Imagine yourself as a wanderer crossing the great Sahara Desert, bereft of supplies, out of water, alone, trudging through the thick deep sands.
The blazing heat rises in waves above the sandy surface, sucking the energy out of your body. Trudging, stumbling, weak-kneed, you walk haphazardly, hoping for surcease, a town, a village, shelter—and cool refreshing water to quench your dying thirst. You climb to the top of a high sand dune and look beyond, hoping against hope for relief, nearby relief.
What’s that? In the distance below, you see a gleaming green and blue oasis! Palm trees wave, laden with milk-filled coconuts, surrounding a spring of refreshing, glowing, inviting water, waiting for you, tantalizing you. You start to run, hoping to strip off your garments, dive into the pool and refresh your emaciated body.
But this dream-like image grows no closer. As hard as you run you come no nearer. You can almost feel the water droplets from the spring covering your body, submerging your being, slaking your profound thirst. So close!
But try as mightily as you can, with waning strength, you cannot reach that fading mirage:
Grieve thou not over the troubles and hardships of this nether world, nor be thou glad in times of ease and comfort, for both shall pass away. This present life is even as a swelling wave, or a mirage, or drifting shadows. Could ever a distorted image on the desert serve as refreshing waters? No, by the Lord of Lords! Never can reality and the mere semblance of reality be one, and wide is the difference between fancy and fact, between truth and the phantom thereof. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, pp. 177-178.
We all know what it’s like to crave something in this world, be it water, love, peace or stability. We all want safety and security, to know where our next meal is coming from, to be clothed, to have shelter, to be with our loved ones in the face of sorrow or trouble. We all wish for strength and health, freedom from fear and oppression, for war to cease.
Sadly, though, suffering is the lot of most of humanity today. Hopes, like mirages in the desert, are lifted up after years of sorrow, only to vanish as illusions. Across the globe, only a relative few live in comfort and security.
Yet, we are all human. We naturally strive for something better, if not for us then for our children and grandchildren. We know that better exists and can exist. The rewards of striving can be great, for a great many, both materially and spiritually. But our true happiness, the Baha’i teachings say, cannot come from the material things of life, which present us with “a semblance of reality” rather than the real thing. The real thing comes instead from within:
It will surely become evident … that what will attract God’s blessings and ensure true happiness both in this world and in the next is the development of spiritual qualities, such as honesty, trustworthiness, generosity, justice, and consideration for others, and the recognition that material means are to be expended for the betterment of the world. – The Universal House of Justice letter To the Baha’is in Iran, 2 April 2010.
According to the Baha’i teachings no harm can befall a person who strives for material well-being, as long as they do not let those material things intervene between them and God:
Should a man wish to adorn himself with the ornaments of the earth, to wear its apparels, or partake of the benefits it can bestow, no harm can befall him, if he alloweth nothing whatever to intervene between him and God, for God hath ordained every good thing, whether created in the heavens or in the earth, for such of His servants as truly believe in Him. Eat ye, O people, of the good things which God hath allowed you, and deprive not yourselves from His wondrous bounties. Render thanks and praise unto Him, and be of them that are truly thankful. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 276.
“Eat ye, O people, of the good things God hath allowed you,” also applies to partaking of all the spiritual qualities and virtues available to us. They “are every good thing” as well. Unlike the things we possess, there is no end to them, just as there is no end to human perfection.
The absolute spiritual bounties we can attain in both this world and the next, in our lives now and beyond, for ourselves and all humankind—those all occur within the human spirit, and then manifest themselves in altruistic action:
Great is the station of man. Great must also be his endeavours for the rehabilitation of the world and the well-being of nations. I beseech the One true God to graciously confirm thee in that which beseemeth man’s station. – Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, pp. 175-176.
So we may ask ourselves, “What is worth striving for? Where do I exert my energy? What will do the most good?” The Baha’i teachings ask us all to live lives of service to humanity—to forget our own needs and attend to the needs of others. Perhaps if we can do this, to at least strive to better the world and achieve unity, we will reach that gleaming oasis.