The eager owner of a new techno-gizmo, I put the packaging aside and started using it. Almost immediately I was frustrated by not knowing how to turn on some of the features.
Just as bad, I realized that I didn’t even know what some of the features were. Then it occurred to me to read the instructions. This may sound silly to some people, but I’m probably not the only one who doesn’t begin by reading the instructions.
Similarly, when I am cooking I don’t follow recipes closely.
In the larger scheme of things, operating a new gadget or cooking a new dish is not important. But in some instances, instructions are important, perhaps even lifesaving. Some of the more obvious ones—traffic law, safety precautions, CPR, first aid, public health guidelines, and sanitation practices—can actually save lives, including our own.
Reading the instructions doesn’t just apply to cooking, cellphones and other mysteries. In our personal lives, we can seek advice and follow instructions through actions such as financial planning, education and training, career counseling, conferring with health professionals, and conducting research. In our communities, we can contribute to the greater good in countless ways by first reading about the community’s history and its response to past issues, and by talking to community leaders.
When it comes to how to live and how to contribute to society, there are instructions for this, too. I can be guided by moral standards as well as religious teachings. As a Baha’i, I accept Baha’u’llah as God’s most recent prophet and messenger. Since Baha’u’llah’s teachings affirm the spiritual truths within other previously established religions, I am in harmony with the followers of these other Faiths.
Emphasizing the importance of religion as an organized body of thought and practice, Baha’u’llah said:
Religion is the greatest of all means for the establishment of order in the world and for the peaceful contentment of all that dwell therein. – The World Order of Baha’u’llah, p. 186.
During my own years as a “seeker”—yes, that’s what I called myself—I was intrigued by the idea of two kinds of truths or principles: spiritual truths, which are unchanging; and social principles, which change, evolve and are revealed over time.
The latter encompass guidance that was not present in earlier Faiths, either because the problems that guidance addresses hadn’t yet occurred, or because humanity was not ready for it. Some of the key Baha’i principles for today’s social issues can be summarized as the equality of men and women; universal education; a worldwide auxiliary language; standard weights and measures; elimination of extremes of wealth and poverty; spiritual solutions to economic problems; authority shifted from clergy to the people; elimination of all forms of prejudice; and the agreement of science and religion.
Now timely, the purpose of these Baha’i social principles is to create the unity of all people. Within the Baha’i Faith, I found the practical steps needed to bring them to reality, even if not within my own lifetime.
When Baha’u’llah first taught these principles in the mid-1800s, they were advanced and even revolutionary for their times, but gradually these ideas are being articulated elsewhere and are gaining acceptance. One especially noteworthy example is the United Nations document The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (written in 1948). We needn’t go beyond the Preamble to find statements that are consistent with the principles listed above:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people,
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law,
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations … – from the Preamble of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Regrettably, even in the parts of the world generally labeled “developed” we fail to read these instructions, and fall short of fulfilling many of these principles. Indeed, nowhere in the world are people free from power struggles and social injustices. How much more is this the case in countries and regions where tyranny, prejudice, and injustice are the prevailing conditions? If we regard these principles as instructions for building a peaceful, harmonious and just society, then we can work toward taking them from theory to practice.
In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
So the next time I buy something, I might read the instructions first—or maybe not. What is more important, though, is that I follow the instructions for living a good life. Here’s one instruction I can use every day: I can ask myself “What can I do today to promote unity?” With the answer in mind, I’ll know what to do.
This series of essays comes from Jaellayna Palmer’s newly-published book, Personal Path, Practical Feet.