We all want to make the world a better place. But why do we hold ourselves back?
Everyone loves the idea of contributing something good to the world—of spending one’s life doing something that will make things better for everyone. But we don’t always do it to the best of our ability; and unfortunately, what holds us back is often the limitations we place upon ourselves and others.
Recently, I’ve started to become more aware of the types of thoughts that might be subconsciously holding me back from serving my community as best I can. I found that with the hurried frenzy of my daily schedule, it’s terribly easy to avoid reflecting on my actions, but the more I try to re-center myself, the more I’m realizing that I often hold myself back from service.
I want to visit families in the neighborhood where I teach children’s classes and invite more children to participate. I want to have more meaningful conversations with the people around me. I want to find new ways to be of service… Setting goals is easy, but taking the first step towards achieving them takes a lot more effort.
Sometimes, when I begin to think about the logistics needed to make something happen, I seem to freeze up. I start to question my own ability to follow through—and I start to imagine worst-case scenarios. Worse, I resort to self-pity: if only I had someone else who could do these things instead, if only I had more time, if only… etc. etc.
It’s not conducive to helping others, and is actually a very self-centered way of approaching problems, which has no place in efforts for the betterment of the world. So how can we overcome these self-defeating emotions?
People often say “Believe in yourself!” But what if, faced with the magnitude of what you hope to do, that isn’t enough?
Do thou not look upon… thy limited capacity; look thou upon the Bounties and Providence of the Lord of the Kingdom, for His Confirmation is great, and His Power unparalleled and incomparable. – Abdu’l-Baha, To Move the World, p. 7
If we’re embarking on a journey to do something that has never been done before—if we want to improve things to a degree people might think is impossible—then of course thinking about ourselves will only make us lose motivation. We are all fallible, and no one knows our faults more than we do ourselves. It’s good to be confident—but believing in ourselves can only take us so far.
Abdu’l-Baha spoke about the concept of “confirmation”: when we make an effort, God will confirm us by helping us succeed. He used the example of a bird, who makes the effort to take off from the ground, and the wind under its wings pushes it to greater heights. In the same way, he said, God’s confirmations strengthen our efforts and guide us in the right direction.
Sometimes, when planning to start an inter-faith prayer gathering in a neighborhood, an irrational fear of rejection threatens to stop us. We think, what if my neighbors think I’m weird? What if they find the concept of a community gathering so disturbing that they never speak to me again? (Thoughts like these are usually completely unfounded, but that doesn’t make them any less powerful when faced with a neighbor’s doorbell and the challenge of doing something for the first time.)
In times like these, it only takes that first effort to identify confirmations. Often, our neighbor turns out to be much more enthusiastic than we expected them to be, or has even been thinking about doing something similar. A path that seemed cloudy and scary at first, is now clear and exciting, and everything comes together.
Today the confirmations of the Kingdom of Bahá are with those who renounce themselves, forget their own opinions, cast aside personalities and are thinking of the welfare of others. — Abdu’l-Baha, Star of the West, Vol. XVII, p. 348
Taking that first step doesn’t become any easier, but when we believe in God’s assistance rather than only in ourselves, we are empowered infinitely more. We are no longer relying on our own skills and talents; rather, we can aspire to do things we never thought we would be able to do—to face our fears and do even greater things.
Service is all about building capacity. In our quest to make the world a better place, we are constantly improving our thoughts and behaviors, both on our own and through working with others. As we push ourselves to be the best we can be, and through prayer and meditation come to a deeper understanding of our true purpose, we discover new skills and talents in ourselves that we can use to serve our community.
Best of all, we can find friends who will support us through our efforts to make a better place, and united through reliance on God and a shared vision of what we want to see the world become, we can overcome the tendency to hold ourselves back, and instead wholeheartedly pursue what our soul is calling us to do.