Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Passing of a Friend

A friend of mine, Tom Faulkner, passed away yesterday, and that has gotten me thinking about death and the next world again. Kind of a recurring subject with me, isn't it?

It has often been said that contemplation of death leads one to spirituality.

Some believe that when we die we end up in some of sort of a line awaiting a decision about whether get to go to a good place or a bad place. It is a very binary view of the world, a "you're saved or you're damned" perspective, with little room in between. What I call "Salvation Religions" tend to be in this category.

Others believe that when you move from this world to the next (or die, to use a simple term), you continue growing in a spiritual way. They tend to believe that your spirit is growing during your entire life and that death just offers a continuation of that process. I like to call the faiths that lean towards this belief "Spiritual Growth Religions".

Most faiths seem to be of one category of the other, although some have a few aspects of each, such as the "recurring life faiths" that believe you come to this plane of existence over and over until you reach a high enough state that you can go on. It's almost like spiritual growth until you reach salvation.

When asked about this, Shoghi Effendi offered the following: "You ask an explanation of what happens to us after we leave this world: This is a question which none of the Prophets have ever answered in detail, for the very simple reason that you cannot convert to a person's mind something entirely different from everything they have ever experienced... All we know is that our consciousness, our personality, endures in some new state, and that that world is as much better than this one as this one is better than the dark womb of our mother was..."

This statement, of course, was in relation to 'Abdu'l-Baha's explanation of death being like our movement from the womb-world to this world. In Janet Harper's marvelous book, The Universe Within Us, she explains very well the idea that our task in the womb was to develop our body, while our task in this world is to develop our virtues.

With all this running through my mind, and while my body was delightfully soaking in a hot tub (we're moving today, and we have the hardship of having to stay in a hotel this evening, and the hotel has a hot tub and a swimming pool, so I suffered in the warm water, and my wife and son are still doing penance in the swimming pool, oh the pain of it all), a question ran through my brain. "What aspects of myself are most useful in this world?" Following swiftly on its tail was another question: "Which aspects of my life will be most useful in the next world?"

In response to the first question (no doubt influenced by the hot jets of water massaging my tired muscles), I thought "My physical strength". And no sooner had this crossed my mind than I thought again of Tom, and his extreme physical weakness in his last weeks. I may be biased, but I have never thought of Tom as particularly physical, but he was quite brilliant intellectually.

And then I thought of Stephen Hawking, another brilliant individual, whom I do not consider first when thinking of physical prowess.

No. I found myself correcting my earlier thought. The physical body is merely the lowest of the aspects of myself in this world. The intellect is far more important. (And this is not to say the physical is not important, just that it is the least important of those aspects that are important. Afer all, if you neglect the body, the mind will suffer.)

Me being me, and not finding much to distract me in the hot tub (except for the hordes of screaming children going down the waterslide), I put this into a perspective I could readily understand.

As we all know, a physically imposing person can get by pretty well in the world through physical intimidation. Bullying works. At least on a one to one ratio. With collective security being popular (like a police force, to name but one example), we all can begin to see that it doesn't work all that well on a ratio less favorable to the bully.

An intellectual person, however, can organize a group of bullies to act on their behalf. How often have we seen lame movies that show a "brilliant" bad guy with a bunch of dumb thugs doing their bidding? Too often to count, I'm sure.

Despite any religious convictions I may have, I am, unfortunately, forced to admit that people can get by quite well in this world in either of the two above categories.

But that is only in this world. What about the next?

There I am forced to admit that being spiritual, or virtuous, now takes the upper hand. Of course, this is nothing new, and I am only restating what we all know to be the case. What I am curious about is what that may look like there, in that next world.

Here, an intellectual can unravel difficult issues and solve complex problems (or write mildly amusing articles with a touch in it to make one think, hopefully). In the next world, we are told that our perceptions will be such that all the answers will before us.

Well, there goes the intellectual advantage. (I'm not bothering to eliminate the physical advantage as death itself has already done that.)

But for someone who has a keen understanding of virtues, and can elicit them forth in others? Now there is someone with an advantage in the next world.

That is something to strive for in this one. While we need to develop our own virtues to the greatest extent we can, it would also be great to learn to help bring forth those same virtues in others. Not only would this help make the world a much better place, but it would also help others to grow in ways that are needed for the next.

And that is where I began to think of Tom again. He had this beautiful way of gently encouraging virtuous development in others. Usually you were unaware of it (of course, he may have been unaware of it, too).

I remember one time when we were at some gathering together and I saw him struggling with his oxygen tank, trying to catch his breath. "Tom," I asked, "can I offer you a ride home?"

He looked up at me and smiled his gentle smile, "Mead, I was counting on it."

That simple assumption of courtesy on my part meant so much to me. He had just assumed I would offer, while never taking it for granted, for he was always unfailingly grateful. And I knew he could not have gone to that meeting if he had not known that he would get a ride home. So there we were, me offering, and Tom accepting.

Now, in retrospect, I also realize that he had made a profound statement, one that I truly take to heart. We really do have to presume virtuous behaviour on the part of others. The world depends on it. Too much is going wrong in the world and we need to do something to change it. Presuming courtesy, after teaching it, of course, may be a good place to begin.

In fact, I think I am counting on it, too.

Thanks Tom.

1 comment:

  1. This brings to mind this quote from Abdu'l-Baha:

    "The first thing to do is to acquire a thirst for Spirituality, then Live the Life! Live the Life! Live the Life! The way to acquire this thirst is to meditate upon the future life. Study the Holy Words, read your Bible, read the Holy Books, especially study the Holy Utterances of Bahá'u'lláh; Prayer and Meditation, take much time for these two. Then will you know this Great Thirst, and then only can you begin to Live the Life!"
    (Compilation on Prayer, Meditation and the Spiritual Life, The Compilation of Compilations Vol. I, p. 204)