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Human beings possess dozens of character traits that others may find either attractive, admirable or off-putting. Which of those traits make us spiritual?
We can usually recognize the off-putting traits fairly easily when we get to know a person, but those we find spiritually admirable may be hard to pinpoint at first. When I worked for the State of New Jersey before I retired, I learned that one highly regarded trait by directors, managers, supervisors and coworkers alike was loyalty—loyalty to them and to the mission or work we were asked to perform.
Luckily my loyalty over my 39-year career was rarely tested. Those I worked with were all on the same page, so to speak, and I never had to compromise my Baha’i principles. Everyone wanted to do the best job possible and do it the right way. Given all that, I found it ironic that on my first day with the State I had to walk over to the State House Capital personnel office and swear a loyalty oath upon my signature.
So which spiritual traits do we admire most in others, and which ones should we try to develop in ourselves?
The Baha’i writings include innumerable passages on virtues, or character traits, that Baha’is should aspire to acquire, from love and cooperation, to personal cleanliness, to honesty and forthrightness, to tact and wisdom:
Your thoughts and ambitions are set to acquire human perfection. You live to do good and to bring happiness to others. Your greatest longing is to comfort those who mourn, to strengthen the weak, and to be the cause of hope to the despairing soul. Day and night your thoughts are turned to the Kingdom, and your hearts are full of the Love of God.
Thus you know neither opposition, dislike, nor hatred, for every living creature is dear to you and the good of each is sought.
These are perfect human sentiments and virtues. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, pp. 112-113.
The number of these perfections and virtues seems almost endless. But which will serve us best as a foundation for helping people? Which traits are irresistible to others?
The author John Gorman, in a recent essay on Medium, offered his answer in Three Keys to Becoming Irresistible. Without reading the article you might think that he included outward traits like confidence, physical attractiveness or wealth. But his three choices mentioned nothing about those external factors. Instead, the first character trait he listed was humility, saying: “This trait is the root of all growth, learning and kindness.” He explained humility as:
… the belief that you are not yet so great that your mind cannot be opened, and it’s the presence of mind to remember that we are all interconnected equals, and that injustice against one is an injustice against all. It is, flatly, an absence of entitlement. – John Gorman, Medium, March 25, 2018.
On the subject of humility the Baha’i writings say:
They who are the beloved of God, in whatever place they gather and whomsoever they may meet, must evince, in their attitude towards God, and in the manner of their celebration of His praise and glory, such humility and submissiveness that every atom of the dust beneath their feet may attest the depth of their devotion. The conversation carried by these holy souls should be informed with such power that these same atoms of dust will be thrilled by its influence. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 7.
If we can be humble before our God, then humbleness before all humankind will be our companion.
The second key trait, according to Gorman’s essay, is curiosity:
Without curiosity, you cannot be enthralling or even engaging, nor—most rudimentary of all—successful. It is frankly impossible. Curiosity drives an insatiable quest for knowledge, culture, novelty, experience, beauty, art and connection. It is the bedrock upon which you can build a life filled with stories, memories, accomplishments and relationships.
The Baha’i teachings say that our continuing thirst for knowledge will always stand us in good stead, never tiring of learning and opening our mind and hearts to the wonders of God and creation. Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
Verily Thy lovers thirst, O my Lord; lead them to the wellspring of bounty and grace. Verily, they hunger; send down unto them Thy heavenly table. Verily, they are naked; robe them in the garments of learning and knowledge. – Baha’i Prayers, pp. 175-176.
Gorman lists the third key trait—empathy. He describes it as:
… the miracle drug of humanity …. It is the simplest, sweetest attribute one can possess, and the most worthwhile one worth cultivating for social success. Empathy brings people closer, and makes others feel understood and less alone inside. And if there is one thing we’re all looking to become a little less of, it’s alone. When I see truly empathetic people, I see people who genuinely care …
It is easy to see that when you take empathy away, man’s inhumanity to man results. The Bab, herald and precursor to Baha’u’llah, wrote:
Regard ye not others save as ye regard your own selves, that no feeling of aversion may prevail amongst you so as to shut you out from Him Whom God shall make manifest on the Day of Resurrection. It behooveth you all to be one indivisible people; thus should ye return unto Him Whom God shall make manifest. – Selections from the Writings of the Bab, pp. 129-130.
You may have noticed that the three key traits above are closely related. In Gorman’s words:
This is no mere accident. In fact, when you stack humility, curiosity and empathy, you can easily see how they amplify each other. Humility is the soul. Curiosity is the mind. Empathy is the heart. Humility is how you value yourself. Curiosity is how you value others. Empathy is how you value the bonds between yourself and others.
In his essay, Gorman provided keen insights into human nature for his readers, and I applaud his choices from many vantage points. Anything that can help us build more spiritual character virtues, both in the short and long term, will not only benefit ourselves, but will also benefit all humankind.