longer delay in altering conditions which bring the misery of grinding poverty to a very large number of the people. The rich must give of their abundance, they must soften their hearts and cultivate a compassionate intelligence, taking thought for those sad ones who are suffering from lack of the very necessities of life. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 153)
He should be . . . bestowing a portion upon the destitute, and not refusing benevolence and favor to the unfortunate. (Compilations, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 50)
He admonished all that we must be the servants of the poor, helpers of the poor, remember the sorrows of the poor, associate with them; for thereby we may inherit the Kingdom of heaven. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 33)
Good God! is it possible that, seeing one of his fellow-creatures starving, destitute of everything, a man can rest and live comfortably in his luxurious mansion? He who meets another in the greatest misery, can he enjoy his fortune? That is why, in the religion of God, it is prescribed and established that wealthy men each year give over a certain part of their fortune for the maintenance of the poor and unfortunate. That is the foundation of the religion of God, and the most essential of the commandments. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i World Faith, p. 283-284)
Those who are wealthy should use their wealth as a means to draw close to God, instead of being so attached to their wealth that they forget God and His commandments:
If they are wealthy, they should make these bestowals a means of drawing nigh unto God’s Threshold, rather than being so attached to them that they forget the admonitions of the Pen of the Most High. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 437)
If they don’t, wealth will lead to destruction:
Turn to the Book of the Covenant, the Hidden Words, and other Tablets, lest the cord of your salvation become a rope of woe which will lead to your own destruction. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 437-438)
Once men acquire wealth, it’s easy to become so bewitched by their newly amassed wealth and status that they forget the true meaning of their lives; and they forget God. Look what happens as a result:
How numerous are those negligent souls, particularly from among your own compatriots, who have been deprived of the blessings of faith and true understanding. Witness how, no sooner had they attained their newly amassed wealth and status, than they became so bewitched by them as to forget the virtues and true perfections of man’s station. They clung to their empty and fruitless lifestyle. They had naught else but their homes, their commercial success, and their ornamental trappings of which to be proud. Behold their ultimate fate. Many a triumphal arch was reduced to a ruin, many an imperial palace was converted into a barn. Many a day of deceit turned into a night of despair. Vast treasures changed hands and, at the end of their lives, they were left only with tears of loss and regret. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 438)
The wealthy have to protect their treasures and worry about someone stealing them:
Others ere long will lay hands on what ye possess, and enter into your habitations. Incline your ears to My words, and be not numbered among the foolish. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 260)
Would that the inhabitants of the world who have amassed riches for themselves and have strayed far from the True One might know who will eventually lay hand on their treasures; but, by the life of Bahá, no one knoweth this save God, exalted be His glory. (Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 171)
I knew someone who didn’t have a lot, but he was still afraid of losing it. He wanted to have a home alarm system installed on his house, even though he lived in a tiny village where everyone knew each other and the crime rate was almost zero. I couldn’t imagine living with this level of fear, suspicion and mistrust. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá tells a similar story:
‘Abdu’l-Bahá told a story about a Persian believer’s journeys and how he could not sleep at night while in the wilderness for fear of someone stealing his new shirt, a new gift from a prominent person. After several sleepless nights he decided to get rid of the shirt so he could relax. (Rafati, Vahid, Sources of Persian Poetry in the Bahá’í Writings, Vol. lll, p. 80)
Wealth is fleeting and has no lasting effect:
How many kings have flourished in luxury and in a brief moment all has disappeared! Their glory and their honor are forgotten. Where are all these sovereigns now? (Abdu’l-Bahá, Divine Philosophy, p. 137)
They attained to wealth, to the comforts of life, to fame. And what was the final outcome? Utter evanescence and oblivion. Reflect upon this. Look upon it with the eye of admonition. No trace of them remains, no fruit, no result, no benefit; they have gone utterly — complete effacement. (Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 186)
Look what happens to someone who wrote to Baha’u’llah begging for wealth and prosperity:
Haji Muhammad-Baqir was a well-known merchant, foremost among the believers in faith, certitude and enthusiasm, and was serving the Cause with devotion and self-sacrifice. This man attained the presence of Bahá’u’lláh in Baghdad. There He wrote a letter to Him and begged for wealth and prosperity. In answer, this exalted and wonderful Tablet was revealed for him. In it Bahá’u’lláh stated that his request would be granted and that the doors of prosperity and wealth would be opened for him from every direction. He warned him, however, to be on his guard and not to allow riches to become a barrier and make him heedless. Now you are here to attain the presence of Bahá’u’lláh and in the future you will witness that this man will be overtaken with fear to such an extent that he will renounce God and His Cause. Not long after, he will make substantial losses, following which he will write a letter to Bahá’u’lláh and repent. God will then turn his losses into profit and he will become again highly successful in his business and will emerge as the foremost merchant in Constantinople and Tabriz. However, this time he will wax prouder than before, more heedless and deprived… This time he will lose all his possessions, will be unable to continue trading and will become helpless in arranging his affairs. It is then that he will repent and return, and will be content to live as a poor man. He will spend the days of his life in the service of the Cause of God. His end will be blessed and he will receive great confirmations from God.’ He then said to me: ‘Remember all these things, for they will come to pass, and you shall witness them.’ (Adib Taherzadeh, Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh, v2, p. 277-278)
Knowing this in advance, do you think you’d change your mind? I know I would!
