Monday, November 1, 2010

Strings and Teaching

I may have mentioned it before, but I am currently writing for another blog, called Spiritually Speaking. It is part of the Times-Colonist website, the local newspaper here in Victoria. As I've been mulling over the purpose of this other blog and what I hope to do there, a few thoughts about teaching came to mind. I figured it might be a good idea to place them here for your consideration.

To start, let me tell you a story. It's a familiar one to many of us, I'm sure. It all begins when someone asks me about the faith, usually with something along the lines of "So what is Baha'i?" This is always asked as if such a broad question can be answered in just a few moments. Then I begin to panic, thinking this may be the only chance I will ever have of telling this person about the Baha'i Faith, and what if I blow it, and they never get a chance to hear about it again and how would I feel when I get to the next world, and the list of internal panic questions just goes on and on. Well, then I begin to speak as fast as possible about the Baha'i Faith which began in 1844 when the Bab, a young merchant from Shiraz, Iran, declared His Faith to Mulla Husayn, cramming as much raw data as I can into the space of just a few moments, and did I mention Tahirih, the only female Letter of the Living, and the Conference of Badasht, and how 'Abdul-Baha came to North America in 1912, and Shoghi Effendi appointed 27 Hands of the Cause just before he passed away, hoping to touch on every aspect of the Faith as much as I can before they run screaming into the distance. And, as I predicted, I never get a chance to tell them anything more about the Faith.

I'm sure you know what I mean, and recognize that this is not the best way to try and share the Faith with someone. Knowing this, a number of years ago I took it upon myself to try and find a simple way of answering that question in under a minute. But then I realized that this wasn't enough. I needed to answer the question in such a way that they were encouraged to ask another question that would tell me what they wanted to hear.

Aside, as if all that wasn't enough of an aside yet: I remember hearing one person do this to some unfortunate guy. He asked, and she went on for what seemed like two hours. Non-stop. Almost without breath. It reminded of Mark Twain's comment that he hadn't spoken to his wife in fifteen years, because he didn't want to interrupt her. This gentleman and I were both too polite to interrupt this woman. As soon as I could, I politely stepped in front of her, and asked the man if he liked baseball. It's not that I did, but I noticed that he had something baseball-like in his hands (a program or magazine or some such). This took us on a totally unrelated topic, and changed his expression from "get me out of here" to "let's talk some more". From there, we spoke of unity on the teams, and how important unity is in our life. He then wanted to come to a fireside that was being held later that night.

All this to say that I don't think it is enough to merely answer a question, or to tell someone something so that they say, "Thanks, that answers my question." For that is a dead end.

No, I want to engage them in a conversation so that they will then ask me something in return. My favorite thing is when I'm asked a really good question and have to say, "Wow, that is wonderful, but I'll have answer it next time", for then the conversation is not over.

It is sort of like Shaherazad and the 1001 Arabian Nights. She had to keep the Shah wanting more of the story. If she ever got to the end, she would have died the next day, and she knew it.

But for us, it is a bit different. We are trying to share something so beautiful, so profound, and we are trying to help create a new civilization in the process. We can't just tell people what we think they want to hear, for most of the people out there really don't care about the Letters of the Living, or have no interest in hearing yet again about world peace or gender equality. They have their own interests. And we need to listen to them to find out what they are.

It is sort of like what Baha'u'llah is reported to have said, in Stories from the Delight of Hearts: "Consider the way in which the Master teaches the people. He listens very carefully to the most hollow and senseless talk. He listens so intently that the speaker says to himself, 'He is trying to learn from me.' Then the Master gradually and very carefully, by means that the other person does not perceive, puts him on the right path and endows him with a fresh power of understanding."

You see, "He listens very carefully". He finds out what they are interested in, and then helps elevate the conversation, just like in Ruhi Book 2.

But how does this apply to writing? We know that this doesn't work in conversations, but it can also kill a readers interest.

With this other blog, I realize that the first thing we need to do is find out what is of interest to the readers. Then we need to write about it. Just a bit. Offer a little taste of what the Writings say, and leave room for comments. If we do not leave room for comments, and tie up everything nice and neat, then we are not engaged in conversation. We are lecturing. We can speak on controversial or conservative issues; I'm not sure it really matters. But if we speak about controversial issues, in a respectful and loving manner, then the editors will see lots and lots of exciting comments and be more inclined to keep the forum open.

This is what I mean when I say "strings" in the title. We need to offer a bit on an idea, but not so much that there is no room for comment. We can talk a lot about one aspect of something, such as God's love in the presentation in Book 6, and only a tiny bit about something else, such as the Covenant. This opens up the conversation in that direction, as many will ask about it.

It is the same with writing. We can write about the gay marriage issue, as I once did, helping place it within a context that makes the issue easier to grapple with. Some may have noticed that I never said what the Baha'i perspective was in that particular article, but that is because it was irrelevant to the issue at hand, which was about re-framing the question. Once I did that, it helped a number of people realized that they were, in fact, confusing the two issues (one being the legal marriage and the other the religious marriage). By this point, they were aware that I didn't condemn anyone for not being Baha'i, and were open to hearing our perspective, whether or not they agreed with it. If they did, fine. If they disagreed, they knew it was ok. They could freely choose to follow another path, without concern of me attacking them for it.

To see more on this issue, take another look at the outline you made for the presentation in Ruhi Book 6. You will see that it talks about the eternal Covenant. From there, it talks about Baha'u'llah, the latest link in this eternal chain. It just makes sense. "Eternal covenant", you say. "And Who are some of these Manifestations," they may ask. You list a few and be sure to end with Baha'u'llah. They may ask a bit about Him, and you talk about the pivot of His teachings: unity. They then naturally ask to hear more about Him, which carries you forward in the talk. At every step there is room for questions. At every point, whether in conversation or in writing, we need to keep it open to hear the response from others, to hear what is happening in their heart. For then you will hear what to write about next.

And this is what I think about when I'm writing about the Faith. How do I keep the conversation open? And on-going?

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic! Very inspiring! Thank you. Allah'u'Abha!