When I was a child, the entertainment highlight of my week was going to the movies. One film in particular would become life-altering for me, although I didn’t appreciate it at the time.
The movie—I paid little attention to its title—was based on the real-life experiences of an American soldier in World War II, who was captured and thrown into a very brutal prisoner-of-war camp somewhere in South East Asia. On arriving at this prison, he was confined to a dark, narrow and windowless cell, to live in solitary confinement under the harshest of conditions with no hope of release. He could see nothing, hear nothing, do nothing. The only relief occurred once a day when a guard would push a meager ration of food and water through the partially opened doorway. Other captives who had experienced this harsh treatment in the past had found it intolerable and suffered tremendously until some begged for release, whilst others lost their minds from the effects of isolation and despair.
At first the soldier was immobilized with shock and helplessness over his capture and imprisonment. Then, after taking in the circumstances of his confinement, he began in desperation to think of some way to escape. Time passed without relief, and gradually the impossibility of his situation became overwhelmingly, agonizingly apparent. Futility began to take its toll, and he abandoned himself to an overpowering sense of hopelessness and depression. Believing that only death could bring an end to his suffering he hoped that his life might end, yet in the cell he lacked even the means to take his own life.
Eventually, after the passage of long and miserable time, the prisoner began to resign himself to his surroundings. He recognized that he must either find some purpose in his captivity, or he would go crazy. He began to search for anything that could help make his circumstances endurable. Before war broke out, this man had lived a life that was very full and useful. He had been trained as an architect, and was employed to design both private homes and great public buildings. He was used to being busy, and was a well-respected member of his community where he contributed a great deal.
After long and careful consideration of his situation, the man decided to set himself a regular personal program, just like the schedule he had followed in the context of any fruitful working day, back when he was a free man. He decided to spend some part of every day doing exercises to keep his body healthy, and to spend another part of each day keeping his brain constructively occupied by designing buildings in his mind. The only tools he had were his memory and his imagination.
Consequently, in the restricted space of the cell, he daily put himself through a thorough exercise program, designed to develop every part of his body. At other times, he would sit motionless in a meditative state while, in his mind’s eye, he began to imagine and plan buildings he would like to build, committing the precise details of each such as measurements, materials and quantities to memory.
In this way months turned into years whilst the man continued to keep himself profitably occupied, creating his own disciplined and purposeful world of meaning and accomplishment.
Eventually, after what to any other person would have been an intolerably long confinement, the prison camp was liberated and all the prisoners released. Not only had this extraordinary man survived an experience which had destroyed many others, he returned to his home town and was able to build the exact designs which he had developed in his cell.
My memory of the example of this man, who solely by the choice of his thoughts transformed an ordeal of utter deprivation into a constructive and purposeful experience, had been powerful enough to convince me, even as a young girl, that a person’s reality is not determined by their circumstances, but by how they choose to perceive them, and consequently how they choose to respond.
I understood that in all the most important ways, we shape our own reality when we choose how to respond to life events. In the book Paris Talks, Abdu’l-Baha explained:
The reality of man is his thought, not his material body. The thought force and the animal force are partners. Although man is part of the animal creation, he possesses a power of thought superior to all other created beings. – p. 17.
Later when confronted by various crises in my life, I would recall the movie and recognize in that new situation an opportunity to put my long-ago childhood realization into practice. But mere thoughts alone, I learned, are insufficient if not accompanied by action:
If a man’s thought is constantly aspiring towards heavenly subjects then does he become saintly; if on the other hand his thought does not soar, but is directed downwards to center itself upon the things of this world, he grows more and more material until he arrives at a state little better than that of a mere animal.
Thoughts are a boundless sea, and the effects and varying conditions of existence are as the separate forms and individual limits of the waves; not until the sea boils up will the waves rise and scatter their pearls of knowledge on the shore of life. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 109-110.
Modern psychologists like Paulo Coelho maintain that you are what you believe yourself to be. Abdu’l-Baha quoted Rumi when he advised “Thou, Brother, art thy thought alone, The rest is only thew and bone.”
Thinking describes a process of reflection, meditation and consideration. To believe is to hold true something for which we don’t have any proof. If there is any evidence of the truth of something, we don’t say that we believe, but that we know.
Therefore Baha’is are required to regularly call themselves to account. In this way, we initiate an ongoing habit of reviewing our acquired knowledge and rejecting the danger of unexamined and potentially false beliefs. Ultimately, all our knowledge and wisdom is of no use if it fails to be borne out in reality and action. The Baha’i teachings draw our attention to the need to make efforts to develop our thought and then demonstrate in action our God-given potential:
All that which ye potentially possess can, however, be manifested only as a result of your own volition. Your own acts testify to this truth. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 149.