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In modern life, we receive daily messages, from every form of media, about who we are and what will make us happy. Just one evening of watching television commercials will show you some of the “must haves” of happiness: alcohol and drugs, success and power, money and material possessions, physical beauty, perpetual youth, and unlimited sensual experiences.
Of course, the ads tell us that anything we’re willing to do to get these things or experiences is worth the price, and they don’t discuss the consequences for this never-ending acquisition. We are told to expect happiness, but what happens in real life? We buy what we think we need — and find any pleasure associated with its ownership transient and temporary. Rather than challenge what we are being told about ourselves, we conclude we need to have more, bigger and better.
Is there ever a correlation between money, possessions and happiness? Yes — impoverished people usually become happier when they meet their essential human needs. When this happens, however, money and what it can buy no longer contribute to a greater sense of happiness. Abdu’l-Baha informs us that true happiness does not come to us through material means:
. . . the happiness and greatness, the rank and station, the pleasure and peace, of an individual have never consisted in his personal wealth, but rather in his excellent character, his high resolve, the breadth of his learning, and his ability to solve difficult problems. – The Secret of Divine Civilization, pp. 23-24.
In truth, everything necessary for “happiness and greatness” does not cost a cent. The only investment necessary is the education and refinement of our spiritual selves — which then translates to service to humanity. Does this mean that humans must lead a monastic life of self-denial, devoid of the material gifts that God has given us? No. Baha’u’llah clarifies this:
O SON OF DUST! All that is in heaven and earth I have ordained for thee, except the human heart, which I have made the habitation of My beauty and glory; . . . – The Hidden Words, p. 31.
It would appear that things themselves may not be the problem. Instead, the question becomes “Where do we focus the affections of our hearts?”
Some men’s lives are solely occupied with the things of this world; their minds are so circumscribed by exterior manners and traditional interests that they are blind to any other realm of existence, to the spiritual significance of all things! They think and dream of earthly fame, of material progress. Sensuous delights and comfortable surroundings bound their horizon, their highest ambitions centre in successes of worldly conditions and circumstances! They curb not their lower propensities; they eat, drink, and sleep! Like the animal, they have no thought beyond their own physical well-being. It is true that these necessities must be dispatched. Life is a load which must be carried on while we are on earth, but the cares of the lower things of life should not be allowed to monopolize all the thoughts and aspirations of a human being. The heart’s ambitions should ascend to a more glorious goal, mental activity should rise to higher levels! Men should hold in their souls the vision of celestial perfection, and there prepare a dwelling-place for the inexhaustible bounty of the Divine Spirit. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 98-99.
When we do not understand our true reality, which is spiritual in nature, we attempt to fill the hole this creates with what we can buy. However, try as we may, this strategy will never work for us and it will never buy us happiness.
The Baha’i teachings offer us a remarkably different take on what it is to be human, and ask us to lift our eyes to a higher vision of who we are:
O SON OF SPIRIT! Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created. – The Hidden Words, p. 9.
Perhaps the real challenge for all of us involves seeing ourselves as essentially noble beings, revising both the unconscious and conscious opinions we have of ourselves. Then, we can begin to act in our own best interests, and start to see the material world in its proper perspective.
The next time you hear that you are not enough and that you can buy something to make yourself a better person, ask yourself this question – “Are you talking to me or to who you think I am?”
And then contemplate answering this way: My life is noble and God’s light is manifest in it.