This doesn’t mean I’m always able to be grateful for my poverty, or that I am always free from anxiety about how my bills are going to be paid, so I find this quote reassuring:
The lives of the Founders of our Faith clearly show that to be fundamentally assured does not mean that we live without anxieties. (Shoghi Effendi, Quickeners of Mankind, p. 117)
Fortunately there’s another way of thinking about wealth. In this dispensation it is described by the excellence of his conduct, in love of God and in detachment from luxuries.
Man’s distinction lieth in the excellence of his conduct and in the pursuit of that which beseemeth his station, not in childish play and pastimes. Know that thy true adornment consisteth in the love of God and in thy detachment from all save Him, and not in the luxuries thou dost possess. (Baha’u’llah, The Summons of the Lord of Hosts, p. 62)
Now that’s a kind of wealth I can be comfortable with!
For more on this theme:
Does God want us to be Wealthy
When is Enough, Enough
Recently I was listening to a podcast on our relationship to money by my favorite minister, Jeremy McClung of the Muskoka Community Church, which left me asking the question: When is enough, enough? This is an important question to ask especially at this season of excess we call Christmas.
In his talk, Jeremy handed out index cards and asked us to write “stuff I have” on one side and to write “stuff I want” on the other. We were to make a detailed list of everything we own (land, cars, houses, clothes, electronics, appliances, toys etc).
What surprised me was how much was on my “want” side! Even though I have everything I need, and more, the list of what I wanted was longer than the list of what I owned. This was profound! I urge you to take out a sheet of paper right now and do this exercise for yourself.
My income comes from a small disability pension, supplemented by some paid work, and I live in a small one bedroom apartment in a “geared to income” building. Some people look at my lifestyle and long for me to be better off financially, and sometimes I wonder if they’re right. On the one hand, the Bahá’í Writings say:
Having attained the stage of fulfilment and reached his maturity, man standeth in need of wealth, and such wealth as he acquireth through crafts or professions is commendable and praiseworthy in the estimation of men of wisdom. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 437)
My well-wishers see the transformative path I’ve been on for the past couple of decades, and how far I’ve come in ridding myself of the anxiety and depression that robbed me of my life, and they think it’s time for me to get back into the “real world” and get paid for all the work I do.
I ask myself: can I make a living doing all the things I do, so that I can get off my disability pension? For years, I took the following Writing to heart, and tried to apply it.
The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling. (Baha’u’llah, The Persian Hidden Words, 82)
Working in corrupt work places just made me sicker.
Now, this quotes shows how I long to live my life:
Thou hast asked regarding the means of livelihood. Trust in God and engage in your work and practice economy; the confirmations of God shall descend and you will be enabled to pay off your debts. Be ye occupied always with the mention of Bahá’u’lláh and seek ye no other hope and desire save Him. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i World Faith, p. 375)
Through quotes like this I’ve come to realize that my job is to take care of the work and God’s job is to take care of the money. It doesn’t say “paid work”, and God’s way of taking care of the money doesn’t always come from a paycheque! I have been taken care of in ways I couldn’t have imagined (from soup kitchens and food banks that treat me as a “guest”; to random strangers sending me money in the mail; to finding ways to barter; to people giving me clothes and yes, even from some paid employment. I have more than enough, and I am grateful.
