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The year is coming to an end, and, perhaps this year more than others, we have had ample time to reflect on our lives in isolation and identify things we would like to change.
I’m definitely one for New Year’s resolutions. I often set them at the beginning of the Gregorian year and then fine-tune them a few months later during the Baha’i New Year, which gives me a second chance to “redeem myself” before time passes by.
While New Year’s resolutions can be a good way to aim for the life we want, we let go of these goals all too often — because our resolutions are unrealistic and/or because we fail at them early on and then give up. Often, underlying this failure is an uncompromising perfectionism that ends in defeatism or denial. So how can we resolve to tackle the issues that stand in the way of our dreams and aspirations?
According to my understanding of the Baha’i writings, our ultimate goal in life is “to advance in the path of perfection.” This means that we “Strain every nerve to acquire both inner and outer perfections, for the fruit of the human tree hath ever been and will ever be perfections both within and without.”
But it’s also important to remember that only God and His Manifestations are perfect because they perfectly mirror all of God’s attributes. If we forget our own station, we may try to walk this path with perfectionism. The philosopher Elliot Cohen and psychologist Albert Ellis have both pointed out that perfectionism is linked to many of the emotional and behavioral problems people face. Likewise, if we bring this mindset to the spiritual path, we can also experience a lot of pain. Therefore, it can be useful to think of it as “the path towards perfection” because it is a never-ending journey, not a destination.
The writings of Baha’u’llah, the founder and prophet of the Baha’i Faith, are full of guidance to help us walk the spiritual path towards God. But if we view his words through perfectionistic lenses, some of his guidance can seem too lofty to fathom. For example, Baha’u’llah wrote: “O Son of Spirit! My first counsel is this: Possess a pure, kindly and radiant heart, that thine may be a sovereignty ancient, imperishable and everlasting.”
Sometimes, when I read this, I can feel like a total failure because I don’t always possess these qualities. But when we read the holy writings, we need to realize that their guidance gives us an aim — not an instantaneous destination. This guidance has to be tempered by the understanding that we are imperfect beings trying to walk the path towards perfection. So how do we begin to walk this path?
Abdul-Baha, the eldest son of Baha’u’llah and his designated interpreter, said that we need to move towards perfection “little by little, day by day.” This way, we keep our eyes on the desired destination while at the same time keeping our feet firmly planted in the soil of our own situation. And this actually makes our progress more possible because it is realistic. By only focusing on the ideal, we can lose touch with our own abilities. We can also drift into arrogance and self-denial, fooling ourselves into thinking that we have nothing to change when in fact we, like all human beings, have much to improve.
A useful way to progress on the path towards perfection, little by little, day by day, is through what Tom Price calls “micro-tasks”. In his excellent YouTube series, Becoming Your True Self, Price explains how each day we can set a very small task for ourselves — such as, for example, speaking kindly to our spouse. That way, each day we take a step towards our goal rather than living with our heads in the clouds. There are also a few other approaches we can take to our resolutions and attempts at personal transformation:
Don’t Stop Trying
Walking the path of perfection is not a matter of success and failure; it’s about earnest effort. What’s important is that we try to improve and that we don’t stop trying. If someone is trying to quit smoking and they cave in yet another time, that’s no reason to stop trying.
It’s Not All or Nothing
If someone wants to eat a plant-based diet and they give in and eat some meat, they shouldn’t swing the other way and eat like a carnivore. Keep trying! Reducing the amount of meat we eat is good in itself, whether or not you adopt labels like “vegetarian” or “vegan.” Eating more plant-based foods is a process, so people gradually eating less and less animal products is a significant improvement, even if there are some bumps along the way.
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Be Honest With Yourself.
Often, it’s not just a weakness of will that makes us fail to follow through with our resolutions; it’s the fact that we deceive ourselves into thinking that we want something we don’t, or that we don’t want something that we actually do want. This shows that we really need to be honest with ourselves. But to be honest with ourselves, we have to actually know ourselves to become more aware of our needs, wants, and deepest values — and how to actualize them. Baha’u’llah wrote that “man should know his own self and recognize that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement, wealth or poverty.”
Honesty also helps us assess our efforts at improvement. Acknowledging that we are inherently imperfect doesn’t give us license to be overly lenient with ourselves. “Oh, I sometimes scream and yell at people because I’m imperfect. There’s nothing I can do about it.” This is not walking the path towards perfection — it’s standing in the same spot. To walk the spiritual path as an imperfect being means acknowledging that we will inevitably make mistakes, but to do our best not to.
All in all, we can see that walking the path towards perfection is a lifelong journey. We can acknowledge our imperfection without berating ourselves or taking our eyes off the aim. We can refuse to become complacent and passive just giving into our habits of mind and behavior. We need to believe that we can become a transformed being, to have determination and perseverance to keep trying, love and forgiveness to accept our weakness, and the honesty to see ourselves for who we are. If we bring this approach to our New Year’s resolutions or any other personal goals, we can stay focused on them while maintaining a sense of equilibrium.