Being Better

My husband and I are smack-dab in the middle of the classic suburban preoccupation—the “school chase.” Our daughter will be starting kindergarten next year and so we have been researching our neighborhood school as well as many charter schools in the area. We are fortunate to live in a place with so much school choice and to be able to comfort ourselves with the knowledge that even if we don’t “win the lottery” and get her into a “better” school, our neighborhood school is a very fine option.

As we’ve struggled with this project, I’ve been struck again and again by the disconnect between my true educational goals for my daughter and what the schools are offering. To be precise, many of the charters are offering parents the chance to make their kids excel over others, to live a life of privilege by comparison, to be better.  And it occurs to me that this idea that I personally find so abhorrent, so damaging to the individual and society, is a veritable obsession in our culture—the idea of being better than our neighbors.

We human beings are strange creatures, loving nothing so much as stratifying our social lives. Every society has its unwritten (and sometimes, written) rules that define who is “above” and who is “below.” We point to egregious examples, such as Apartheid or the Holocaust, and wonder how human beings could have allowed such violations of common decency. But all of us are immersed in a world defined by class, caste, sex, color, rank, wealth. We teach our children to value whiter skin, slimmer bodies, stronger muscles, and higher degrees from better schools. We love to “keep up with the Joneses” or, even better, surpass them. I read once of a survey that asked people to choose between getting a raise, along with all of their peers, or keeping their current salary, while their peers all took a cut. Most chose the latter option. It’s so much better to be better.

Why do I find that damaging? I believe the human desire for superiority, seated in the human ego, has driven humanity to every atrocity we’ve known. Not only is “being better” the culprit when it comes to the “isms” we condemn (racism, sexism, et al), but it also drives a wedge between people. How can you be in a state of true unity with someone else if you are trying to out-jockey each other in the eternal race to the nowheresville of superiority? It sets up lose-lose dynamics. We cannot have unity until we find it in ourselves to let go of our ambitions of superiority. I’m not saying that there are not objective ways in which one person may better than another—of course there are. Different people are better are different things and there are degrees to be seen even in the spiritual attributes that makes us noble beings. But when we assign ourselves the task of being better than others, we take on the impossible, at the cost of something more important—solidarity and love.

What if, instead, we set all that aside and decided to embrace the idea that we’re all in this together, that all human beings have value?

Rejection of the preoccupation with a comparative life is at the heart of Bahá’í belief, and an aspect of Bahá’í life that I find most soul-satisfying. Bahá’u’lláh, speaking with the voice of God, tells us,

Know ye not why We created you all from the same dust? That no one should exalt himself over the other…. Since We have created you all from one same substance it is incumbent on you to be even as one soul, to walk with the same feet, eat with the same mouth and dwell in the same land…. (The Arabic Hidden Words, #68)

And, from another angle,

The whole duty of man in this Day is to attain that share of the flood of grace which God poureth forth for him. Let none, therefore, consider the largeness or smallness of the receptacle. The portion of some might lie in the palm of a man’s hand, the portion of others might fill a cup, and of others even a gallon-measure. (Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 8 )

And here is His indispensable advice about living our lives:

Be united in counsel, be one in thought. Let each morn be better than its eve and each morrow richer than its yesterday. Man’s merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches. Take heed that your words be purged from idle fancies and worldly desires and your deeds be cleansed from craftiness and suspicion. (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 138)

We are called to a systematic approach to our own improvement:

Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning…            (Baha’u’llah, The Arabic Hidden Words)

If we can make our standards relative to our own selves, then we can see real progress. Am I better than I was yesterday? More patient, more kind, working harder, striving more? Am I acquiring a greater degree of each virtue, skill and field of knowledge? Am I being sincere with those around me? A personal-best approach frees us to move forward, unhindered by the artificial limits of what others choose to do.

How different the world would look if each of us took this as our standard to such a degree that we would find it taught to our children in schools.

