For, in this religion no other command is as rigorously enjoined as the duty of refinement, and it is forbidden that one bring any object into being in a state of imperfection when one hath the power to manifest it in full perfection.

For example, should one build an edifice and fail to elevate it to the utmost state of perfection possible for it, there would be no moment in the life of that edifice when angels would not beseech God to torment him; nay, rather, all the atoms of that edifice would do the same.

For each thing, within its own station, yearneth to attain unto the utmost height of excellence in its own level. – The Báb, (verse from the Persian Bayan) The Gate of the Heart, p. 317.

As a kid reading my fortune cookie, “You have a yearning for perfection,” in a Chinese restaurant where my father took my family out to dinner, I realized I now had a “yearning for perfection.” The oracle said so!

Never, in my wildest imagination, did I ever think that an inanimate thing could somehow have a “yearning for perfection.” That’s impossible. After all, a “thing” can’t think. A “thing” can’t have a “yearning for perfection.” Or can it?

So imagine how surprised and astonished I was when first told of the Bab’s teaching, in the opening quote above.

As a new Baha’i in the 1970s, I anxiously wanted to learn anything and everything I could about the Baha’i teachings. I read all the books available in English. I yearned to learn more.

So I sought out Baha’is who could read the Writings of the Báb and Baha’u’llah (co-founders of the Baha’i Faith) in the original Persian and Arabic languages. That’s when I first learned of the Báb’s teaching about excellence.

Excellence, refinement, perfection — as ethical values — are nothing new. But the Báb’s way of expressing this ethic took me by surprise.

How? You see, I was an aspiring poet. (Not a very good one—which is why I’m not a poet today.) And I had a poetry nightmare.

I had written two unfinished poems. I worked hard on them. Finally, after reaching a point of utter frustration, I gave up on them. But the poems would not leave me alone!

Like ghosts — disembodied spirits — the abandoned poems began to haunt me. These “free verse” works languished in abeyance, anguished in oblivion, suffered death by silence.

Then, one night soon after, I had that nightmare. The two poems took shape. The fraternal literary twins began to move. Fuzzy at first, they shape-shifted. Slowly, they transmogrified. Before my very eyes, the poems came alive. Here’s one of the poems:

Lunula (fingernail tale)

a white sun
in a pink sky
is set
into the flesh of her thumb

as she looks
across her fingers
the sun descends
and is gone.

-Christopher Buck (1972)

Now endowed with personality, my artistic creations took on a life of their own. They became animals. Small, furry creatures. Immature, yet very much alive. The inert became alert — feral, disgruntled, nightmarish.

Suddenly, these living creatures — the embodiments of my lifeless poems — began to stir. They saw me. They recognized me. They peered up. They stared. Their beady eyes glowered. Sheeny fur bristling with primal spleen. Teeth bared. Scary.

Rankled, they snapped at my ankle. They bit hard. WOWCH! That’s when I woke up, startled and shocked.

That’s when I realized, in a mystical dream, the truth of the Báb’s teaching. I realized that if I didn’t strive to bring my literary creations to their perfection, then somehow the “angels would … beseech God to torment” me, and, to make matters worse, “nay, rather, all the atoms of that [thing] … would do the same.”

Yes, poems are things. They can’t think. But somehow, a thing made exists independently of its maker. In other words, any lifeless “thing” that we create — whether artistically or functionally — takes on a “life of its own.”

My subjective dream taught me an objective reality: “Perfecting” your work means appreciating the fact that whatever you create should be your absolute best, especially if other people might somehow benefit by your work.

So the Protestant work ethic — i.e. maximizing productivity, which is at the heart of capitalism — is not enough. The Baha’i work ethic praises quality, not quantity. It exalts craftsmanship.

This is one of the meanings of the Baha’i principle of “work as worship,” as expressed by Abdu’l-Baha:

In this universal dispensation man’s wondrous craftsmanship is reckoned as worship of the Resplendent Beauty. Consider what a bounty and blessing it is that craftsmanship is regarded as worship. …

It behoveth the craftsmen of the world … to exert their highest endeavour and diligently pursue their professions so that their efforts may produce that which will manifest the greatest beauty and perfection before the eyes of all men. — Selections From the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 145.

The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the author only and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of BahaiTeachings.org or any institution of the Baha’i Faith.

3 Comments

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  • James Howden
    Oct 14, 2013
    You understood me well, sir. "Getting it out there" as an expression of "perfection" -- I like it! This is why I have taken my mother's (too) often-repeated "if a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well" and mentally changed the ending to "it's worth getting done". Kudos on getting "Lunula" out there. It's an evocative little slice. I like it, too. All this reminds me of a story told of Baha'u'llah, in which two of the things most loved by Him were (something like) "those who carry out a task to its completion" and seeing faces "wreathed in smiles", ...which surely are related outcomes! Thanks.
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  • Christopher Buck PhD JD
    Oct 14, 2013
    James: Thanks for your comment and insight. Yes, I agree that trying to do our very best should be done in moderation. Good point! Hence the truth of the proverb, "The perfect is the enemy of the good." Perfectionism, after all, can be an obsession that can paralyze. Perhaps when the Bab writes of "the power to manifest it in full perfection," the work of art (or whatever the project) needs to be completed by being published, rather than suffer a death by silence. In other words, "perfection" may be as much about how a work of art (etc.) works ...-- that is, how it functions (or if it functions), as much as its intrinsic excellence. A perfectly executed work of art will still be imperfect if no one can see it and appreciate it. Speaking of which, please note the poem, "Lunula," posted above, which was not posted 15 hours ago when you posted! That is also a lesson -- carried out today, in fact -- in perfecting without perfectionism. My thanks to David Langness (Managing Editor) and Sahab Mahboubi (Director of Operations) for their role in perfecting "Perfecting Your Work" by publishing. "Lunula," along with David's companion piece, "Baha’i Principles – Work, Nobility and Worship" (posted today as well).
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  • James Howden
    Oct 14, 2013
    Ah, the writer cringes! Sometimes shackled by perfectionism, this one needs to consider Professor Buck's post (and the Bab's soaring call to, hmm, to do our *best* is my mundane translation) in the context of other teachings, including the need for moderation (never comes easy, for me), the imperative to "not dwell on the unpleasant things of life" (easier said), and the call to contentment and "a tranquil conscience" (what a paradox between spiritual tranquillity and the straining of "every nerve to acquire...perfections"!). I would need more than one lifetime!
    By the way, CB, the poetic wordsmithing, the obvious affection ...for language in your posts is attractive. Poetry didn't end.
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