Depending on where you live, you might look around and see a plethora of problems, or you might just learn about the daily disasters in the news while eating your breakfast in the morning.
What’s on today’s menu? Scrambled eggs, a mass shooting, another political scandal, the tragic casualties of war, a climate change-strengthened hurricane in the Caribbean and a nice hot cup of coffee to wash it all down!
Every age has been beset by troubles; and ours is no different. One big difference now: many of the world’s problems are just that, the world’s problems.
Because humanity has grown so large and so interconnected, small problems have become big; our awareness has grown; and a problem on one side of the planet can now be broadcast all around the globe.
We all react differently to this dilemma. Some become so fed up and furious with these problems that they decide to do something about at least one of them. Others feel so overwhelmed that they ignore them all, and try to go about their daily lives as if everything is fine.
But while numerous problems face the world, we must remember the many positive developments taking place alongside them. Extreme poverty continues to diminish; literacy levels are rising; many movements dedicated to the environment, women’s rights and social justice have impelled a great deal of societal change. This reveals the reality of the two primary processes at work in the world today: the process of destruction tearing down the old world, and the process of construction building the world anew.
Baha’is focus on contributing to the positive processes, and remember that the destruction happening inevitably makes way for a new, more just and peaceful society to emerge.
At first this might seem to imply that Baha’is simply put on a pair of rose-tinted glasses and plant daisies in the garden. But contributing to the processes of construction does not mean ignoring the problems of the world. Baha’u’llah said:
Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements. – Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 213.
To ignore the problems of the world is to ignore the numerous people who suffer in the world. Ignoring their suffering can never be construed as noble. To be a spiritual person is to care for the those who suffer. Regarding the actions of a spiritual person, the Baha’i teachings say “He should succour the dispossessed, and never withhold his favor from the destitute.” – Baha’u’llah, The Book of Certitude, p. 194. In the same vein, Abdu’l-Baha said:
Assist the world of humanity as much as possible. Be the source of consolation to every sad one, assist every weak one, be helpful to every indigent one, care for every sick one, be the cause of glorification to every lowly one, and shelter those who are overshadowed by fear. – The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 453.
Building a new world cannot be divorced from the individual acts of service to those who suffer right now. In fact, we can say that such action itself provides a powerful sign of peace. The seeds of change are planted right here in the heart of the troubles that confront us.
But here’s the catch. While deeply concerned about the problems of the world and the suffering of others, the Baha’i writings ask everyone to not let this state of affairs trouble us: “Let not the happenings of the world sadden you.” – Baha’u’llah, quoted by Shoghi Effendi in The Advent of Divine Justice, p. 82.
This seems like a contradiction, but there is a subtle distinction here – the difference between concern and consternation. If I’m concerned about something, I do realize the seriousness of the situation enough that I recognize the need to do something to remedy it. On the other hand, if I am filled with consternation about something, it can overcome me with a sense of paralyzing worry, despondency and denial.
This can be illustrated with an individual health problem. If a person finds a lump on their body, they should be concerned enough to go to the doctor to get it checked. To be too lax about it would be irresponsible and apathetic. But if a person found the lump and was overly concerned, they might become completely paranoid that they had cancer and were going to die. This stress might even have some significant health consequences itself.
The same is true of the world around us. If we’re filled with selfless concern for the world and its people, we will honestly recognize what the problems are, and devote ourselves, to the best of our ability, to work toward fixing them, however small our efforts may seem. But if we are filled with consternation and an impending sense of doom, we might engage in aggressive, impatient actions or live in complete denial – and just let the problems prolong themselves behind the gilded palace of our ignorance.
What enables us to live with concern without it turning into consternation? Hope and certitude. While many problems intensify and many social structures crumble to the ground, Bahai’s believe that the future of humanity is bright, unimaginably bright! Firmly believing in the inevitable salvation of humankind enables a person to continue focusing on positive change despite the problems that bombard them on every side. At the same time, this positive mindset does not cause them to completely ignore these problems, nor is their mindset a mere utopian fantasy. Believing in a bright future must be backed by action.