Monday, June 04, 2007

Moral Excellence Ain't Easy!


"The foundation-stone of a life lived in the way of God is the pursuit of moral excellence and the acquisition of a character endowed with qualities that are well-pleasing in His sight."
(The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 345)

Moral excellence is something that has been on my mind these days. God has been helping me to become painfully aware of some of my shortcomings and I've been burning up my little prayer book with passionate supplications to the Lord for spiritual transformation and detachment from self. I've also been meditating on conversations that I have had with various Baha'is who have been struggling to live up to the high standards that are set us, both personally and socially by Baha'u'llah. Though most of my experience involves attempting to live a Baha'i life, my sense is that the struggles are deeply human and common to anyone who has committed themselves to the pursuit of moral excellence, whatever their belief system. I think this is particularly true of young people (a demographic which I am rapidly becoming unqualified to claim!). Of course, as a mental health professional, my views are colored by my professional training as well. Here are a few things that I've found helpful to keep in mind:

Follow the Prescription:
Baha'u'llah has described those Exalted Figures of history, such as Moses, Christ and Muhammad as being like Divine Physicians, highly skilled in diagnosing the disease(s) afflicting humanity and prescribing the best possible remedy. What I have had to learn is that when it comes to the Divine Physician, seeking a second opinion is not an option. Every soul has a choice, take the medicine that's given, or take your chances doing your own thing.

O SON OF BEING! My love is My stronghold; he that entereth therein is safe and secure, and he that turneth away shall surely stray and perish.
(Baha'u'llah, The Arabic Hidden Words)

Shame is Good For You:
In the professional circles I travel in, shame has fallen out of favor. Shame is viewed as having little or no therapeutic value and is largely a cause of pathology (this is a generalization, but I think a fair one). Not surprisingly, Baha'u'llah had a different view of shame:

Indeed, there existeth in man a faculty which deterreth him from, and guardeth him against, whatever is unworthy and unseemly, and which is known as his sense of shame.
(Baha'u'llah, Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 27)

Shame is a faculty of human beings that acts as a deterrent and guard against unworthy or unseemly behavior (basically whatever is contrary to our true spiritual nature) and is actually necessary in our lives. Today we live under the self-esteem regime where it's more important to feel good about yourself than to "be good". However we have a name for people who never feel bad when they do bad things. We call those people sociopaths. This is hardly a state of being that healthy society should be advocating. It's important to consider what Baha'u'llah is saying about shame in the balance of other statements that He has made, such as the following:

"Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 216)

"Be fair to yourselves and to others, that the evidences of justice may be revealed, through your deeds, among Our faithful servants."
(Baha'u'llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, p. 278)

In order to make healthy use of shame we have to practice moderation, fairness and justice towards ourselves. What could be more morally excellent than that? To continue the metaphor of the Physician, shame is like powerful medicine. Taken in the appropriate dose, it may taste terrible or even have uncomfortable side effects, but can ultimately be a source of healing. An overdose of shame can prove fatal.

Imperfections Make Us Perfectly Human:
To be human is to mess up. Otherwise we would be God (personally I don't want the job). It is our effort to learn, to grow and to progress in a conscious fashion in spite of ourselves that is what moral and spiritual development is all about. Take that away and where would we be? Pretty bored and stunted in our development. One of the mysteries of life is that God makes use of imperfect instruments like ourselves to achieve His will in the world. It will never cease to amaze me.

"Bahá'u'lláh and the Master ['Abdu'l-Baha] have both urged us repeatedly to disregard our own handicaps and lay our whole reliance upon God. He will come to our help if we only arise and become an active channel for God's grace. Do you think it is the teachers who...change human hearts? No, surely not. They are only pure souls who take the first step, and then let the spirit of Bahá'u'lláh move them and make use of them...The criterion is the extent to which we are ready to have the will of God operate through us."
(Compilations, The Compilation of Compilations vol II, p. 219)

Being a Baha'i means to Try:
The primary reason for anyone becoming a Bahá'í must of course be because he has come to believe the doctrines, the teachings and the Order of Bahá'u'lláh are the correct thing for this stage in the world's evolution. The Bahá'ís themselves as a body have one great advantage: they are sincerely convinced Bahá'u'lláh is right; they have a plan, and they are trying to follow it. But to pretend they are perfect, that the Bahá'ís of the future will not be a hundred times more mature, better balanced, more exemplary in their conduct, would be foolish.
(The Universal House of Justice, quoting Shoghi Effendi, 1977 Aug 21, Work for Reconstruction of Human Society, p. 1)

One of the unfortunate things that I have witnessed is that some people deal with the challenge of living according to the Baha'i teachings by either rejecting the validity of those teachings, or accepting their validity but believing that they can never follow them. Both attitudes tend to contribute to feelings of despair or frustration and ultimately, alienation from the Baha'i community in one form or another. If people saw moral development as a dynamic process of change that functions most effectively in the context of community, they would understand that they can be a fully committed Baha'i while also struggling with what that means for their lives. I often reflect on these words of Baha'u'llah:

"The steed of this Valley is patience; without patience the wayfarer on this journey will reach nowhere and attain no goal. Nor should he ever be downhearted; if he strive for a hundred thousand years and yet fail to behold the beauty of the Friend, he should not falter. For those who seek the Ka'bih of "for Us" rejoice in the tidings: "In Our ways will We guide them."
(Baha'u'llah, The Seven Valleys, p. 4)

The way that I read this passage is that God guides and blesses us according to our effort, rather than a particular outcome. Outcomes are ultimately the fruit of the dynamic interplay of human striving and divine assistance. It's the striving that really counts. Personally, I'd rather be part of a community of imperfect people striving to be their best, than people who've already attained perfection (or at least think they have!).

Enough from me, what do you think reader?