Around the world, for more than half a century, television has serialized stories about various small sets of characters.
Some of these series took the form of weekly situation comedies (“sit-coms”) about people trapped in the same workplace or apartment building. Some were daily installments of mildly tragic melodramas originally paid for by companies selling house soap—hence “soap operas.” They transcend culture and language—in Spanish, for example, these so-called “telenovelas” dominate much media programming.
These kinds of stories are so pervasive that we have to remind ourselves TV did not invent their comic and tragic forms. Such tales of daily life have been with us for centuries, as with the Comedia dell-Arte of the 16th to 18th centuries. Every plot launches with some form of uneasiness or imbalance, something not sustainable, something annoying because it isn’t fair; and characters search for a resolution of their dilemma, trying to get to fairness or justice.
These stories allow us to put at arm’s length the real-life dilemmas we encounter in our own daily lives when, just like in fiction, we are trying to make things right. But what does it mean to “get things right,” “make things right,” or treat people “right?”
Four Principles for Daily Life
Fortunately, the Baha’i teachings address this kind of daily disorder in Shoghi Effendi’s book The Advent of Divine Justice. In it, he affirms that we can untangle the mess of daily life in the world by applying just four principles—which in common language I’ve translated to:
- Be the change you want to see;
- Work on getting yourself together;
- Free yourself from fear of the unknown; and finally
- Wake up grateful
No part of this formula comes easily. If it were easy, then the world would already be as it should be—no small order, because this basic formula forms the entire curriculum for being and behaving as befits a human being.
Be the change you want to see—in other words, commit to “rectitude of conduct”
The first order of business calls each of us to cease causing harm in the world; and instead to work to become a source of benefit to humanity.
We are talking here of more than just recycling to protect the Earth and its oceans—we are talking about the way we human beings treat each other all day long, every day. Shoghi Effendi identified three themes of personal conduct that help us “be the change” we want to see in the world. He wrote that we should be guided by:
- an abiding sense of undeviating justice
- equity, truthfulness, honesty, fair-mindedness; and
- reliability and trustworthiness
This first reference to justice is obviously not about crime and punishment. It’s a more elevated, subtle and everyday form of justice. Indeed, the Baha’i teachings say that God prizes this form of justice above all things:
The best beloved of all things in My sight is justice; turn not away therefrom if thou desirest Me, and neglect it not that I may confide in thee. By its aid thou shalt see with thine own eyes and not through the eyes of others, and shalt know of thine own knowledge and not through the knowledge of thy neighbour. Ponder this in thy heart; how it behoveth thee to be. – Baha’u’llah, The Hidden Words, pp. 3-4.
This kind of internal justice—by which we see with our own eyes—will free and protect us from mob thinking and mob behavior. With a well-developed sense of internal justice and fair-mindedness, we stand independent of disinformation when we investigate for ourselves what, in fact, is going on. For us to be blown about by winds of false pronouncements is undignified and unbefitting of an adult human being.
As for equity, truthfulness, honesty, and fair-mindedness—how brightly these qualities gleam, especially when compared with the murky behaviors that occur when divine guidance goes missing. These standards have an innate clarity and cleanliness which has the power to restore and dignify relations between ourselves and others.
Both reliability and trustworthiness abide over time. The change we want to see becomes a permanent change, a lasting improvement to our inner character. To achieve that, the Baha’i teachings provide us even more radical and profound spiritual foundations on which to base noble behavior. Our capacity for perseverance can be firmly grounded by remaining undefiled from whatever things can be seen in this world; and practicing resignation and submission to the Will of God
We cannot avoid seeing things in the world that are not good for us. But we can see them without being defiled by them, if we detach our sense of self from their contamination and affirm that our true spiritual identity can never be defiled.
The second even more radical phrase suggests that we can gain sufficient patience, forbearance and fortitude to triumph over a situation if we stop wasting our energy “arguing with God” about being there. Instead, we can trust in the hidden wisdom and benefit in every situation—even perhaps in the means it will take to get us out of there. As folk wisdom has it: “the will of God will never place you where the grace of God cannot reach you.”
Similarly, the Baha’i teachings exhort us to “cling to the cord” of faithfulness, trust, resignation and radiant acquiescence, so that our connection to God remains firm under all conditions.