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Compared to the immensity of this world, what we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears seems so extremely sparse.
I may live in one locality for many years, but I can claim to know only a tiny number of places and people reasonably well. And everything constantly changes. “No man ever steps in the same river twice,” said the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus. In the face of all this uniqueness, our powers of language and categorization go a long way to make life predictable.
I can say “That is a spring. I can drink the water that flows from it.” “This is a mango. It tastes sweet if I eat it.” Beyond that, the scientific method places our knowledge of the world on even firmer ground, by helping us understand how things happen the way they do. Today, with information and communications technology booming, it’s easy to think we’ve got a bird’s eye view of everything. But even with all that, stuff happens that we can’t control or predict. Strangers meet on the street and make an instant personal connection. A broken sewer line floods somebody’s home. Life happens. As for my wife and I, we planned on living in China for another two years. But in April we happily discovered we’re expecting a child. After evaluating our circumstances, we decided the time had come to return to Maine.
A story from the Baha’i writings provides spiritual perspective on the unpredictability of life. In the Seven Valleys Baha’u’llah tells the tale of a lover longing for his beloved. When the lover decides to take action, the unfolding of events overwhelms his control of the situation:
There was once a lover who had sighed for long years in separation from his beloved, and wasted in the fire of remoteness. From the rule of love, his heart was empty of patience, and his body weary of his spirit; he reckoned life without her as a mockery, and time consumed him away. How many a day he found no rest in longing for her; how many a night the pain of her kept him from sleep; his body was worn to a sigh, his heart’s wound had turned him to a cry of sorrow. He had given a thousand lives for one taste of the cup of her presence, but it availed him not. The doctors knew no cure for him, and companions avoided his company; yea, physicians have no medicine for one sick of love, unless the favor of the beloved one deliver him.
At last, the tree of his longing yielded the fruit of despair, and the fire of his hope fell to ashes. Then one night he could live no more, and he went out of his house and made for the marketplace. On a sudden, a watchman followed after him. He broke into a run, with the watchman following; then other watchmen came together, and barred every passage to the weary one. And the wretched one cried from his heart, and ran here and there, and moaned to himself: “Surely this watchman is Izrá’íl, my angel of death, following so fast upon me; or he is a tyrant of men, seeking to harm me.” His feet carried him on, the one bleeding with the arrow of love, and his heart lamented. Then he came to a garden wall, and with untold pain he scaled it, for it proved very high; and forgetting his life, he threw himself down to the garden.
And there he beheld his beloved with a lamp in her hand, searching for a ring she had lost. When the heart-surrendered lover looked on his ravishing love, he drew a great breath and raised up his hands in prayer, crying: “O God! Give Thou glory to the watchman, and riches and long life. For the watchman was Gabriel, guiding this poor one; or he was Isráfíl, bringing life to this wretched one!” – Baha’u’llah, The Seven Valleys and the Four Valleys. pp. 13-14.
The lover gives up on being reunited with his beloved and decides to end his own life, but this mysterious stranger frustrates his plan. Surprisingly enough, the same event that scuttles his plan brings him face to face with the goal of his desire, and he finds his beloved.
Baha’u’llah, commenting on the meaning of this story, writes that the lover “had found many a secret justice in this seeming tyranny of the watchman, and seen how many a mercy lay hid behind the veil.” Not every misfortune in life brings us some secret benefit. But certainly we can approach our knowledge of our own situation and of the world with a good deal of humility and open-mindedness.
How things appear to us at one moment doesn’t reveal all possible outcomes. Things can turn out very differently than from what we expect. But if what we want is also what God wants, we may find doors closing all around us as we pursue our own plans; and doors opening elsewhere that lead us places we only dimly understand. It takes a spiritual eye to look beyond our own perceptions and see the loving hand of God at work in our lives.