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A contradiction surrounds us. On the one hand, we have widespread global confusion about the direction society should go, the methods that will get us there, and the values that are most important.
At the same time, when people talk about the condition of society, some make it sound like they have all the answers. The world would be a much better place if only everyone else listened to them, they say. There are millions of different points of view—and we are repeatedly led to believe that one is right and all the others are wrong.
These two realities exist alongside each other, and they’re rarely resolved into anything that makes sense. So let’s try to make some sense out of all this by considering the personal qualities that help us respond better to the questions facing us as a society.
Let’s first consider humility, that wonderful inner quality. Humility frees us from the psychological need to place ourselves above others. It clears the air of the self-deception that leads to self-certainty. It deflates anxiety about not being admired by others. Baha’u’llah, the founder of the Baha’i Faith, even writes that we can taste its “sweetness:”
Beseech ye the one true God to grant that ye may taste the savor of such deeds as are performed in His path, and partake of the sweetness of such humility and submissiveness as are shown for His sake. Forget your own selves, and turn your eyes towards your neighbor. Bend your energies to whatever may foster the education of men. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah p. 9.
In this passage, Baha’u’llah weaves together four themes: devotion to God, humility, pursuit of the truth, and action. They stand together and support each other like the four legs of a table.
When we recognize the depth of God’s love and the transforming power of His guidance, it can settle our minds into a peace and calm that inclines our hearts towards expressions of kindness. The intense egotistical focus on self evaporates. The faces of others, their voices, needs and joys become clearer. Humility before God reappears as humility before our neighbors. At this point, the humble soul stands ready to listen.
The extreme preference for speaking over listening is an illness in the world today—despite the fact that those who have truly listened to others are the ones with the most worthwhile words to say.
The humility Baha’u’llah praises is not passivity, and not weakness on behalf of truth. It is a posture well-suited for the detached discovery of truth. Baha’u’llah says:
No man shall attain the shores of the ocean of true understanding except he be detached from all that is in heaven and on earth. – The Book of Certitude, p. 3.
When we let go of and detach ourselves from what we think we already know, the mind opens, ready for true conversation:
Show forbearance and benevolence and love to one another. Should anyone among you be incapable of grasping a certain truth, or be striving to comprehend it, show forth, when conversing with him, a spirit of extreme kindliness and goodwill. Help him to see and recognize the truth, without esteeming yourself to be, in the least, superior to him, or to be possessed of greater endowments. – Ibid., p. 8.
There is an energy to this description that speaks to the courage of pursuing truth with humility. Baha’u’llah refuses the false choice between disengagement and noisy disagreement. He praises the loving pursuit of the truth humbly undertaken by equals.
Beyond this, though, it’s important that our points of view undergo the test of reality. For this reason, action has to follow discussion:
Of all men the most negligent is he that disputeth idly and seeketh to advance himself over his brother. Say, O brethren! Let deeds, not words, be your adorning. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, pp. 23-24.
One of the key words in this quote is “idly.” Not only does such a person argue and try to appear dominant over someone else—he does so in a posture of passivity. He has no action to speak of; just his boasts and inflated claims. In contrast, Baha’u’llah calls on us all to value the performance of deeds. The concrete change that action brings about will sort out truth from error far more effectively than contention and strife limited to mere words.
Those are the four legs of this table: devotion to God, humility, pursuit of the truth, and action. They are not the answer to this or that particular challenge humanity faces. But they do provide a spiritual framework for advancing the public conversation around real issues. With their assistance, we can strive to clear the air of the argument, arrogance and contentiousness that obscure our vision of the future.