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We’re surrounded by pessimistic cynicism.
Have you noticed?
I did, the other day, when I mentioned to someone I know and respect—an activist who works for social justice–that I had some hope for the world. The positive developments I cited–recent international agreements on climate change; the fact that many millions of Americans who didn’t have health care coverage now do; the successful drive for marital equality; the enormous outpouring of racial unity, forgiveness and goodwill post-Emanuel AME massacre; the rapidly-diminishing number of people killed in wars—didn’t strike my friend the same way they did me.
Instead, he tried to tell me what was wrong with all those things. The agreements weren’t sufficient, the health insurance didn’t include everyone, bigotry, racial hatred and war still exists, he countered. On top of that, he said, our elected officials are corrupt; our entire system is driven by money; the whole world is going to hell in a handbasket. None of the constructive developments I mentioned measured up to his standards, I guess. He sounded bitter and angry and pessimistic and deeply cynical.
So many people seem wedded to that deeply cynical view of the world these days.
I can understand it—sometimes, the world does seem hapless and hopeless. But I know you’ve heard the old cliché: the perfect is the enemy of the good. In this case, my friend’s bitterness seemed to poison him against seeing anything optimistic or constructive or hopeful or good in the world. Nothing made him happy, or even mildly optimistic. Nothing met his expectations. If it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t enough. I realized his bitterness and lack of hope had poisoned his entire attitude. And hey, nobody likes poison, right?
It always saddens me when I find this kind of poisonous pessimism in people who want social change. They’re not happy with the pace of change, or with its intensity. They want justice and peace and racial equality and a clean environment--now.
Me, too. I just don’t expect them to happen overnight, or to arrive completely perfect.
So I tried to figure it out. What’s the difference between my point of view and his? This isn’t a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty question. It doesn’t have to do with the speed or efficacy of change. It’s not really a political paradigm, either. Probably the major difference between the Baha'i viewpoint on these issues and the viewpoint of some social activists without a Faith has to do with our comparative outlooks on the future. Simply put, my friend has a dim view of what lies ahead; I don’t.
Many people, the cynical pessimists among us, have great doubt about humanity’s prospects, convinced that we’ll never get it together and deal with our problems. Essentially, they’ve lost faith in the future. Baha’is, on the other hand, strongly believe that a better future will arrive. The Baha'i teachings contain a glorious but realistic vision for the oneness and wholeness of the human race. They promise that after a period of struggle and strife, humanity has a bright destiny:
The whole earth is now in a state of pregnancy. The day is approaching when it will have yielded its noblest fruits, when from it will have sprung forth the loftiest trees, the most enchanting blossoms, the most heavenly blessings. – Baha’u’llah, quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The Promised Day is Come, p. 116.
…in this wondrous Dispensation the earth will become another earth and the world of humanity will be arrayed with perfect composure and adornment. Strife, contention, and bloodshed will give way to peace, sincerity and harmony. Among the nations, peoples, kindreds, and governments, love and amity will prevail and cooperation and close connection will be firmly established. Ultimately, war will be entirely banned… The five continents of the world will become as one, its diverse nations will become one nation, the earth will become one homeland, and the human race will become one people. Countries will be so intimately connected, and peoples and nations so commingled and united, that the human race will become as one family and one kindred. The light of heavenly love will shine and the gloomy darkness of hatred and enmity will be dispelled as far as possible. Universal peace will raise its pavilion in the midmost heart of creation and the blessed Tree of Life will so grow and flourish as to stretch its sheltering shade over the East and the West. – Abdu'l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, newly revised edition, p, 73.
Let us then trust in the bounty and bestowal of God. Let us be exhilarated with the divine breath, illumined and exalted by the heavenly glad-tidings. God has ever dealt with man in mercy and kindness. He who conferred the divine spirit in former times is abundantly able and capable at all times and periods to grant the same bestowals. Therefore let us be hopeful. The God who gave to the world formerly will do so now and in the future. - Abdu'l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 102.
Baha’is have hope--but aren’t Pollyanna’s. From a Baha'i perspective none of this will happen immediately. It will take an enormous amount of effort and work and sacrifice; we may have to go through great tests and trials before we gradually arrive at unity and oneness; and our generation and even the generations that follow us may not see the emerging results. But that’s no cause for disillusionment, pessimism or cynicism:
Work for the sake of God and for the improvement of humanity without any expectation of praise and reward. His Holiness Christ was not appreciated in His lifetime. The magnitude of His character and the sublimity of His teachings were duly recognized long after His crucifixion. The present is always unimportant, but we must make our present so filled with mighty, altruistic deeds as to assume significant weight and momentous importance in the future. – Abdu'l-Baha, Star of the West, Volume 3, pp. 121-122.
In this series of essays, we’ll examine the rise of cynicism and the reasons for having hope.