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You’ve probably heard the saying or seen the bumper sticker: “He who dies with the most toys wins.”
I cringe every time I encounter that phrase.
It celebrates and encourages greed, crass consumption, materialism and acquisitiveness, of course, but it also has a deeper, darker meaning. It suggests that we should consume and acquire as many material goods as we possibly can, because death ends all life. You accumulate more and more stuff, then you die—what a grim perspective.
The Baha’i teachings beg to differ:
…the world of existence does not culminate here. If this were so, existence itself would be sterile. There are many worlds of light. For even as the plant imagines life ends with itself and has no knowledge of our existence, so the materially-minded man has no knowledge of other worlds of consciousness.
But some there are who have found divine intelligence and have obtained spiritual understanding. They have the real sight. They know of the other worlds. That is why the prophets of God forfeited this world, renounced everything material and gave their hearts to the heavenly world. Were there nothing after death, Christ would not have accepted the cross; the prophets of all time would not have sacrificed their lives. They were in touch with the celestial world and they overlooked this transitory life. This is the fruit of the tree of creation – to be freed from the darkness of the planet in order to enter the worlds of light. This is the object of existence; this is the fruit of the tree of humanity. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 122.
This material existence, everyone knows, has its limits. We all eventually reach the end of this physical life, and then, the Baha’i teachings assure us, we all make the transition to the next plane of existence. Just as we did when we left our mother’s womb; each person has another birth into a second life, a spiritual delivery that takes us to a higher plane of our eternal reality.
The Baha’i teachings repeatedly emphasize this hope-filled perspective:
O Son of the Supreme! I have made death a messenger of joy to thee. Wherefore dost thou grieve? I made the light to shed on thee its splendor. Why dost thou veil thyself therefrom? – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 11.
This promise of everlasting life, given to humanity by every great Faith, not only reassures us as death approaches—it can also help guide our life in this world. It can teach us what lasts and what doesn’t, what has true meaning and what means very little:
All that has been created is for man who is at the apex of creation and who must be thankful for the divine bestowals, so that through his gratitude he may learn to understand life as a divine benefit. If we hold enmity with life, we are ingrates, for our material and spiritual existence is the outward evidences of the divine mercy. Therefore we must be happy and pass our time in praises, appreciating all things. But there is something else: detachment. We can appreciate without attaching ourselves to the things of this world. It sometimes happens that if a man loses his fortune he is so disheartened that he dies or becomes insane. While enjoying the things of this world we must remember that one day we shall have to do without them.
Attach not thyself to anything unless in it thou seest the reality of God – this is the first step into the court of eternity. The earth life lasts but a short time, even its benefits are transitory; that which is temporary does not deserve our heart’s attachment. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, pp. 134-135.
God desires, the Baha’i teachings tell us, our detachment from the material world and all the purely physical things in it. If we set our dearest wishes on those objects, those things, it leaves little room in our hearts for the love of the mystical and the transcendent. It actually prevents true joy, replacing it with a non-nutritional substitute, the short-lived false excitement that material acquisition can give us, which soon leaves us unsatisfied and hungry again.
This does not mean we have to give up all of our belongings and take vows of extreme poverty—the Baha’i teachings don’t support strict self-denial or asceticism:
Detachment does not consist in setting fire to one’s house, or becoming bankrupt or throwing one’s fortune out of the window, or even giving away all of one’s possessions. Detachment consists in refraining from letting our possessions possess us. – Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 135.
Instead, it means that we can joyfully adopt a new outlook on this material existence, and understand all physical objects as temporary, transitory things. It means we can reach the level of consciousness and awareness that Buddha and Christ and Baha’u’llah all urged us to achieve, the realization that all material things that belong to us today belong to someone else tomorrow.