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I beseech Thee… to make of my prayer a fire that will burn away the veils which have shut me out from Thy beauty, and a light that will lead me unto the ocean of Thy Presence. – Baha’u’llah, Baha'i Prayers, p. 7.You may ask: how can we tell the difference between true and false selves? Especially if we’ve had more practice paying heed to the doubting inner voices than to the “angels of our better nature”? Given many people’s early experiences with harsh or painful environments and relationships, we often spend years living under the oppressive rule of self-untruth and self-martyrdom. The Baha'i teachings tell us that even the worst oppressor has many chances at redemption:
…forsake the inner land of unreality for thy true station, and dwell within the shadow of the tree of knowledge. – Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 28.Each person experiences the dawning of a new consciousness differently. For some, it comes suddenly, perhaps catalyzed by a major life event. For many, challenging oppressive inner self-rule takes years of heartbreaking, heart-opening struggle. As I get older, I have more and more conversations with brave souls who constantly engage in this “truing” of self. Some find support in books, therapy, friendships, or service. Most people committed to this work learn they need quiet, centering time in order to sift through the barrage of mental messages—to find those hidden grains of sweet divinity. The more we practice this inner reassurance, the lighter and less besieged our bodies and minds become. By realizing that a word like martyr has both negative and positive aspects, we can choose to align ourselves with its constructive energies. In this way, we can heal our tendency as humans to torture ourselves and the people we care about. True martyrs do not kill others in the name of God. Nor do they berate themselves in the name of “perfection.” Instead, they use the medium of thought and reflection to work through anxieties, whether personal or systemic, like the deep fears that cause racism, xenophobia, and religious hatred. Real, positive martyrs remember and bear witness to our shared humanity. In a powerful Baha’i tablet written by Baha’u’llah, each sincere suppliant is promised “the reward of a hundred martyrs and a service in both worlds.” I’ve meditated on this line for years and years, wondering how a single person could go through a hundred martyrdoms, and what kind of spiritual “reward” that passage could possibly allude to. Perhaps, going back to metaphoric martyrdom, this promise refers in part to the countless false selves we must pierce before we catch a glimpse of our true inner being. And the reward? Maybe it’s the freedom and grace to become active participants in our human struggle for unity and peace.