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.