Divine Love Story: Birth of a New Revelation

Here is a link to a blog post of mine on the Huffington Post, in honor of the Birth of Baha’u’llah Holy Day.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/laura-weinberg/bahai-revelation-divine-love-story_b_1086896.html

Adrift

A number of years ago, I went rafting. Those who know me will find this hard to believe—I can only say that I was probably trying to impress my future husband, because nothing on God’s green earth could get me into a raft today. Also, it was a very gentle river.

Need I mention that this is a true story? This is not an allegory, though it sounds like one. It actually happened.

A group of nine of us piled into one raft, with other friends in other rafts, and as we set out, our group took on a competitive tenor. We wanted to “get there” before everyone else. We nominated one from our midst to be our leader, someone I’ll call “Solid Experience.” He was the self-proclaimed One Who Had Done It Before.

Poor “Solid Experience” never really stood a chance. He told us, right off the bat, that the most important thing was that we should all paddle our oars at the same time, in sync. I think it was understood, or should have been, that we should all paddle in the same direction. But we did not, God help us; we did no such thing. The eight of us each paddled our own way in our own rhythm, while Solid Experience shouted fruitlessly at us. In the end, we recalled him from his high office; we were sliding through the river sideways and we deemed him inept.

The next unfortunate soul to lead our excursion was elected more for popularity than for experience. “Popular” was well-liked and usually people listened to her. We thought we could get it together if Popular was leading us. But Popular’s charm availed her not; no one would do what she said to do and, actually, she didn’t offer too much useful direction anyway. Plus, Solid Experience was sulking and useless. In the end, as we floated backwards down the river, chuckling and unrepentant, we canned her and chose a new leader.

This time we thought we’d got it right. We elected my good friend “Despot.” Despot had a certain knack for making people obey her. In day-to-day dealings, she was known for getting the job done. By this time we considered personal freedom a luxury—we just wanted to stop going backwards. So Despot got the job. Her tenure was arguably one of the most unsuccessful of all. Solid Experience and Popular were antagonistic to her dictates from the start; her force of personality was not sufficient to rein them in nor those they pulled over to their rebellion. Now we were not only floating backwards downstream, but we were all yelling at each other while we did it.

The hiring and firing of leaders continued and I looked forward to my turn. I thought for sure I could improve things, simply by getting everyone to focus on the task at hand—paddling together and in the same direction. It really shouldn’t have been that hard, it was so self-evident. But my dispensation of “Pragmatism” was short-lived. The masses ignored my good advice and shouted down my moment of leadership.

Eventually, every one of the nine had her or his turn as the boss. Every one of us failed. When we came to the rapids, we avoided upset only by the fact that they really weren’t very rapid—they were more “kind of faster than usuals” rather than “rapids”. Whatever you call them, we went over them, spinning in circles and screaming.

I suppose there may have been more going on than I was aware of at the time: undercurrents (pardon the pun) of tension, resentment, or hostility; maybe some thought the chaos was fun or others were deliberately sabotaging our excursion for private reasons. Anything could have been bubbling away beneath the surface.

At the end of the day, we chuckled over our own incompetence and listed the experience amongst the surprisingly fun adventures we’ve had in our lives. Because it really didn’t matter—the water wasn’t rough, no one got hurt. We went for fun and we’d had fun and that was all that mattered.

This odd little story of my heedless youth illustrates something about power and governance, something that is, unlike a fun day of rafting, significant and potentially alarming. Speaking of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, the Declaration of Independence points out that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” None of our raft leaders garnered the “consent of the governed.” The people refused to obey and naturally the ship of state foundered. Our people had no agreement with each other and refused to support their leaders. Disaster was the outcome. In the end, power is with the people. This puts the onus on us, we the people, to change our own condition. Can we set aside our petty differences, our private agendas, and devote ourselves to our collective well being?

The Bahá’í writings tell us that success in group undertakings can be found only when we work in unity. The Bahá’í concept of unity is not to be confused with some Borg-like hive mind (a Star Trek reference, for those of you who care); we do not seek a condition of society in which the masses blindly obey and walk in lock-step. We seek unity in action, unity in accomplishing something, not a seeming unity of people who pretend to love one another and then go their separate ways.

