When we encounter any kind of difficulty in life, we always have to make a choice. Are we going to try to solve it? Or are we going to try to carry on in spite of it?
Let’s say, for example, that a friend says or does something hurtful. You feel injured by what that friend said—but how do you respond? Do you confront him, or do you keep your pain inside and say nothing?
It’s impossible to always do one and never the other. We cannot solve every problem, and we cannot endure every difficulty either. In every case, it takes wisdom to know which one to pursue.
These difficulties often involve the words and behavior of specific people we encounter. When that happens, do we speak directly to them about it—or do we make it our duty to accept their actions, even if we feel they’re wrong? Either course has moral value in the right times and under the right conditions.
No single way of responding always works. One approach urges us to rectify every fault and injustice with the greatest urgency and vigor; while the other approach urges us to respond to every pain and discomfort by making our inner life more tolerant of pain and discomfort. A holistic way of thinking acknowledges that wisdom employs a variety of methods to achieve happiness and well-being for the individual and society.
Within the context of these ideas, let’s review the Baha’i commandment against backbiting:
O Son of Man! Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command, accursed wouldst thou be, and to this I bear witness. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 10.
This passage from the Baha’i teachings raises a question. How are we supposed to move the community we belong to from blameworthy toward praiseworthy behavior if we never speak of one another’s shortcomings? We can still speak of our own faults. But obviously, if somebody doesn’t think there’s anything wrong with their own behavior, he or she won’t ever talk about it as such. This suggests that in order to be rectified, somebody else may have to say something.
The Baha’i writings are quite clear that we should not speak casually about the faults of others when they are not present, especially if it is in a way that attacks their character. So what are we supposed to do?
- Be humble, and know that we are in the presence of God. When we consistently strive to have this kind of consciousness, the love of God can spill over into our feelings toward other people.
If any differences arise amongst you, behold Me standing before your face, and overlook the faults of one another for My name’s sake and as a token of your love for My manifest and resplendent Cause. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 15.
Humility is also really important if anyone points out our own faults. None of us are perfect, and few people expect us to be. They’re mainly just hoping we’re willing to change our ways if it becomes clear that we need some work.
- Meditate on our spiritual duties—and on our own shortcomings.
Spiritual well-being involves so many different qualities and behaviors that it can be useful from time to time to take stock of what God expects of us. We know we must be truthful. We must seek justice. We must be generous and kind. When our minds are occupied with other people’s faults, it’s easy to lose sight of the big picture—so consciously work on maintaining a wide spiritual perspective. Mostly, when you see faults in others, think of how you rectify your own faults:
… search out your own imperfections and not think of the imperfections of anybody else. Strive with all your power to be free from imperfections. Heedless souls are always seeking faults in others. What can the hypocrite know of others’ faults when he is blind to his own? … As long as a man does not find his own faults, he can never become perfect. Nothing is more fruitful for man than the knowledge of his own shortcomings. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 244.
When Baha’is have difficulty with someone else’s words or actions, the Baha’i teachings recommend consulting about that issue with the Local Spiritual Assembly, an elected body of nine Baha’is in every community. Consultation is kept confidential, and doesn’t result in rumors or the spreading of backbiting and innuendo. As part of that consultation, the Local Assembly can help individuals undertake a serious attempt to deal with the problem, and help with advice and counsel, as well, all conducted with the utmost love and respect:
Man must consult on all matters, whether major or minor, so that he may become cognizant of what is good. Consultation giveth him insight into things and enableth him to delve into questions which are unknown. – Abdu’l-Baha, from a tablet to an individual Baha’i.
- Finally, say it to their face.
If someone injures us with word or deed, we don’t have to say everything, but we should be able to say something. As long as it’s said with humility, with a wide spiritual perspective, and in a spirit of consultation, the conversation may go somewhere. When this kind of open, frank conversation happens, together we might walk a path of transformation.