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Like water flowing down a valley into the river below, our eyes and minds can hardly keep away from our phones, computers, and other devices with screens.
The seemingly irresistible attraction of the electronic glow pulls us in and holds us there. Even when surrounded by loved ones and by opportunities to improve ourselves and live life to the fullest, still even then, we give cheap online pleasures our primary attention.
It used to just be a nuisance. But as dependency on devices borders on addiction, and leads to more extreme behavior, our dysfunctional relationships with information technology are fast developing into a spiritual crisis enveloping society as a whole.
Is there no way out? Is this as good as it gets? A rising groundswell in society today says no. Even though we’re not quite sure how, or what it might look or feel like, a growing movement of disaffected users feels that a better way of living is possible. Our direct experience of our surroundings and the people near to us can be the basis for a fuller, more rounded happiness.
So what do the Baha’i teachings have to say about this?
That’s not an easy question to answer. Writing over a century ago, the central figures of the Baha’i Faith did not have phones and computers. Consulting the writings of the Baha’i Faith on screen addiction is not like doing a Google search. The first things that pop up may not appear directly relevant. But the universal character of the Baha’i writings enables readers to find meaning and guidance that may not be explicit in the message’s original context.
I’ve selected four quotations from the writings of Baha’u’llah I feel in my heart are relevant to today’s struggle for a healthy relationship with information technology. I don’t in any way think that these are the most important passages on the matter. These were just the ones that spoke to me and seemed endowed with great power as I was giving the issue some thought one evening. Take from them whatever wisdom you see. If there are any passages not included here that speak particularly to your heart, please share them in the comments.
The first comes from Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah. It speaks to the joy that can come from bringing spiritual enkindlement into our relationships with others:
How sad if any man were, in this Day, to rest his heart on the transitory things of this world! Arise, and cling firmly to the Cause of God. Be most loving one to another. Burn away, wholly for the sake of the Well-Beloved, the veil of self with the flame of the undying Fire, and with faces joyous and beaming with light, associate with your neighbor. –Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 316.
The second comes from Baha’u’llah’s landmark book on the spiritual journey, The Seven Valleys. Often, we turn to our devices because we feel bored with what’s around us. In this passage Baha’u’llah described a spiritual seeker who finds opportunities for divine happiness everywhere:
On this journey the traveler abideth in every land and dwelleth in every region. In every face, he seeketh the beauty of the Friend; in every country he looketh for the Beloved. He joineth every company, and seeketh fellowship with every soul, that haply in some mind he may uncover the secret of the Friend, or in some face he may behold the beauty of the Loved One. – Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 7.
The third comes from one of Baha’u’llah’s letters to the prominent Zoroastrian leader Manikchi Sahib. When we’re absorbed in our devices, our scope for taking action to improve society can shrink down to merely talking about things on social media. In this passage, Baha’u’llah wrote about the transformative power of God’s light and the necessity of deeds for attaining true, lasting satisfaction:
At a time when darkness had encompassed the world, the ocean of divine favour surged and His Light was made manifest, that the doings of men might be laid bare. This, verily, is that Light which hath been foretold in the heavenly scriptures. Should the Almighty so please, the hearts of all men will be purged and purified through His goodly utterance, and the light of unity will shed its radiance upon every soul and revive the whole earth.
O people! Words must be supported by deeds, for deeds are the true test of words. Without the former, the latter can never quench the thirst of the yearning soul, nor unlock the portals of vision before the eyes of the blind. – Baha’u’llah, The Tabernacle of Unity, pp. 8-9.
The fourth comes from Baha’u’llah’s Tablet of Wisdom. For me it’s always been a general description of a life well-lived and an inspiring call to spiritual excellence:
Strive to be shining examples unto all mankind, and true reminders of the virtues of God amidst men. He that riseth to serve My Cause should manifest My wisdom, and bend every effort to banish ignorance from the earth. Be united in counsel, be one in thought. Let each morn be better than its eve and each morrow richer than its yesterday. Man’s merit lieth in service and virtue and not in the pageantry of wealth and riches. Take heed that your words be purged from idle fancies and worldly desires and your deeds be cleansed from craftiness and suspicion. Dissipate not the wealth of your precious lives in the pursuit of evil and corrupt affection, nor let your endeavors be spent in promoting your personal interest. Be generous in your days of plenty, and be patient in the hour of loss. Adversity is followed by success and rejoicings follow woe. Guard against idleness and sloth, and cling unto that which profiteth mankind, whether young or old, whether high or low. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 138.
The evening I brought together these quotations, my wife and I had just sung prayers to our son as he lay in bed waiting to fall asleep. The lights were low. The mood was peaceful. In the past this bedtime session might have seemed commonplace and unremarkable. Today, though, the intimate personal connections it created feel charged with possibilities for a new, more spiritually enkindled era to come.