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The other day I went to visit some friends, and just by chance I got to meet a wonderful soul, a true spiritual seeker—and what do you know, an enthusiastic reader of BahaiTeachings.org.
This doesn’t happen all the time. The writer’s life—you may have heard this before—is a solitary one. We writers tend to sit in front of a computer monitor all day, filled with fear and self-doubt, racking our brains for new ideas, fishing in the ocean of creativity and often coming up empty, daunted by what we don’t know, taunted by that blinking cursor and haunted by the minutes ticking away on that little digital clock in the lower right-hand corner of the screen. If we’re lucky and the muse does pay us a visit, we write down our innermost thoughts and hope they make sense and send them out like lonely orphan hitchhikers into the big wide world, rarely knowing whether they generate any discussion, have any impact or reach across hyper-stellar-cyber space into anyone’s heart, mind or soul.
You could compare it to attempting to cook the most delicious food imaginable, slaving over a hot stove all day every day, but never knowing if anyone ate it. Or liked it.
Most other creative types and artists get to do or perform or exhibit their work in front of an audience. Musicians, actors, painters, sculptors, performance artists, comics—they all have at least the occasional opportunity to get immediate and direct responses from people who personally witness their creativity. Writers, not so much.
Oh, sure, writers occasionally do get feedback. “There is a typo in paragraph four.” “Shouldn’t it be ‘whom,’ not ‘who’?” “Don’t you think that this essay would be better if you included this idea/piece of research/factoid/quote?” Or, my favorite, “Have you people lost your minds?”
Don’t get me wrong—these kinds of responses can be very helpful. As everyone knows, it’s always interesting and enlightening to have your mistakes, foibles and faults exposed, analyzed and discussed publicly. What could be more amusing? We really do want to know about those typos; and yes, no doubt about it, we have definitely lost our minds. I know I left mine around here somewhere…
Seriously, though, we writers even get positive feedback sometimes. People often say very kind things like “thanks for writing this,” or “nicely written” or “keep up the good work.” Or, even better, they’ll comment on the real substance of the writing, which tends to be the most fun and rewarding, because then you can actually have an exchange of ideas. Writers love ideas. That’s why we’re writers.
But rarely do we lowly scribes get the opportunity to have an engaging, fascinating, face-to-face discussion with a real live reader, and that unexpected and very pleasant surprise happened to me just the other day.
My friends’ visitor (I’ll call her Mary to protect her privacy), had dropped in to say hello, talk about some of the things she’d just read on BahaiTeachings, and to re-start her temporarily-interrupted exploration of the Baha’i Faith.
When I heard Mary put it that way, I immediately thought of another writer, a famous poet named Gary Snyder. I once heard Gary read some of his beautiful, touching poetry at an author event, and he agreed to take questions after the reading—yet another example of a writer who occasionally likes some interaction with his audience. Anyway, one of the questioners asked “When did you start writing poetry?”
Gary answered with a question of his own: “When did you stop?”
So, taking a cue from the poet’s absolutely delightful answer, which of course assumes that we all have poetry in our souls, I asked my friends’ friend Mary “Why did you stop?”
The question opened up a torrent of feelings, emotions and thoughts, not just for her but for all of us. I quickly learned the courageous Mary had been reading, as recently as the day before, some of the essays about the nature of God here on BahaiTeachings, and that they inspired her—and scared her, too. In fact, they had brought about some significant anxiety, which she definitely wanted to talk about.
It turned out that Mary stopped investigating the Baha’i Faith for a while because she had a fear of betraying Jesus, and her family, and her entire culture.
She explained: “I come from a big Hispanic family, and of course we’re all Catholics. We’re taught from birth that our religion is a part of who we are. We grow up in it. We learn it as little children, and we’re told that if we leave it, we’ll suffer terribly throughout eternity. So when I started learning about Baha’u’llah and the Baha’i Faith, I loved what I heard. The Baha’i teachings spoke to my soul. I believed them. But then I got scared, and I ran away. I had so much anxiety—I can feel it right now, talking about this. I was afraid that if I accepted Baha’u’llah and became a Baha’i, I might not be able to live up to it, or I’d be a traitor to Christianity. What should I do?”
I could feel the deep emotion in Mary’s heart as she talked, and I could see that just describing her deepest spiritual feelings out loud nearly brought her to tears.
So we talked for a while about it, and we had a fascinating conversation, filled with open-minded ideas and big concepts and powerful thoughts. In this short series of essays, I’ll try to do justice to some of the things we talked about, and attempt to respond to Mary’s deep, profound, heartfelt questions, which really challenge all of us to look inward and examine our own beliefs. I’ll try to rely, as the Baha’i teachings suggest, on reason:
…know ye that God has created in man the power of reason, whereby man is enabled to investigate reality. God has not intended man to imitate blindly his fathers and ancestors. He has endowed him with mind, or the faculty of reasoning, by the exercise of which he is to investigate and discover the truth, and that which he finds real and true he must accept. He must not be an imitator or blind follower of any soul. He must not rely implicitly upon the opinion of any man without investigation; nay, each soul must seek intelligently and independently, arriving at a real conclusion and bound only by that reality. – Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 291.