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Between social media and the news, it sometimes feels impossible to avoid thinking about our society’s many catastrophic realities.
The list includes heavy and long-standing issues — environmental crises, warfare, poverty, the many forms of institutional racism, and the many manifestations of cultural misogyny, to name just a few. The Baha’i writings acknowledge the harshness of these hardships many of us regularly navigate. Abdu’l-Baha, the son of Baha’u’llah, the prophet and founder of the Baha’i Faith, expressed this in a letter written in 1920 to feminist and early American Baha’i Martha Root:
You will see how the world is upset with internal conflict, and many lands are dyed in human blood, – nay the earth is kneaded with gore. The flame of war is so ablaze that such terrible struggle finds no parallel in the war records of any of the middle or recent ages. Heads have become like grains and the war like mill stones, – nay even worse. Flourishing lands are ruined, cities completely wrecked and thriving towns annihilated. Fathers have lost their sons, sons are made fatherless, and mothers have shed tears of blood over the death of their youthful sons.
Children are made orphan, women are helpless, and the world of humanity is forced backward in all respects. The wailing cry of fatherless children is raised abroad, and mothers’ pathetic lamentation reaches the high heaven. The source of all these catastrophes is racial fanaticism, patriotic fanaticism, religious fanaticism and political fanaticism. The source of these fanaticisms is ancient imitations, religious imitations, racial imitations, patriotic imitations, and political imitations. As long as following such imitations persists, the very foundation of humanity is wrecked and the world of man is in great jeopardy.
One of the principles emphasized by the Universal House of Justice, the democratically-elected governing body of the global Baha’i community, is universal participation. There is an understanding that all of humanity needs to be engaged in addressing our social issues — that people “should love each other, constantly encourage each other, work together, be as one soul in one body, and in so doing become a true, organic, healthy body animated and illumined by the spirit.”
But what happens when we can’t imagine a solution? What should we do when we are feeling overwhelmed with the state of the world, and it feels impossible to engage with everyone as a part of the solution?
While encouraging us to put much-concerted effort into building up a more sustainable future and paying close attention to the world’s harsh realities, the Baha’i writings also encourage us to maintain hope. As Abdu’l-Baha said during a talk at Northwestern University in 1912, “He must turn away from ideas which degrade the human soul, so that day by day and hour by hour he may advance upward and higher to spiritual perception of the continuity of the human reality.”
To be hopeful, we have to detach from thinking any single person — or even a single group of people — are the ones who will fix everything. Our society can impose individualistic ideas on us even when we are thinking about achieving peace. The Baha’i perspective sees individual, community-based, and larger systematic change as essential components to bettering humanity’s plight. As the Universal House of Justice recently put it, “progress is achieved through the development of three participants—the individual, the institutions, and the community.”
So, when thinking about moving past the anxiety that comes from a sense of hopelessness, we can appropriately situate our actions to work towards change. Even when the effort is small, and the problems feel urgent and widespread, each step we take can ripple out and impact the broader whole.
If we accept this, we’ll begin to feel less paralyzed by the largeness of issues. That doesn’t mean we are naïve enough to believe that being friendly towards a neighbor or donating to an organization once in a while will solve the world’s most pressing issues. But we are aware that we can do something that might move us collectively in the right direction in each and every one of our days.