When I became a Baha’i, I fell in love with the joy, radiance, cheerfulness and humor that Abdu’l-Baha personified.
For Baha’is, Abdu’l-Baha represents the true example of how to be a Baha’i. Despite his incredibly hard life–exile, hunger, deprivation, extreme poverty and decades of imprisonment for teaching the Baha’i principles–Abdu’l-Baha was known the world over for his radiant happiness. How did he do it?
He earned his joy the hard way. Abdu’l-Baha spent forty years in exile and prison, then travelled the globe advocating peace and unity, became a world-famous activist, speaker and writer, was knighted by the British Empire for his service to the poor and spent his life spreading the progressive Baha’i teachings all over the world.
But despite all that serious work, or maybe because of it, he was deeply and profoundly and delightfully joyful. He personified joy with his radiant smile, his playful, ready laughter, his constant, simple, penetrating question–“Are you happy?”–to those he met.
Abdu’l-Baha said that achieving true happiness means catching a spark of the divine:
If a man become touched with the divine spark, even though he be an outcast and oppressed, he will be happy and his happiness cannot die. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 57.
“… even though he be an outcast and oppressed …”—that made sense to me. After spending a decade of my life around great comedians, I slowly realized that each one of them had definitely been outcast and oppressed. They had all suffered deeply, and then found ways to transmute pain into glee, their comedy rising up out of their suffering the same way a lotus flower grows in a swamp. They all knew and lived the old saying: “Comedy equals tragedy plus time.”
Abdu’l-Baha’s tragic suffering did not produce bitterness or cynicism or depression, though. Because it fulfilled a purpose, a divine cause, he transmuted it into love, into radiance, into joy:
I was happy that—praise be to God!—I was a prisoner in the Cause of God, that my life was not wasted, that it was spent in the divine service. Nobody who saw me imagined that I was in prison. They beheld me in the utmost joy, complete thankfulness and health, paying no attention to the prison. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 224.
So what, I wondered, makes us truly happy? What gives us the deep and permanent basis for a happy life? Abdu’l-Baha said true happiness can only come from the life of the spirit:
As to spiritual happiness, this is the true basis of the life of man because life is created for happiness, not for sorrow; for pleasure, not for grief. Happiness is life; sorrow is death. Spiritual happiness is life eternal. This is a light which is not followed by darkness. This is an honour which is not followed by shame. This is a life that is not followed by death. This is an existence that is not followed by annihilation. This great blessing and precious gift is obtained by man only through the guidance of God.
Spiritual happiness is light, while sorrow is darkness.
This happiness is glad-tidings, while sorrow is disappointment.
This happiness is the Kingdom while sorrow is the earthly world.
This happiness is life, while sorrow is non-existence.
This happiness is the fundamental basis from which man is created, worlds are originated, the contingent beings have existence and the world of God appears like unto the appearance of the sun at mid-day.
This happiness is but the love of God.
This happiness is but the eternal might the brilliant traces of which are shining forth, unto the temples of unity.
Were it not for this happiness the world of existence would not have been created. – Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 4, p. 163.
With Abdu’l-Baha’s life as an example, I decided to try really hard to be happy.