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How do we know if we are truly being of service to others the way the Baha’i Teachings suggest we do; or whether we’re enabling another person?  It can be easy to fall into the trap of doing this for others, that they can (and should) do for themselves, but how do you know when you’re falling into that trap?  Women and those who live with alcoholics, substance abusers or those with mental illness often get caught up in this game; and are so immersed in it, they don’t know there’s a way out.  If you aren’t sure if this is you, then please complete the checklist on Codependent Characteristics.  

The Question:

One of my readers wrote:

When we lived in the United States there were some people who felt that what we had was theirs and would get into the car unasked if I was going somewhere…. or who always showed up at dinner time, or when sick and wanting to sleep on our bed….. I was the one who said enough!! stop! My husband who had been raised with communist ideals was shocked when I said this with one person…. but when I made another man get out of my car on the day I was driving to Sante Fe, he was not upset. These were years when I was away from the Faith, but there was an over riding spirit of the time to help one another…. I saw too many people take advantage of this spirit of friendship. I have also seen people who “work the system” … those who live off of others, neighbors and family.  Every time I refuse “neighborly help” I feel like a bad Baha’i.

And another wrote:

My husband and I live off the grid, which means we use solar power and haul water from 18 miles away.  The altitude is over 7,000 feet, and one must have a vehicle to get water, go to the store and such. It’s a hard life.

Every year, I get new neighbors. They usually get here on their last leg: no vehicle, no appropriate shelter, no way to survive subzero winters and gale force winds. Also they depend a lot on alcohol, drugs, marijuana when they do get money. It starts with a hard luck story and “can you give me a ride to go here and go there”.

The latest is a woman who got someone to tow her dead motor home across the road in the middle of the night. She was left on the side of a hill where the motorhome sat sideways at an angle. She has animals to feed and a really bad attitude. Says she’s dying of cancer but needs a car to get around. I told her that if I was going somewhere and I was willing to take her, I would give her a ride.

She smokes about 2 packs of cigarettes a day and reeks and wants to know if I’ll stop at a liqour store for her. She wanted me to loan her my extra wood stove to use in her motorhome. I said no, but I would take her into town to get a propane space heater so she doesn’t freeze to death.

I have listened while she says she is dying of palate cancer while she smokes away. She refuses to go to a doctor and her clothes are way bigger than she is. I have offered and let her take a bath in my house because she was so dirty.

My husband leveled her MH as best he could on that angle.  She has nothing good to say about anyone and is upset because my husband didn’t level the MH good enough. My friends don’t want to be around her because the woman is soul sapping.

I just don’t know how to deal with these poisonous personalities. Living off the grid is not easy and not to be attempted without support systems behind you. I don’t know how to say my own spirituality suffers here because no matter what I do, I am in conflict for either enabling her or being stingy. At what point do I draw the line as a Baha’i?

Yet another wrote:

My last neighbors were system workers. They would give me a list for shopping for them, they wanted to use my phone and gave the number to others to contact them. One day I came home and a window was ajar. I scanned my surveillance cameras (theft is rampant here and the cameras work better than anything else) and every time I had gone somewhere that week they were canvasing the property and testing the cameras, I suppose. I called the police and they were banned from the property under pain of prosecution. A few months later they figured I had forgotten about it and started showing up for a gallon of water or wanting to pick my son’s cigarette butts (they actually watched to see when he visited) off the ground. My husband had been getting rid of the butts for just that reason. After the second time I said, “I have lifting issues and have to get my water the same way you do. If you can’t take care of yourselves, you don’t belong here.” They are currently testing the faith of the Apostolic Church in San Luis and living in a bigger pool of charity givers. Their trailer is junk on the prairie encouraging thieves. Still, as a Baha’i I feel guilty for such behavior on my part.

Here are some spiritual principles that come to mind:

Her Job

It is one thing to help a person, another to encourage dependency. Baha’u’llah tells us we are not allowed to beg, or to give money to beggers:

The most despised of men in the sight of God are they who sit and beg.  (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 30)

By the Sacred Verse: “Begging is forbidden, and it is also prohibited to dispense alms to a beggar’ is meant that mendicancy is forbidden and that giving charity to people who take up begging as their profession is also prohibited. The object is to wipe out mendicancy altogether. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 120)

And the poor need to exert themselves and strive to earn a means of livelihood:

Please God, the poor may exert themselves and strive to earn the means of livelihood. This is a duty which, in this most great Revelation, hath been prescribed unto every one, and is accounted in the sight of God as a goodly deed.  (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 202)

If they can’t work, it’s up to the rich provide them with a monthly allowance:

However, if a person is disabled, stricken by dire poverty or becomes helpless, then it is incumbent upon the rich or the trustees to provide him with a monthly allowance for his subsistence. (Universal House of Justice, Lights of Guidance, p. 120)

As we know, ‘Abdu’l-Baha used to give money to the poor.  Here is a story about how He handled those who were too lazy to work:

