When we read the Baha’i writings, we come to the conclusion that service to humanity fulfills our highest spiritual calling:
That one indeed is a man who, today, dedicateth himself to the service of the entire human race. The Great Being saith: Blessed and happy is he that ariseth to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 250.
All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. – Ibid., p. 215.
With the utmost friendliness and in a spirit of perfect fellowship take ye counsel together, and dedicate the precious days of your lives to the betterment of the world and the promotion of the Cause of Him Who is the Ancient and Sovereign Lord of all. – Ibid., p. 183.
So what does it take to make service to humanity one of our most important priorities?
We can consider that living a life of service to society has two major implications: first, it means that service is present in all the dimensions of our existence, and secondly, it implies that activites which directly aim at contributing to the betterment of the world occupy an important place in our lives.
Let’s think about the first implication. Service to others is more than an activity we do in addition to many others—it is a spirit we can infuse in all our actions, and the purpose we can give to all our endeavours. When we wonder “should I serve, or should I study?”, “should I advance materially or contribute to the betterment of others?”, “should I pursue work or become dedicated to service?”, we are making false choices, which are the enemies of a coherent and integrated life, because we lose sight of the fact that in reality, we can serve humanity in all the various contexts where we interact with others—in our studies, work, family, leisure and so on.
For example, the Baha’i writings place great emphasis on the importance of working in a spirit of service; when performed in this way, work may be seen as an act of worship:
…all effort and exertion put forth by man from the fullness of his heart is worship, if it is prompted by the highest motives and the will to do service to humanity. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 176-177.
To take another example, in the context of family, the husband and wife dedicate themselves to building a “fortress for well-being” where they both serve each other and serve humanity together. Moreover, the Baha’i teachings say, “among the greatest of all services that can possibly be rendered by man to Almighty God is the education and training of children.” – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 133.
So putting service at the center of our lives doesn’t mean that we set aside other aspects of our lives, but rather that service is the pivot around which everything else gravitates, “a fixed centre of [our] earthly existence, a lens through which all actions come into focus …” – The Universal House of Justice, 29 December 2015. This kind of dedication enables us to live a coherent life—a life where each dimension reinforces and is reinforced by the others.
Striving to serve humanity in all the dimensions of our lives is not a small task, but is it the only meaning of living a life of service? In other words, is it “enough” (though already huge) to be a good professional, a good student, a good husband/wife/parent, a good friend, in order to live a life of service?
When the Baha’i writings say that we should arise “to promote the best interests of the peoples and kindreds of the earth,” what do they mean? One way we can understand this is to strive to achieve God’s purpose for humanity: the unification of the human race in a single family. The Baha’i writings encourage us to work for the promotion and the construction of unity:
O ye friends of God! Exert ye with heart and soul, so that association, love, unity and agreement be obtained between the hearts, all the aims may be merged into one aim, all the songs become one song and the power of the Holy Spirit may become so overwhelmingly victorious as to overcome all the forces of the world of nature. Exert yourselves; your mission is unspeakably glorious. – Abdu’l-Baha, Tablets of the Divine Plan, p. 79.
Accomplishing this “unspeakably glorious mission” requires conscious effort oriented towards the spiritual transformation of individuals and society. There are many different ways one can contribute to this enterprise. Some are very simple and others are more complex; for example, sharing a prayer with a friend, hosting a devotional meeting, visiting neighbors to have loving, meaningful conversations, teaching children about spiritual qualities, assisting youth to reinforce the moral structures that will help them make right choices throughout their lives, facilitating a study circle to reflect on the teachings of God and on their implications in our lives. This is not an exhaustive list, but all these are service activities which contribute very directly to the betterment of the world, because they enable us to build unity in our communities and help them progress spiritually.
The good news is that being part of this adventure is an incredible source of growth, joy and blessings of many kinds. The bad news is that it requires time, and sometimes, freeing time demands sacrifice.
However, service and sacrifice both hold a remarkable secret—they increase our joy: “He who has reached the state of self-sacrifice has true joy. Temporal joy will vanish.” – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 179.
As we engage in this path, we progressively realize that what we used to call sacrifice is not worthy of the name anymore, especially in comparison with the benefits we derive from serving.
In the next essay, we will discuss the question of time management—living a life of service is indeed a question of attitude and priorities, but it also requires us to learn how to be in control of our time.