The question is: do you want to live like that? It will mean a lifestyle very unlike the ones you’ve had to date.
Have you heard about the Peace Pilgrim? She’s one of my heroines. When she was in her mid-40’s, she decided to walk across the United States, and continued to do so for 28 years, to talk to people about the importance of peace. All she had were the clothes on her back; a smock with a pencil and a small pad of paper; a comb and toothbrush, and that was it. She had no organizational backing, carried no money, and would not even ask for food or shelter. She travelled in the south during the winter and the north during the summer. She had absolutely nothing – no means to support herself except total reliance on God. She said in all the years she did it, there were only 3 days in a row where she didn’t have anything to eat or anywhere to sleep. Every single other day, people would feed her and/or invite her to spend the night. One time she was walking in a freak snow storm. It was so snowy that she couldn’t see 5 feet in front of her, so she walked down an embankment to huddle under a bridge, out of the blinding snow, and there she found a fridge-size cardboard box, with a blanket and pillow in it! Without a word of a lie! God took care of her every need, even before she knew she had it. Click here to read reviews about her biography.
I found her total detachment really inspiring! Since then I’ve had many glimmers of how this works in my own life, which is “poor” by many people’s standards, and yet, I have had a rich and full life; totally blessed, to be able to do the work I love.
In terms of acquiring wealth, the Bahá’í Writings also say:
In earthly riches fear is hidden and peril is concealed. (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 219)
There’s a great story which illustrates the principle that the best possible life is not by having more stuff, but by letting go.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá told a story about a Persian believer’s journeys and how he could not sleep at night while in the wilderness for fear of someone stealing his new shirt, a new gift from a prominent person. After several sleepless nights he decided to get rid of the shirt so he could relax. (Rafati, Vahid, Sources of Persian Poetry in the Baha’i Writings, Vol. lll, p. 80)
I understand what this means! One time I had so many journals filled with insights about my childhood and all that I’d suffered and how it made me the person I was. I was attached to these journals and longed for my son to read them someday, to know who I was. I was so afraid that they would get ruined in a flood or fire that I was actually contemplating buying metal boxes to put them in to keep them safe! I realized the folly of this thinking, and because I was soon going on pilgrimage and wanted to empty myself before I went, I threw them all into the garbage dump (where they belonged!) instead.
Another time I was going out with someone who lived in a small village where everyone knew everyone else. He was in fear that someone would steal his antiques and was considering buying an alarm system for the house. I couldn’t imagine living with so much fear and suspicion. It would be different if he was in downtown Detroit, but the crime rate in this village was next to nothing. Surely it would be better to live with just enough, than to live in fear all the time!
When you move, you find out how much stuff you have; and how much you want. When I was pioneering to Labrador, I took this quote seriously:
Reliance on God is indeed the strongest and safest weapon which the Bahá’í teacher can carry. (Shoghi Effendi, Power of Divine Assistance, p. 221).
What this meant to me was that I was to go with total reliance on God, trusting Him to meet all my needs, just as the Peace Pilgrim had. I sold or gave away just about all of my worldly goods. I arrived in Labrador City with 2 cats and 2 suitcases; one suitcase was filled with cat supplies and the other had my clothes; a sleeping bag and inflatable air mattress; a pot, pan, and dishes and cutlery for 2 (so I could invite someone over for a meal). I had enough! I had everything I needed to live quite comfortably. I got a 3 bedroom unfurnished apartment (which was easier to find than a 1 bedroom); and could have lived with so little forever! Unfortunately our culture demands a certain lifestyle, though, and within 6 months I had that apartment filled with furniture and kitchen supplies (mostly acquired through yard sales and moving sales). When is enough, enough? I had enough, but I wanted more. I wanted to look like everyone else, but I didn’t need any of it.
