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One of the distinguishing features of the modern world is the growing conviction that equality is a fundamental principle of ethical living.
Fewer people want to submit to the authority of others; and fewer people think that it’s their place to tell others what to do. Because of that trend, some people tend to think of themselves as being on a level plane with everyone else. This is all well and good, further evidence that consciousness of the oneness of humanity has taken root in the world. But it can also negatively impact our enthusiasm for helping others if we approach it in the wrong way. In particular, I think this has implications for how young people of different ages interact with each other.
As most of us can attest, we all have experienced times in our lives when we need someone we can look up to and turn to for guidance–not just parents, teachers, employers, and other authority figures, but peers who we consider our equals. Quite often, no one fulfills that role, especially with respect to youth. For example, when we’re young we know that it’s important to serve our community, but we don’t have an idea where to begin. We don’t know what line of work to pursue, and aren’t sure when or how to start thinking about it. We blunder through our love lives without any clear sense of what we’re doing wrong–and no one helps us through it. In such cases, we need someone with a depth of wisdom and a breadth of personal experience that exceeds our own.
While still being equals in a basic sense, we need people in our lives who have a little more knowledge and who are happy to help us pull ourselves up. Most of the time, these people are at least a little bit older—but not much.
In his writings and talks, Abdu’l-Baha dealt with this universal aspect of the human condition, including in this passage about the oneness of humanity:
The divine religions must be the cause of oneness among men, and the means of unity and love; they must promulgate universal peace, free man from every prejudice, bestow joy and gladness, exercise kindness to all men and do away with every difference and distinction. Just as Baha’u’llah addressing the world of humanity saith: “O people! Ye are the fruits of one tree and the leaves of one branch.” At most it is this, that some souls are ignorant, they must be educated; some are sick, they must be healed; some are still of tender age, they must be helped to attain maturity, and the utmost kindness must be shown to them. – Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 28.
For Abdu’l-Baha, practicing unity involves the strong assisting the weak. With “the utmost kindness” they aid them to rise up, attain maturity and cultivate their hidden gifts.
One unfortunate feature of my home country, the United States, is the lack of contact between young people of different ages. High school students like to hang out with other high school students. College students tend to socialize with each other. People in their mid-to-late twenties often have little contact with anyone under the age of 22. Anybody just a few years younger might seem too immature, too uncool, and too annoying.
I think this pattern partly results from an educational system that so rarely blends students of different ages; and partly comes from our shared ethos of equality. Young people generally don’t want the responsibility that comes with being looked up to. They want to be in the same boat as everyone else in the room. This is unfortunate, because most people have experience and insights that could immensely benefit those who are a few years younger.
Equality doesn’t have to mean we never turn to our elders for guidance. Few spaces exist in which youth of different ages can talk it out and explore their already-gained wisdom. We’d be able to lead richer, fuller lives if only it could become our collective habit to connect people of different ages in a chain of mentorship that extends from early childhood right up to the heights of old age. Binding each other together in fellowship would bring about a more perfect unity. Each person could function both as a mentor and a mentee. If we had that system in place, then we could more efficiently learn from the experience of those who have come before us, and assist those who are coming after us to learn from our own experience.
In Baha’i communities around the world, we’ve tried to address this lack of inter-generational contact and mentoring by building a system of junior youth and youth groups, which gather young people of different but similar ages and encourage them to interact with each other. Those youth and junior youth groups have begun to flourish, and truly help the growth and development of those who participate in them. If you’re in that age range—anywhere from 11-25—look up your local Baha’i community and ask about their youth groups. They’re open to everyone.
Those who are younger than us can seize opportunities we might only have seen in hindsight. They don’t have to make the same mistakes we’ve made. They might be able to do it on their own. But it’s far easier if we lend them a helping hand.