I went through a real and quite unexpected test of my own spirituality the other day. I don’t know if I passed the test or not.
It came without warning, like an earthquake does. Suddenly, I had to deal with the explosive anger of someone incredibly difficult. Since no one else was around to help, I could only rely on the instincts of my heart and soul to figure out how to respond. Without going into the unimportant details, suffice it to say that this person (who shall remain nameless and genderless) and who I had never encountered before, demanded that I do something I didn’t want to do. I said no, more than once. But the person kept insisting, until I realized that the loud insistence—along with the yelling and screaming and then the mounting personal insults and threats—might indicate the presence of some mental illness. In full verbal attack mode, the person seemed unhinged, irrational, and even dangerous.
I tried to be calm, kind, understanding. I truly did, and for a long time. But it’s hard to take such nasty, withering criticism, especially when it gets delivered at such high volume and with such sheer meanness. My rational mind knew that the person’s insults had no basis in fact—how could they, since we didn’t even know each other? But despite that knowledge, I could feel myself getting ready to react in a purely limbic, emotional way. I even felt some defensive inner rage coming on. Adrenaline flowed. My hands began to shake a little. My fight-or-flight response had been triggered, so I knew I had to do something.
Have you ever experienced a situation like that?
Often, those kinds of ugly, unexpected, interpersonal encounters can truly test our commitment to our spiritual principles. We feel attacked or disrespected or endangered, and the primitive part of our brains react accordingly. We go into survival mode, have a “fight-or-flight” response, and either flee from the situation or strike out at the other person to end the threat. Sadly, these kinds of situations will, sooner or later, happen to most of us. They’re part of the nature of human interaction, not all of it pleasant or supportive. They can occur without a moment’s notice, with a boss or a co-worker or a total stranger or even a loved one.
That’s why spirituality takes practice.
For Baha’is, the purpose of life here on Earth involves translating our spiritual thoughts and ideals into consistently spiritual actions. What good can those thoughts and ideals do otherwise? If a person believes in peace, for example, but repeatedly acts aggressively and violently, the belief itself does no good at all. In fact, thinking one way and acting another way only signals hypocrisy. Beliefs, then, in order to qualify as real beliefs, have to translate themselves into actions. Deeds, not words or goals or inner thoughts or instincts, truly indicate what you actually believe. The Baha’i teachings say that you are what you do:
Love ye all religions and all races with a love that is true and sincere and show that love through deeds and not through the tongue; for the latter hath no importance, as the majority of men are, in speech, well-wishers, while action is the best. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 69.
With those beautiful teachings in mind, I tried to deal with that difficult situation the best I knew how. I relied on silent prayer, on attempting to understand the other person’s perspective, and on calming myself by reflecting on the spiritual laws I’ve learned from the Baha’i writings—peaceful nonviolence, love and unity. Did it work?
Well, eventually, the deranged person calmed down a little bit, and I realized that my own refusal to match the person’s rage had the effect of letting the storm pass. I suspect that this person wanted to provoke my anger or even something worse, and when that failed, the person’s inflamed emotions receded and diminished. Reflecting on the incident a few days later, I’ve realized that the person’s anger and insults couldn’t have really been directed at me, that they had to have a prior origin somewhere. Usually that’s the case with anger and violence—they often have a very long history, and have little or nothing to do with the person who eventually becomes their target.
I definitely don’t think I did the best I could, though. The fact that I could feel defensiveness and even anger told me that I still had a long way to go spiritually, especially when I think about the Baha’i standard, expressed here by Abdu’l-Baha:
You must become impervious to criticism, unconscious of attack and abuse, nay, rather welcoming persecution, hostility and bitterness as the means of testing and increasing your supreme faith in God; even as His Holiness Christ instructed His disciples “Bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.” – Star of the West, Volume 3, p. 104.
The entire incident, though, had the very salutary effect of reminding me that it takes a consistent, daily spiritual practice to actually influence human spirituality. We can’t just say we’re spiritual—it actually requires regular, diligent training, just like an athlete trains for a sport by repeatedly using the body’s muscles and conditioning them to perform well:
For by exercise the spirit grows stronger, more capable of withstanding, just as the muscle of the outer body increases its fibre through continual action. – Ibid.
I guess I need to keep training.
Next: Ten Simple Steps to a More Spiritual Life