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Man is born a predestined idealist, for he is born to act. To act is to affirm the worth of an end, and to persist in affirming the worth of an end is to make an ideal. – Oliver Wendell Holmes
The wrong in the world continues to exist just because people talk only of their ideals, and do not strive to put them into practice. If actions took the place of words, the world’s misery would very soon be changed into comfort. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 18.
Idealists—people who have ideals they’d like to realize in themselves and in the world—will definitely experience some disappointment. In fact, we all go through that process in life. We idealize our parents or our friends or a political party or a social institution, and then we find out that person or group of people doesn’t exactly live up to their ideals. Instead we discover hypocrisy, deceit and discouragement. People we care about fall short of their ideals, and we lose our faith in them. Even worse, we fail to live up to our own ideals, and disappoint ourselves.
This process of disillusionment and loss of idealism happens to just about everyone. No one is immune. When it does happen, the question becomes: “How do I maintain my own ideals, in the face of so much deception, pretense and sanctimony?”
I had many of those disillusioning experiences as a young man, but one stands out in my memory. Active in the civil rights movement as a teenager, I joined organizations, participated in marches and demonstrations, distributed flyers and held meetings. I cared deeply about justice and equality, and wanted to do what I could to try to achieve them. As a naïve, idealistic grass-roots participant in the movement, I met many people who I admired and tried to emulate. One in particular, a well-known civil rights activist in the city where I lived, seemed courageous and committed to the cause—but I later learned that he was actually an undercover agent for a federal intelligence agency, conducting surveillance and filing reports on the people he had deceived.
That knowledge provoked a personal crisis of conscience, making me question the sincerity and motives of everyone I’d met in the movement. For a while, I wondered if my idealism could survive.
Finally, to reclaim that idealism, I had to change my focus, and ask myself what I was contributing. I realized I couldn’t base my own ideals on anyone else’s. My ideals had to be self-sustaining, not predicated on another person’s commitment or fervor or charisma. I had to own them myself. I had to have an intrinsic, internal motivation, un-conditioned by others and their motivations. I also had to realize that idealism–basically a fervent hope for a better future–could only stay alive in my soul if I fed it with action.
I couldn’t sit around and complain, I found, if I wanted to retain my ideals. I couldn’t become a cynic—although that caustic approach seemed so tempting. I couldn’t kvetch and moan about the lack of commitment of others, or the clay feet of many, or the weak beliefs of a few of my peers, or the disgruntled disaffection some friends felt. Instead, I had to push away bitterness and sarcasm and the idea that the world could be perfect tomorrow. I learned that every outward social change and every inward spiritual challenge required a combination of two things: work and faith. I had to work to make any progress and have an impact; and I had to have faith that my work, and the work of many others, would result in a more ideal future. The Baha’i teachings taught me those two important lessons:
…we must strive with life and heart that the material and physical world may be reformed, human perception become keener, the merciful effulgence manifest and the radiance of reality shine. Then the star of love shall appear and the world of humanity become illumined. The purpose is that the world of existence is dependent for its progress upon reformation; otherwise, it will be as dead. Consider: If a new springtime failed to appear, what would be the effect upon this globe, the earth? Undoubtedly it would become desolate and life extinct. The earth has need of an annual coming of spring. It is necessary that a new bounty should be forthcoming. If it comes not, life would be effaced. In the same way the world of spirit needs new life, the world of mind necessitates new animus and development, the world of souls a new bounty, the world of morality a reformation, the world of divine effulgence ever new bestowals. Were it not for this replenishment, the life of the world would become effaced and extinguished. If this room is not ventilated and the air freshened, respiration will cease after a length of time. If no rain falls, all life organisms will perish. If new light does not come, the darkness of death will envelop the earth. If a new springtime does not arrive, life upon this globe will be obliterated.
Therefore, thoughts must be lofty and ideals uplifted in order that the world of humanity may become assisted in new conditions of reform. When this reformation affects every degree, then will come the very Day of the Lord of which all the prophets have spoken. That is the Day wherein the whole world will be regenerated. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 279.
The Baha’i Faith offers humanity a new outpouring of hope and idealism, a message of optimism, progress and change—the “Day wherein the whole world will be regenerated.” Baha’is believe that Baha’u’llah has brought the remedy for our ills, if we will only work to apply it:
The All-Knowing Physician hath His finger on the pulse of mankind. He perceiveth the disease, and prescribeth, in His unerring wisdom, the remedy. Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 212.