The Bahá’í writings even speak of this unity in terms of the movement of water:

“What a blessing that will be—when all shall come together, even as once separate torrents, rivers and streams, running brooks and single drops, when collected together in one place will form a mighty sea.” (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 260)

At times it feels as though it were impossible for any true unity to ever be achieved in this world. But if we look carefully we can find it, little trickles of good intent, flowing inexorably in one common direction, blending together in larger and larger bodies as they are drawn by gravity to the low-lying ground of our common humanity.

Compulsion

Here‘s a piece on CNN.com about Iranian students barred from university, based on their political or religious convictions.

It never ceases to boggle my mind that people seek to force others to think in a certain way. The efforts of the Iranian government to shut down opposing views by such punishing ploys is not only thuggish, but also amazingly short-sighted and wrong-headed. When has anyone ever succeeded in forcing another to change their mind? People under duress will certainly fake it, and can do so for generations if need be, but the underlying reality of human conviction will out in the end.

The Baha’i International Community, calling for the release of condemned Christian pastor Youcef Nadarkhani, points out:

“Which temporal government in the world can reasonably decide it has the power to curtail freedom of belief? Belief is not something that can be taken away or bartered; it is a matter of conviction, of the heart, the mind and the soul, beyond the realm of any government’s control.”

Here‘s a link to more info on Pastor Nadarkhani’s peril at the hands of the Iranian government.

Being Religious, Not Just Spiritual

Lately it seems that everywhere I look I stumble across another article detailing how Americans are rushing in droves away from religion and instead defining themselves as “spiritual, but not religious.”

Truly, although I am myself a religious person, I greatly admire the SBNR folks because I see their dedication to the search for meaning as an evidence of the longing for transcendence implanted in the human heart by an all-loving Creator. It brings to mind a story found in my religion, the Bahá’í Faith, about the significance of spiritual search. Bahá’u’lláh, the founder of the Bahá’í Faith, writes of the fabled and mystically symbolic lover, Majnun, who searches tirelessly for his beloved, Layli:

“It is related that one day they came upon Majnun sifting the dust, and his
tears flowing down. They said, ‘What doest thou?’ He said, ‘I seek for Layli.’
They cried, ‘Alas for thee! Layli is of pure spirit, and thou seekest her in the
dust!’ He said, ‘I seek her everywhere; haply somewhere I shall find her.’”

Bahá’u’lláh further comments, tellingly, that “this betokeneth intense ardor in searching.” In fact, the right and obligation of individuals to engage in an unfettered search for truth is one of the cardinal principles of His Faith. So naturally I’m very sympathetic to the efforts of others who seek meaning and ultimate reality. No journey could be more significant.

The respect that is due to those engaged in this process demands, I think, a thoughtful response from those of us who belong in the “religious” category. Therefore, in a spirit of comradeship (because I too have been, and at times still am, a Majnun sifting the dust) I’d like to offer an unabashed rationale for the religious life, per se.

But first, a note on the pronoun I’m using for God. The Bahá’í concept of God asserts that His greatness cannot be contained by His creation, that He is neither male nor female, and far excels the human world. The use of the masculine pronoun to reference Him is a convention and a convenience, not a description.

For me the lure of religiosity arises from belief in God. I believe in a God who is the creator of the universe and all that it contains, who established and operates through natural laws, and loves all that He has created. This great, unknowable Creator has not, in the Bahá’í view, left humanity to struggle along without assistance or guidance. God is not watching us “from a distance” as we bumble around, laying waste to His perfect work. He is close to us, with us, actively intervening in human history, guiding us to our destined future. Religion offers not only a close personal relationship with God, but a sense of common purpose with Him, the hope that somehow our efforts to promote human well-being are in line with His plan. There is a path out of the mess we are in; we need to refer to His guidance to walk it.

I see this as a key difference between religiosity and spirituality. Spirituality can lead to a relationship with God, but religiosity demands the fulfillment of obligations to God. Why is that desirable? Because committing to God changes who we are; we can no longer be what we are automatically, or even what we aspire to; we are obliged to push ourselves beyond that and to find our true selves, the “soul who is pleasing unto God”.

