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On the news, I hear about people who lie, cheat, steal, become embroiled in sexual scandals, espouse racism, and even commit terrible atrocities in the name of religion.
Then, on the other hand, the reporters sometimes talk about people who dedicate their lives to eliminating racism, to helping the homeless, to being honest, to raising good, God-fearing families, even risking their lives to help other people in imminent peril. When I contemplate this dichotomy, I wonder: why?
What is the difference between these kinds of people, who behave in such opposite ways?
Before I heard about the Baha’i Faith and began to study its teachings, I was very disheartened about the terrible condition of our society. The Vietnam war was still ongoing, with the body-counts adding up like score cards. The TV anchorman would say something like 1500 Vietcong killed today, while only 900 U.S. servicemen died, as if that was somehow a good thing.
Racism flamed high while Martin Luther King was trying to set people free. Students were massacred for demonstrating against the war at Kent State University in Ohio. The American president, John F. Kennedy, had been assassinated a few years earlier. It was enough to make me want to go live in the mountains as a hermit.
Then I learned about the Baha’i teachings, and began to make sense of our crazy world by reading the Baha’i sacred writings. There, I found the answer to my question about why many people lie, cheat, steal and even kill for personal advantage, while others live a helpful altruistic life.
As we have before indicated, this human reality stands between the higher and the lower in man, between the world of the animal and the world of Divinity. When the animal proclivity in man becomes predominant, he sinks even lower than the brute. When the heavenly powers are triumphant in his nature, he becomes the noblest and most superior being in the world of creation. All the imperfections found in the animal are found in man. In him there is antagonism, hatred and selfish struggle for existence; in his nature lurk jealousy, revenge, ferocity, cunning, hypocrisy, greed, injustice, and tyranny. So to speak, the reality of man is clad in the outer garment of the animal, the habiliments of the world of nature, the world of darkness, imperfections and unlimited baseness.
On the other hand, we find in him justice, sincerity, faithfulness, knowledge, wisdom, illumination, mercy and pity, coupled with intellect, comprehension, the power to grasp the realities of things and the abilities to penetrate the truths of existence. All these great perfections are to be found in man. Therefore, we say that man is a reality which stands between light and darkness. From this standpoint his nature is threefold: animal, human and divine. The animal nature is darkness; the heavenly is light in light.
The holy Manifestations of God come into the world to dispel the darkness of the animal, or physical, nature of man, to purify him from his imperfections in order that his heavenly and spiritual nature may become quickened, his divine qualities awakened, his perfections visible, his potential powers revealed and all the virtues of the world of humanity latent within him may come to life. These holy Manifestations of God are the Educators and Trainers of the world of existence, the Teachers of the world of humanity. They liberate man from the darkness of the world of nature, deliver him from despair, error, ignorance, imperfections and all evil qualities. They clothe him in the garment of perfections and exalted virtues …. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 465-466.
With this knowledge of the threefold nature of man as explained by Abdu’l-Baha, I can finally understand what has happened and is happening in our world. The negative events and people who make the news headlines do so because they have developed and cultivated their lower, animal nature. Those known for lives of service and sacrifice have cultivated and are cultivating their higher nature, their divine qualities.
Most importantly, for myself, I can look at my own motives and actions, and assess whether they conform to my lower animal nature, or reflect the higher spiritual nature taught by Baha’u’llah and the other divine messengers of God. With this knowledge, I have the option to live a spiritual life.