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One of the most refreshing changes I experienced when I first started to have a few Baha’is in my life was the noticeable absence of complaining about others’ faults.
The Baha’is didn’t speak badly about other people. My other friends knew that my Baha’i friends didn’t like that kind of talk, so they tried to refrain as well. As a result, our circle of friends had real conversations about meaningful things. We didn’t just grumble about folks who weren’t in the room. Being friends with them was very low-pressure. We took joy in each other’s accomplishments. It felt fantastic, so different from what I was used to hearing and feeling.
Two related Baha’i teachings make that healthy environment possible. The first, obviously, involves not dwelling on the faults of others. The second asks everyone to reflect upon their own spiritual condition, and to strive to improve their own thoughts and behaviors. Two passages from Baha’u’llah’s short book The Hidden Words provide the points of reference for these themes:
O Son of Man! Breathe not the sins of others so long as thou art thyself a sinner. Shouldst thou transgress this command, accursed wouldst thou be, and to this I bear witness. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, p. 10.
O Son of Being! Bring thyself to account each day ere thou art summoned to a reckoning; for death, unheralded, shall come upon thee and thou shalt be called to give account for thy deeds. – Ibid., p. 11.
When individuals bring themselves to account each day, they have the capacity to critically evaluate themselves, rather than have other people shove their faults down their throats. Everyone’s inner power of personal transformation works invisibly to elevate the quality of their interactions and to solve problems before they become apparent. Their minds grow more aware. Their habits become more flexible. Self-reflection enables them to grow and improve themselves, in a condition of independence and autonomy.
In my life, I’ve noticed that any circle of people practicing both of these ideas never sees any use in attacking each other’s character. They can have a shared vision of what kinds of thought and behavior are praiseworthy, without talking about specific instances of misbehavior. That gives them the ability to apply their insights effectively to their own condition. Sometimes, an individual may need a frank and loving reminder to improve their conduct. But I have very rarely seen this descend into a drawn out argument about who is at fault or who is more blameworthy than the other.
This social pattern usually proves harmonious and peaceful, but it also encourages individuals to change their thought and behavior on the basis of intelligent reflection upon principles rather than fear of social disrespect. I think this provides a stark and supportive contrast to environments where people feel strongly influenced by other people’s negative words about them.
To me, it seems reasonable to think of gossip as an unconscious mechanism of social control. If I hear other people complaining about someone else, it can make me afraid that they may talk about me in a similar way when I’m not there. As a result, I may be more on my guard to not do anything that would be spoken of badly when I’m not around. So, this way of talking functions as an enforcer of certain social rules and standards.
The defect of that way of interacting, among others, is that it leaves the content of those rules and standards unquestioned. I’ve never heard complaining about others behind their back that manifested deep thinking about culture and morality. In that context, the mere fact that standards of behavior were violated is all that matters. The rest is left unexamined.
But for people of conscience striving to bring about a better society, the whole point of social practice should be to examine and question the standards of society, and to strive to elevate them into something that would create a better world. An environment that instills fear of mockery and derision doesn’t spiritually nurture mature individuals. It bends people into conformity. But an environment free of ridicule, which gives individuals the space and motivation to trace the path of their own self-improvement, can be both enlightening and empowering.
It’s impossible for other people to know what is in my own soul. They can lovingly guide me, remind me and jolt my attention. But I am the best person to direct the process of my own inner change. They cannot transform me. I am the only one who can take responsibility for my own will and choice.