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What kind of future do you want—a revival of something that’s been lost; or a step into something completely new?
Of course, it doesn’t have to be one or the other—it can be a mix. But the second path, the pursuit of something new, might be the one with the richest possibilities for human fulfillment.
That’s the basic thrust of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’u’llah did not call for a return to the original Islam, the original Christianity, or the ancient forms of any other world Faith. Instead, he taught that the purposes of these older bodies of teachings have come to fruition in a new divine message for humanity. He didn’t want to return to older lifestyles or models of society. His vision presumes an insight that many of us acknowledge once we put things in their proper perspective: that the good old days weren’t all that good, but the best days might be possible because of new things just beginning to appear.
Nostalgia will only take us so far. Our highest and most noble desires might only be realized by striving for ways of doing things that have never been done before.
But, I’ll admit, nostalgia has an unmistakable pull. With nostalgia, we know what we’re missing. If something’s never been done before it’s not nearly as tangible. For example, it’s very common now to lament that young people don’t know what it’s like to not have a phone with them at all times. We fondly remember our younger years when we didn’t have texting, streaming music and video, and social media to distract us. I’m amused when I hear my peers speak so favorably of how we spent our time when we were kids, not wasting our time on smartphones. It’s funny—I remember those days, and I remember how much time we spent watching television—horrible, inane television. So even if we could bring back certain aspects of how we used to live, it still wouldn’t be very satisfying. We’d be moving backwards, not forward.
Now contrast the ease of that kind of nostalgia with envisioning something highly utopian and hard to imagine, like putting into practice this quote from the Baha’i writings:
In this journey it behoveth the wayfarer to detach himself from all save God and to close his eyes to all that is in the heavens and on the earth. There must not linger in his heart either the hate or the love of any soul, to the extent that they would hinder him from attaining the habitation of the celestial Beauty. – Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 27.
That’s powerful stuff. It’s difficult to see myself breaking my emotional ties with everything material and spiritual that I know. I don’t have experience with what Baha’u’llah means by not letting linger “either the hate or the love of any soul.” Even if I did know, I still wouldn’t be familiar with the reward of “attaining the habitation of the celestial Beauty.” Relishing memories from my childhood is more comfortable than striving for an advanced stage of spiritual development I’ve never seen before. But there’s a huge gap in quality between one and the other.
A big part of living the Baha’i life is getting used to this kind of forward-thinking, and making it the guiding thread of our actions. That kind of thinking allows us to take the sky-high ambitions Baha’u’llah had for humanity’s future and giving them concrete form amidst the mediocrity of what we’ve inherited from the past:
According to the Baha’i vision of the future, exceptional possibilities now present themselves to our generation. They include the emergence of a world civilization free of war, domination, and exploitation; the harmonization of material and spiritual prosperity; widespread advanced learning among the Earth’s entire population; and the elimination of bigotry and oppression that stifles the vast majority of people in one way or another, whether it be through race, gender, national origin, or other factors.
It’s impossible to be nostalgic for these things because they’ve never existed—but they all exist as items on the agenda of the Baha’i Faith. Baha’is believe humanity can make substantial progress on all of those items right now.