In 1907 Corinne True was in ‘Akká with the Master.  She was one of many who were deeply touched by the love of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, demonstrated so clearly in His customary Friday morning acts of charity.  From her window she ‘saw between two and three hundred men, women and children gathered . . . The Master began near the gate giving into the hand of each some piece of money and then each was required to move out.  It was a sight never to be forgotten to see the Master going from one to another, saying some word of praise or kindness to encourage each.  With some He would stop to inquire into their health and He would pat them on the back, these poor, dirty-looking creatures, and once in a while we would see Him send some one away empty-handed and He would reprimand him for his laziness.  (Honnold, Annamarie, Vignettes from the Life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 80)

And there’s another story of how he refused to be cheated by a dishonest taxi driver:

They took a taxi to the train station, where the taxi driver demanded more than the usual fare.  Abdul-Bahá ignored him, saying, “A man may give $1000 without minding it, but he should not yield even a dollar to the person who wishes to take it wrongfully, for such wrongful behavior flouts justice and disrupts the order of the world.  (Earl Redman, Abdul-Bahá in Their Midst, p. 190)

Generosity is a virtue, but what harm are we doing to another’s spiritual growth if we allow them to take advantage and behave abusively?

Our Job:

In terms of how much to get involved, this quote comes to mind:

The beginning of magnanimity is when man expendeth his wealth on himself, on his family and on the poor among his brethren in his Faith.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 156)

Notice the order – self, family and then others. I would include “wealth” in this quote to include your time and energy as well as money.

In the Kitab-i-Aqdas, Baha’u’llah tells us:

Let there be naught in your demeanour of which sound and upright minds would disapprove, and make not yourselves the playthings of the ignorant.  (Baha’u’llah, The Kitab-i-Aqdas, p. 76)

By helping these “takers”, are we making ourselves the playthings of the ignorant?

There are two pillars in the Faith… Compassion and Justice:

The Kingdom of God is founded upon equity and justice, and also upon mercy, compassion, and kindness to every living soul. Strive ye then with all your heart to treat compassionately all humankind — except for those who have some selfish, private motive, or some disease of the soul. Kindness cannot be shown the tyrant, the deceiver, or the thief, because, far from awakening them to the error of their ways, it maketh them to continue in their perversity as before. No matter how much kindliness ye may expend upon the liar, he will but lie the more, for he believeth you to be deceived, while ye understand him but too well, and only remain silent out of your extreme compassion.  (Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 158)

For more information, please see Showing Kindness to the Liar, Traitor or Thief 

We often lead with our hearts … but what about the Justice part? If we get dragged down, worn out and become the weakest link, or become bitter, what good are we to others?

We also know in the Baha’i Writings that we need to take care of our health, and not over-exert ourselves:

The Bahá’ís, in spit of their self-sacrificing desire to give the last drop of their strength to serving the Cause, must guard against utterly depleting their forces and having breakdowns. For this can sometimes do more harm than good, because they are so bound up in the lives of others . . . If you take better care of your own health, and build up your reserves, it would certainly be better for you and for your work. Then your sensitive, yearning heart, although you may still often suffer for and with others, will be better able to withstand its trials, and you will not get so exhausted, which is certainly no asset to your work for the Cause.  (Shoghi Effendi, Lights of Guidance, p. 279)

It is like the lecture you receive from the flight attendant before takeoff — “If the oxygen masks drop, parents should first fasten their own oxygen mask and make sure oxygen is flowing, before putting a mask on their child.” If you pass out while struggling to fit a mask on a thrashing and screaming child, you are of no benefit to the child and now require assistance yourself.

On the other hand, in the Hidden Words we learn:

Deny not My servant should he ask anything from thee, for his face is My face; be then abashed before Me. (Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words 30)

We also see this guidance:

If ye meet the abased or the down-trodden, turn not away disdainfully from them, for the King of Glory ever watcheth over them and surroundeth them with such tenderness as none can fathom except them that have suffered their wishes and desires to be merged in the Will of your Lord, the Gracious, the All-Wise. O ye rich ones of the earth! Flee not from the face of the poor that lieth in the dust, nay rather befriend him and suffer him to recount the tale of the woes with which God’s inscrutable Decree hath caused him to be afflicted. By the righteousness of God! Whilst ye consort with him, the Concourse on high will be looking upon you, will be interceding for you, will be extolling your names and glorifying your action. Blessed are the learned that pride not themselves on their attainments; and well is it with the righteous that mock not the sinful, but rather conceal their misdeeds, so that their own shortcomings may remain veiled to men’s eyes. (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 314)

From this quote we learn:

  • You’re not to turn away disdainfully from her
  • God is watching over her and surrounds her with such tenderness as no one can fathom
  • befriend her
  • Let her recount the tale of the woes with which God’s inscrutable Decree hath caused her to be afflicted
  • While you consort with her, the Concourse on high will be looking on you, interceding for you, extolling your name and glorifying your actions
  • Don’t take pride in your attainments
  • Don’t mock her sins, but rather conceal her misdeeds, so that your shortcomings will remain veiled from other people