Most of our “stuff” makes our lives easier or better in some ways. What we fail to realize is that much of it also takes something from us in terms of storage, cleaning, repairs and maintenance. It’s not a wonder how stressed we feel! Houses are a good example. When we buy our first house, we have to furnish it; and then buy all the tools to maintain it (ladders, lawn mowers, snow blowers etc. The list is endless!). When I was a home owner, I was always caught unprepared when the roof leaked, or the furnace needed replacing or when the tiles fell off the bathroom walls. I couldn’t afford the repairs and didn’t know where the money was going to come from. Needless to say, it went on the credit card, and then I was so far in debt, I nearly faced bankruptcy more than once. Now I live in an apartment and all the energy I used to spend on mowing lawns and maintaining gardens and shovelling snow, can be used in service to others; and all the money I save in not having to maintain a home has gone into paying off my debts so I can live debt free. It’s a much simpler lifestyle and has freed me up both financially and emotionally.
Have you ever wondered why people in cultures where they have nothing, seem so much happier? It’s because the more stuff we have, the more stress we have. I think it’s why we love to go camping. We take everything we need with us, and leave the rest behind. Most Canadians take more stuff camping than most of the rest of the world owns.
Despite what the “Occupy” movement would have us believe, the average North Americans are some of the richest people on the globe. The following really puts it into perspective:
If you could fit the entire population of the world into a village consisting of 100 people, maintaining the proportions of all the people living on Earth, that village would consist of:
- 57 Asians
- 21 Europeans
- 14 Americans (North, Central and South)
- 8 Africans
There would be:
- 52 women and 48 men
- 30 Caucasians and 70 non-Caucasians
- 30 Christians and 70 non-Christians
- 6 people would possess 59% of the wealth and they would all come from the USA
- 80 would live in poverty
- 70 would be illiterate
- 50 would suffer from hunger and malnutrition
- 1 would be dying
- 1 would be being born
- 1 would own a computer
- 1 (yes, only one) would have a university degree
If we looked at the world in this way, the need for acceptance and understanding would be obvious. But, consider again the following…
- If you have never experienced the horror of war, the solitude of prison, the pain of torture, were not close to death from starvation, then you are better off than 500 million people
- If you can go to your place of worship without fear that someone will assault or kill you, then you are luckier than 3 billion (that’s right) people.
- If you have a full fridge, clothes on your back, a roof over your head and a place to sleep, you are wealthier than 75% of the world’s population.
- If you currently have money in the bank, in your wallet and a few coins in your purse, you are one of 8 of the privileged few amongst the 100 people in the world.
- If your parents are still alive and still married, you’re a rare individual.
Some people have suggested: “the more wealth I attain, the more I will be able to travel to developing countries to help others or donate to worthy causes”. I’m not sure that’s true. It’s certainly part of the prevailing wisdom, but only God knows what He wants from us. One the one hand He says:
If wealth and prosperity become the means of service at God’s Threshold, it is highly meritorious; otherwise it would be better to avoid them. (The Universal House of Justice, Messages 1963 to 1986, p. 437)
On the other, the Bahá’í Writings tell us that more and lasting things are accomplished by poor people, than by rich:
How many kings have flourished in luxury and in a brief moment all has disappeared! Their glory and their honor are forgotten. Where are all these sovereigns now? But those who have been servants of the divine beauty are never forgotten. The result of their works is everywhere visible. What king is there of two thousand years ago whose kingdom has lived in the hearts? But those disciples who were devoted to God – poor people who had neither fortune nor position – are to-day trees bearing fruit. Their banner is raised higher every day. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Divine Philosophy, p. 137)
I’ve learned that a life well lived doesn’t consist of an abundance of possessions. Sometimes we use “stuff” to fill the holes in our soul, but we aren’t going to find what we want from more stuff. There’s danger in having more than you need, because it only creates more wants. There’s nothing wrong with wanting more; or having aspirations – but the danger is that it distracts us from what’s really important. We can spend so many hours focused on getting this “one thing” that we aren’t living in the present moment and we aren’t focused on what really matters – teaching, service and acquiring virtues.
