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.