Here’s another story of how ‘Abdu’l-Baha treated the poor:

There are five or six hundred poor in ‘Akká, to all of whom he gives a warm garment each year.  On feast days he visits the poor at their homes. He chats with them, inquires into their health and comfort, mentions by name those who are absent, and leaves gifts for all.  Nor is it the beggars only that he remembers. Those respectable poor who cannot beg, but must suffer in silence — those whose daily labour will not support their families — to these he sends bread secretly. His left hand knoweth not what his right hand doeth.  All the people know him and love him — the rich and the poor, the young and the old — even the babe leaping in its mother’s arms. If he hears of any one sick in the city — Moslem or Christian, or of any other sect, it matters not — he is each day at their bedside, or sends a trusty messenger. If a physician is needed, and the patient poor, he brings or sends one, and also the necessary medicine.  If he finds a leaking roof or a broken window menacing health, he summons a workman, and waits himself to see the breach repaired. If any one is in trouble, — if a son or a brother is thrown into prison, or he is threatened at law, or falls into any difficulty too heavy for him, — it is to the Master that he straightway makes appeal for counsel or for aid. Indeed, for counsel all come to him, rich as well as poor. He is the kind father of all the people . . .  (HM Balyuzi, ‘Abdul-Bahá: the Centre of the Covenant, p. 100)

The poor need money, but they need love too, as we see in this quote:

We know that to help the poor and to be merciful is good and pleases God, but knowledge alone does not feed the starving man, nor can the poor be warmed by knowledge or words in the bitter winter; we must give the practical help of Loving-kindness.’ (‘Abdu’l-Baha in London p 60)

And as this story illustrates:

Then ‘Abdu’l-Bahá walked to the entrance and, standing there, shook hands with every one of those four hundred: the flotsam and jetsam of humanity. At the same time He put a coin or two in each palm. He had done the same for years, on Fridays, outside His own house in ‘Akká — meeting the poor, dispensing aid, imparting to stunted lives the balm of care and affection and love. In the street others had gathered and there were also a number of children. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá went forth to greet them and offer them also a coin or two. But what mattered most was not the price of a bed He was giving them, but that balm of love and care which healed the wounds of the spirit . . . Later that evening ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was seated with a number of visitors to whom He was saying as He laughed: ‘Assuredly give to the poor! If you give them only words, when they put their hands into their pockets they will find themselves none the richer for you . . . (H.M. Balyuzi, Abdu’l-Bahá – The Centre of the Covenant, p. 177)

And they need non-judgemental practical assistance, as this story illustrates:

Lua Gestinger, one of the early Baha’is of America, tells of an experience she had in Akká. She had made the pilgrimage to the prison-city to see ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. One day He said to her that He was too busy today to call upon a friend of His who was very poor and sick. He wished Lua to go in His place. He told her to take food to the sick man and care for him as He had been doing.
Lua learned the address and immediately went to do as ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had asked. She felt proud that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had trusted her with some of His own work. But soon she returned to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in a state of excitement. “Master,” she exclaimed, “You sent me to a very terrible place! I almost fainted from the awful smell, the dirty rooms, the degrading condition of that man and his house. I left quickly before I could catch some terrible disease.”

Sadly and sternly, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá gazed at her. If she wanted to serve God, He told her, she would have to serve her fellow man, because in every person she should see the image and likeness of God. Then He told her to go back to the man’s house. If the house was dirty, she should clean it. If the man was dirty, she should bathe him. If he was hungry, she should feed him. He asked her not to come back until all of this was done. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has done these things many times for this man, and he told Lua Getsinger that she should be able to do them once. This is how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá taught Lua to serve her fellow man.  (Howard Colby Ives, Portals to Freedom, Chapter 6)

When we’re helping others, it’s helpful to remember that the service belongs to God; and not to them:

Love and serve mankind just for the sake of God and not for anything else. (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Lights of Guidance, p. 213)

So when you’re helping her, think of it as doing it for God’s sake and not for hers.

So as you can see, there are no easy answers!  When in doubt, pray, consult your heart, consult your Assembly or Auxiliary Board; or even write to the House of Justice secretariat

Another resource I like to use is Byron Katie’s worksheet  to help us question our beliefs about what we should or shouldn’t be doing in life, about what others should or shouldn’t be doing, and about how we judge ourselves as ‘good enough’, ‘spiritual enough’, ‘worthy’, ‘entitled’, etc.

For More Information, I recommend:

Learning How to Serve

Being of Service Even When People Drive you Crazy  

Codependent Characteristics

Healthy and Unhealthy Guilt and Shame 

Letting Go of Fault-Finding, Blame and Accusation  

Learning How to Forgive

Dealing with Borderline Personality Disorders in the Baha’i Community  


How would you answer these questions?  Post your comments below!