For example, I knew that I would be getting some money from my father’s estate, so for the three years it took for the money to arrive, I was continually thinking of what I wanted to spend it on. I set up a spreadsheet to keep track of it all; spent hours researching every item carefully, to make sure I knew that I was buying the best possible quality for my money. I measured and remeasured to make sure it would fit. When the money finally came, I threw it all out and decided to buy a car instead! I wasted hours of my life on this endeavor! And even when I got the car, I didn’t like it and traded it in on another one, losing money in the process. What a waste! I was certainly heedless of this quote:
Some men’s lives are solely occupied with the things of this world; their minds are so circumscribed by exterior manners and traditional interests that they are blind to any other realm of existence, to the spiritual significance of all things! They think and dream of earthly fame, of material progress. Sensuous delights and comfortable surroundings bound their horizon, their highest ambitions centre in successes of worldly conditions and circumstances! They curb not their lower propensities; they eat, drink, and sleep! Like the animal, they have no thought beyond their own physical well-being. It is true that these necessities must be despatched. Life is a load which must be carried on while we are on earth, but the cares of the lower things of life should not be allowed to monopolize all the thoughts and aspirations of a human being. The heart’s ambitions should ascend to a more glorious goal, mental activity should rise to higher levels! Men should hold in their souls the vision of celestial perfection, and there prepare a dwelling-place for the inexhaustible bounty of the Divine Spirit. (Abdu’l-Bahá, Paris Talks, p. 98)
We don’t like to think of ourselves as greedy, but when I looked at the list on the other side of my index card, and truly understood my position in the world, I had to realize that I was. We all need to be on guard against all kinds of greed, especially at Christmas. The Bahá’í Writings tell us:
He should be content with little and free from avarice. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Baha’i Scriptures, p. 50)
Why, then, exhibit such greed in amassing the treasures of the earth, when your days are numbered and your chance is well-nigh lost? Will ye not, then, O heedless ones, shake off your slumber? (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 127)
There is a danger in becoming attached to what we have. Another story I like illustrates this point:
Whereas riches may become a mighty barrier between man and God, and rich people are often in great danger of attachment, yet people with small worldly possessions can also become attached to material things. The following Persian story of a king and a dervish illustrates this.
Once there was a king who had many spiritual qualities and whose deeds were based on justice and loving-kindness. He often envied the dervish who had renounced the world and appeared to be free from the cares of this material life, for he roamed the country, slept in any place when night fell and chanted the praises of his Lord during the day. He lived in poverty, yet thought he owned the whole world. His only possessions were his clothes and a basket in which he carried the food donated by his well-wishers. The king was attracted to this way of life. Once he invited a well-known dervish to his palace, sat at his feet and begged him for some lessons about detachment. The dervish was delighted with the invitation. He stayed a few days in the palace and whenever the king was free preached the virtues of a mendicant’s life to him. At last the king was converted. One day, dressed in the garb of a poor man, he left his palace in the company of the dervish. They had walked together some distance when the dervish realized that he had left his basket behind in the palace. This disturbed him greatly and, informing the king that he could not go without his basket, he begged permission to return for it. But the king admonished him, saying that he himself had left behind his palaces, his wealth and power, whereas the dervish, who had preached for a lifetime the virtues of detachment, had at last been tested and was found to be attached to this world — his small basket. (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Baha’u’llah v 1, p. 76-77)
Contentment is being happy with what we have, and being grateful for it. This is what it means to be truly rich. The Bab has given us this prayer, which says in part:
Bestow upon me my portion, O Lord, as Thou pleasest, and cause me to be satisfied with whatsoever thou hast ordained for me. Thine is the absolute authority to command. (The Báb, Baha’i Prayers, p. 55)
We have enough. All of us! Ask yourself: If I never get another thing, could I be content with what I have? Most of us would have to answer yes!
I don’t think we’re all being called to get rid of everything we own and give it to the poor or pioneer to Africa, but to be able to get to the point where you could do it, is the kind of heart change God is looking for.
God might be calling you to let go of your stuff; or to change the way you relate to it; or to give it all to Him; or to pay Huqúq on it so it’s purified. Pray about what you’re learning here, and pay attention to what you’re being called on to do with this information. And realize that you have enough!