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O Son of Being! If thine heart be set upon this eternal, imperishable dominion, and this ancient, everlasting life, forsake this mortal and fleeting sovereignty. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 16.
In college, I knew a guy everyone called a serial monogamist. Putting it kindly, he was aggressively single. Every time I saw him he was with a different date, and he rarely missed a party. We’ll call him Cliff.
I asked him about it once. He laughed and gave me some variant of the old “Variety is the spice of life, and I’m just playing the field” cliché. You know the one.
But Cliff, I learned after we wound up in two literature classes together, didn’t typically talk in clichés—he could actually think. The questions he asked our professors in class revealed a deeper and more thoughtful person than I would have guessed. I learned, as well, that Cliff didn’t seem very happy, despite all the partying.
After those classes a few years passed, and for a long time I didn’t see Cliff around, until one day I ran into him in a store.
“Cliff,” I said, “where’ve you been?” As I said it, I noticed he wore a wedding ring. Had he come into the store walking a lion on a leash, it might not have surprised me as much.
“I got married,” he said, with a big grin.
“Congratulations,” I said, shaking his hand. “Didn’t think you were marriage material.”
“You know,” he told me, “neither did I.”
“What changed?” I asked him.
“Well, I had an epiphany. I realized, with all that frenetic running around chasing women, I was only trying to deny my own mortality.”
Cliff’s philosophical and spiritual insight into himself struck me as pretty profound.
Later I gave Cliff this quote from the Baha’i writings:
Having, in this journey, immersed himself in the ocean of immortality, rid his heart from attachment to aught save Him, and attained unto the loftiest heights of everlasting life, the seeker will see no annihilation either for himself or for any other soul. He will quaff from the cup of immortality, tread in its land, soar in its atmosphere, consort with them that are its embodiments, partake of the imperishable and incorruptible fruits of the tree of eternity, and be forever accounted, in the lofty heights of immortality, amongst the denizens of the everlasting realm. – Baha’u’llah, Gems of Divine Mysteries, p. 72.
For me this short passage, and Baha’u’llah’s Hidden Word above, both exemplify the heart of true religion.
These two brief quotes express and examine the very root of the human condition: we live and breathe today, but tomorrow we die. The absolute certainty of our death forces all human beings to answer a fundamental question about our lives: What lasts?
If you believe–like Cliff did at one point in his player, party phase–that life comes to a halt when the body dies, then you might reach the conclusion that nothing has much lasting value. In other words, you could conclude that everything dies, and we are all just soulless mammals who face eternal oblivion at the end of our physical lives. Given that judgment, most people simply try to find as much pleasure, self-gratification and material comfort as they possibly can.
But if you sense the presence of something else in life, a mystical, deathless reality that extends beyond the grave, then you’ll want to plan for the long term, and not point your whole life toward the physical.
Those who believe our human consciousness goes on after biological death often call that next stage of existence the afterlife. But it’s a misleading word, which suggests that this physical world is where we have our actual, real life; and the spiritual world beyond it only contains a footnote.
The Baha’i teachings describe it differently.
This earthly phase of our existence, Baha’u’llah writes, is a “mortal and fleeting sovereignty.” Transcending that temporary sovereignty and ridding our hearts of attachment to it, he tells us, requires re-focusing our affections on the eternal. Rather than loving the physical, which will ultimately perish, we should extend our love to the spiritual aspects of life–the infinite and the imperishable. Rather than growing attached to this world, where we only stay for a short time, our gaze should take in the wider horizon and seek the longer view.
We are immortal souls, the Baha’i teachings say, each of us an indestructible essence. This physical existence, which lasts at most a hundred years or so, only serves as the first stage in our spiritual growth—but it serves as a very important stage. Here, in this material plane of reality, we decide to focus on what will pass or what will last. Choose well.