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Spiritual Growth: The Best Self-Help Strategy Out There

Joseph Roy Sheppherd | Mar 23, 2019

PART 15 IN SERIES A Spiritual Wayfarer’s Guide

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

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Joseph Roy Sheppherd | Mar 23, 2019

PART 15 IN SERIES A Spiritual Wayfarer’s Guide

The views expressed in our content reflect individual perspectives and do not represent the official views of the Baha'i Faith.

In modern society, we sometimes conveniently package the skills of problem-solving as a set of strategies, and market them as formulas for instant success.

You’ve seen them: Seven Life Hacks for Career Success! Four Sure-Fire Ways to Prosperity! Etc, etc.

The desire for shortcuts represents a phenomenon of the times in which we live and, sadly, has become the basis of many self-help programs.

Such strategies selectively gloss over some of the complexities of life and tend to require that we ignore the rest of reality as we examine a single aspect of our lives. They often focus on a particular social environment such as school, the workplace, or interpersonal relationships, founded on the assumption that power overcomes problems and that some outside agency, person or society is the likely cause of our problems rather than our own behavior.

In these self-help schemes, success is often defined as the ability to impose our will on others and the courage to take control of the destiny we make for ourselves. These strategies erroneously claim that if a particular formula is followed, we will have control over the outcome.

They all, though, generally overlook the role God plays in solving our problems.

The Baha’i writings describe prayer as “essentially a communion between man and God” that “transcends all ritualistic forms and formulae.” – Shoghi Effendi, Directives from the Guardian, p. 71. If we ignore God’s role in testing and refining our characters, we are left with relying on formulaic approaches that tend to work only within certain narrow contexts and only for a short time. Eventually it becomes clear that this kind of success has its price, and that such strategies are not very conducive to spiritual growth. In fact, they may actually tend to bring out the worst in us.

But still we naturally search for effective ways to deal with our difficulties. Whenever a problem arises, the first thing to do is to check our emotional responses to it. Our attitudes toward the problem can often become a greater problem than the problem itself and can hamper our spiritual growth. This is inherent in every difficulty we encounter, no matter how old we may be. Controlling our response is a practical spiritual skill that can be learned, and its effects can be far-reaching. As parents it is one of the most helpful skills we can teach our children.

An example of how this skill is used will illustrate its value. Let’s say that one day a child comes home in tears and asks for help in solving a problem she has at school. She tells her parents that children on the playground are bullying and taunting her, spreading rumors, and accusing her of things she didn’t do. It is clear that she is distressed by what the children are saying, and she asks her parents to help. Her parents know this is a problem that at some point will probably involve a trip to the school and a frank discussion with a school administrator. But first there is something they feel they must do for their daughter: They want to help her understand that she has a choice in how she responds to the problem.

The parents find a creative way to demonstrate this. They remember that there is a container of leftovers festering at the back of the refrigerator. It’s really hideous, slimy, and covered with mold. They get it out and offer it to their daughter, saying, “Here, take this. It’s ours, but we want you to have it.” The daughter declines. The parents repeat, “No, really, we want you to have it.” The daughter puts her hands behind her back and looks at her parents incredulously. Now the parents can explain the object of the lesson. They explain that until someone accepts the container of furry slime, it belongs to whomever is trying to give it away. They explain that the same principle holds true for taunts, accusations, and insults. If we don’t accept them, they are not ours and we do not have to internalize them. We have the right to say, “No, thank you.” This doesn’t make the taunting go away, of course, but we don’t have to be upset by it. The lesson here is about practicing detachment and controlling ourselves, not others. Often we have no direct control over our circumstances, but we certainly have a choice in how we respond to them.

Our greatest efforts must be directed towards detachment from the things of the world; we must strive to become more spiritual, more luminous, to follow the counsel of the Divine Teaching, to serve the cause of unity and true equality, to be merciful, to reflect the love of the Highest on all men, so that the light of the Spirit shall be apparent in all our deeds, to the end that all humanity shall be united, the stormy sea thereof calmed, and all rough waves disappear from off the surface of life’s ocean henceforth unruffled and peaceful. – Abdu’l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 87.

The first and perhaps most important lesson the daughter can learn is not to become ruffled by others’ behavior. This is not easily achieved, but it should be a goal no matter how old we are, because we will all find similar playgrounds throughout our lives. As children and often as adults, those who taunt do it to get a reaction because they believe that there are two kinds of people: victimizers and victims, winners and losers. They have acquired a mentality based on the belief that if they don’t want to be the one, then they must become the other. We have all experienced this, and the children on the playground know that the easiest way to avoid being taunted is to join the taunters and victimize others. Generation after generation, the children have learned the rules by observation, and so it continues.

As adults, however, we are challenged to unlearn much of what we assimilated as children. As parents we must find a way to teach our children to be neither victims nor victimizers, neither passive nor aggressive. In so doing, our children learn to rise above the standards that society sets for them, becoming manifestations of true justice:

You must manifest complete love and affection toward all mankind. Do not exalt yourselves above others, but consider all as your equals, recognizing them as the servants of one God. Know that God is compassionate toward all; therefore, love all from the depths of your hearts … be filled with love for every race, and be kind toward the people of all nationalities. Never speak disparagingly of others, but praise without distinction. Pollute not your tongues by speaking evil of another. Recognize your enemies as friends, and consider those who wish you evil as the wishers of good. … Act in such a way that your heart may be free from hatred. Let not your heart be offended with anyone. If some one commits an error and wrong toward you, you must instantly forgive him. … Turn all your thoughts toward bringing joy to hearts. Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 453.

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  • Andrew Scott
    Mar 23, 2019
    This piece is incredible, yet so absolutely characteristic of the wisdom of Mr Sheppherd. He manages to find a way that resonates with us all and explains an important concept. Thank you, Joseph! :)
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