And though it may be tempting to think that we are just fine operating with only individual conscience as our guide, there is plenty of evidence to refute this idea, especially when it comes to our relationships with the rest of humanity. Social relationships are complex and challenging and each person has wishes and agendas that conflict with those of countless others. Through religion, we know our duty is to align our thoughts and actions with God’s plan, not our own.

Many of those who reject religiosity do so for this very reason. They see the destructive power of religion, the ceaseless wars, the lives lost, the civilizations stamped out in the name of God and His plan, and they want no part of it.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Bahá’u’lláh’s son and appointed successor, likewise stated, “If religion becomes a cause of dislike, hatred and division, it were better to be without it, and to withdraw from such a religion would be a truly religious act. For it is clear that the purpose of a remedy is to cure; but if the remedy should only aggravate the complaint it had better be left alone”. What crime could be greater than to appropriate what is God’s, the human heart, and corrupt it by inciting it to hatred and destruction of His creatures?

Of course, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s words are conditional. He says, “if.” We can make the effort to discover those expressions of religious belief that do not fall into this destructive category. This opens for us new possibilities: not only of satisfying our heart’s yearning by responding to the call of God, but also of working with others to build a new society—for it is religion that, through the obligations it imposes on us, gives us the virtues, the necessary tools, to work and live with others. In fact, one of the chief functions of religion, in its constructive form, is to regulate and harmonize human relations. Surely in our day and age this is still relevant and necessary.

Interestingly, fulfillment of our social obligations enables us to partake of a wonderful and challenging gift—to help “build anew the whole world”. We cannot take part by withdrawing from religion. Religion IS the method of God, played out over human history.

Logically, then, if we can accept the theoretical possibility that religion can build and heal the world, we must ask ourselves how we choose, how we recognize God’s purpose, how we know that any religion is good and true.

Once an individual has come to this question, the world is her oyster! Each religion has an abundance of material to be “sifted.” Let us each become like Majnun and search with intense ardor for our Beloved.

Whack-A-Mole

I’m loving Twitter nowadays. I’ve finally figured out how to use it to learn about the things that matter to me–the news of the condition of the whole world. For me that means not just the 24-hour news blather, which tends to perseverate in its coverage of one or two high-ratings topics. I want to know about the water projects in the Africa and the education initiatives in America. I just retweeted something from the UN Foundation on a campaign to end child marriage. THIS is important to me.

But I must confess, scanning the tweets of those I’m following, I feel once again that I’ve embarked on a game of Whack-A-Mole, taking aim at an unending parade of ills in the world, with little accuracy or impact. I want a system-wide approach. We human beings are smart creatures. Can’t we fix this?

Certainly we could if we wanted to. And I believe that is the real hold-up. Despite the amazing work being done by outstanding people all around the world, most of us are too busy with ourselves, too greedy to change the status quo that benefits us, or too eager to protect our prerogative to hold power over others. In my little corner of the world, where most of us are decent people at heart, we secure our own safety and well-being, give with some degree of generosity to charity, and feel that’s all we can do.

We need a bigger change, a shot in the arm, a kick in the pants. This is what religion means to me. It is the voice of the ultimate Authority telling complacent little us that indeed what we are doing is NOT enough, that we can and must do something more, something different. And that the way out of the Whack-A-Mole game is to change our own hearts and to assist our neighbors in their efforts to do the same.

In the end, purifying the human heart is the only solution.

“A mature society demonstrates one feature above all others: a recognition of the oneness of humanity.”

A beautifully conceived and written open letter has been addressed by the Baha’is of Egypt to the people of Egypt. Seeking to offer some bedrock principles to guide the national conversation, the letter expresses unequivocally the necessity of recognizing human oneness and developing sound policies based on that recognition. The letter explores the equality of men and women, the need for equal access to education for all, the harmony of science and religion, and education to eliminate corruption and ensure the spread of economic benefits to all parts of the society.

http://www.bahai-egypt.org/