We all look at the news and see disaster after disaster. We see the world becoming more and more dangerous, polluted and divided into extremes of wealth and poverty. Those disasters can make us feel powerless to change the tide of darkness. But Baha’is believe there is hope—we are optimistic about the future, and understand that people can personally bring about a better world.
How? Baha’is try to make virtue a goal. For Baha’is, the development of a virtuous character is the first step in alleviating the disasters humanity faces:
If in this day a soul shall act according to the precepts and the counsels of God, he will serve as a divine physician to mankind… – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 23.
The solutions the Baha’i Faith offers to problems of the world are diverse and varied—but one of the most fundamental involves the age old wisdom of changing ourselves as a primary way to change the world. To this end, the Baha’i teachings emphasize the importance of character and deeds:
Let your thoughts be fixed upon that which will rehabilitate the fortunes of mankind and sanctify the hearts and souls of men. This can best be achieved through pure and holy deeds, through a virtuous life and a goodly behavior. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, pp. 93-94.
How can a good character transform the world?
Most directly, a noble character exerts influence through expression in goodly deeds—for deeds truly prove character. A kind character expresses itself through acts of kindness, such as caring for an injured animal. A generous character manifests itself in giving to the poor. A peaceful character produces peace by resolving conflicts. Character and deeds are interlinked, for deeds are the proof of character, the outer manifestation of human virtue.
This can be explained in terms of being and doing. Living a spiritual life means concentrating on both having a heightened state of being and on acting in the field of service to others.
How does this affect change? Like ripples in a pond, a pure character, through deeds, will have influential outreaching benefits on our family, community, and society—and naturally, in these globalized times, on the whole world. A parent’s noble character and deeds are absorbed by the children they raise. Friends pass on their positive attributes to each other when they spend time together. Work colleagues collaborate on a higher plain and inspire one another. Strangers on the street interact with each other and watch out for others. When voting for a leader, citizens pay more attention to the noble and altruistic policies leaders promote, rather than being mesmerized by hype. And likewise, a business tycoon, provided he or she is driven by an altruistic desire, can also have a positive impact on the world.
Even when we are not doing something virtuous for the world, we can still influence it by our very being. When we draw closer to God our souls are exalted, and our hearts enlightened. This manifests itself in a radiant countenance, which means having a character that exudes spirit. Even if an enlightened, spiritual and virtuous person is not doing something noble at the moment, just the power of their presence is enough to affect others.
Character itself can have an impact on the world—we can influence others with the transformative power of our characters alone. However, it is possible to fool people with false character—there are many instances of spiritual leaders who seemed to be spiritual, but who in fact were not. These people put on a spiritual persona in order to win a gathering of followers. These false gurus, usually starry-eyed and calm-voiced, have no deeds to back up that false persona.
That’s why we ordinary folk need deeds to back up our words.
It sounds too simple to be true: character and deeds can change the world. Instead of searching endlessly for complex and extravagant ways to save the world, or giving up altogether to contribute to a better future, we can start by purifying ourselves, refining our character and performing good deeds—on a daily basis. This fundamental first step will allow us to progress to more complex ways of serving humankind. But if we skip this first step, any endeavor we undertake will fail.