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Children’s eyes glistened under the glaze of red and yellow lights beneath a wintry sky. Families stood shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting in line at a children’s amusement park. Parents chatted as the little ones ran in between their legs or played on the asphalt walkway, eager to get to the front of the line. One two year-old boy walked up with wide eyes and hair like the soft black wool of a new lamb. He looked different from the others but, unaware of the difference, his face transmitted a guileless love for every stranger he greeted.
After waiting in line awhile, the toddler wandered off to play. He noticed a tall, red-haired girl chasing a friend. She stumbled and fell into the shrubbery. He ran to be near her side.
“Oh, I will help you up!” he exclaimed, but she only glanced back at him, puzzled, and kept running.
He looked around for a playmate. A child his size shyly stared at him from her mother’s side.
“Do you want to play?” He smiled at her and reached out his hand, but she shook her head.
“She needs space,” her mother declared. “Sorry. Not today.”
The little boy’s parent watched from a few feet away as he wandered down the line to walk off his restless energy. Another mother in the line had just decided she could not contend with the long wait and told her children to prepare to go home, but first to gather for a family photo (as if to pretend they had experienced an outing together, perhaps?) A glum six year-old in the family contorted his face into an exaggerated pout. Tears forms at the corners of his eyes. The two-year old came upon the scene without hearing the mother’s interaction with her children. Seeing the older boy’s face, he rushed up to comfort the stranger.
“Are you sad?” he implored. “Is everything all right? Can I help?”
The mother whisked her children away and pushed them into a pose to commemorate their visit. The little boy, still innocent of the situation, ran up and offered his toy train to cheer the distraught six year-old, whose mother looked down with mild disdain. She turned and said, “Would someone get him away? Can’t you see we’re trying to take a family photo here?”
His mother took his hand and led the curly-haired angel away. I watched from a distance, my heart both torn and touched.
Three times, a two-year old boy gave his love away to strangers of different ethnicities and ages– unstoppable, even though the love did not boomerang back to him. I wondered how many of us, as adults, could withstand hurt feelings and sacrifice our egos enough to get up and try again – in the name of love.
Love blinds us as it binds us. We celebrate and articulate that universal feeling with words, gestures, deeds, written expressions and even holidays around the world, but usually, we expect reciprocity. By February 1st, Americans begin to scramble for dinner reservations and order chocolates or search for greeting cards to express their love on Valentine’s Day. Latin Americans broaden the scope to show love for friends on Dia del y la Amistad Day. China has a Lovers’ Festival, and South Korea has no fewer than 12 holidays celebrating love, ending with Hug Day on December 14th. By the end of February, the Baha’i calendar will feature its Intercalary Days, also a time of charitable giving. Some Baha’i children even make their birthdays an occasion for giving gifts to others or offering some special service. They celebrate the gift of life by giving love.
It bears some thought, at this time of year, to reflect on our willingness to sacrifice self and ego for an unconditional love that transcends self. The Baha’i Writings encourage this level of love, telling us:
“You must love your friend better than yourself…be ready to sacrifice everything for each other…”
‘Abdu’l-Baha, the exemplar for Baha’is who gave this counsel, acted on his own advice. He passed away almost a century ago, and yet the legendary stories of his sacrificial love still inspire people today in their words and deeds.
He literally gave the clothes off his back. On the night of his passing, he had a high fever. His daughter had to go borrow a second nightshirt for him, as he had given away all but the one he was wearing.
He could not keep a coat, as he would give it away to a cold and homeless man each time he went out the door.
He served strangers and followers with unconditional love. One day, when he was walking through the park with some friends who had actually hoped to surprise him with a birthday cake, some boys began to taunt him about his Eastern mode of dress. Those present wanted to chase them away but he would not hear of it. He smiled and quietly went to fetch the secret cake that was supposed to be for him. With love, he turned to the hungry, humbled boys and served them the cake.
Wherever he went, he could see into the hearts because of his great love for each person. He knew their spiritual struggles, but over time, he drew out the strengths of those who spent time with him and actually did come to love him as deeply as he loved them – with a love transcending the prose of even the most eloquent Valentine card.
The message of the ages, “love your neighbor as yourself,” lives on in his words and can still bring great joy to our relationships today:
“So far as ye are able, ignite a candle of love in every meeting, and with tenderness rejoice and cheer ye every heart.”
Love so much, in fact, that your own bruised heart will be brave enough to love even when others blow out the wick and you must relight the candle on your own.