Friday, January 16, 2015

A Single Kernel

The day I became a Baha'i, I ran into Mrs Khadem, widow of the Hand of the Cause of God, Mr Khadem. I know that I mentioned meeting her a few times in previous articles but I never actually said what happened.

I was at the Baha'i Temple in Wilmette, near Chicago, and I had just been given a lengthy lecture in the library about what it meant to be a Baha'i, none of which I remember. In a post-oratorial daze, I opened the door and meant to step into the visitor's centre, but stepped, instead, into Mrs Khadem. Full on. Bang. Knocked her right over.

After much apologizing on my part, helping her up all the while, she, too, proceeded to tell me the importance of what I had just done. Enrolling in the Faith, not knocking her over.

Out of all the things that people said to me on that first day of my life as an actual enrolled member of this Faith of ours, only one thing stands out, and it came from Mrs Khadem. "You must", she said, "read the writings of the Guardian."

Over the years this has been one of my guiding lights in the Faith: to continue to read the writings of the Guardian.

In fact, whenever a friend declares their faith, I strongly encourage them to read Shoghi Effendi's writings. To my great surprise, though, I have seen many veteran Baha'is try to talk others out of reading his works. "It's too difficult", they claim, "for a new Baha'i." To which I lovingly reply, "Hogwash."

I love the Guardian's works. They are precise, beautiful and very inspirational. They not only give me a clearer understanding of what Baha'u'llah teaches, they raise my vision, too. They challenge me, and change me. They get me to not only rise beyond my own vision of what I think this Faith is, but they challenge me to better understand my own mother tongue.

And today, it seems to me that many new Baha'is I meet are only reading those portions of the Guardian's writings that are either found in the Ruhi curriculum or quoted by the Universal House of Justice. Of course, there are those who do read his works, but I'm finding more and more who are not.

I suspect they don't know what they are missing.

I was reading "Citadel of Faith" the other day, not a common one to read for sure, when I ran across the following passage. It was written for the centenary of the Martyrdom of the Bab and shared at the gathering in the Baha'i Temple in Wilmette. (Yes, the same place I unceremoniously plowed into Mrs Khadem.)

It's only two pages long, and begins with a reminder that the Bab was the "Founder of the Dispensation marking the culmination of the six thousand year old Adamic Cycle" and the "Inaugurator of the five thousand century Baha'i Cycle". In two paragraphs he briefly outlines the history of the Faith of the Bab, and the incredible turmoil that occurred within the world's governments and religious institutions from that time through the writing of his letter. He takes another couple of lines to outline the history of the Baha'i administration as well as mention the valiant deeds of those believers who were present on that occasion, and adds another single line casting our sight into the future to the Golden Age of the Faith. Then, and this is where I wanted to begin, he gives us yet another vision altogether.

"Lastly", he writes with such beauty, "the Holy Seed of infinite preciousness, holding within itself incalculable potentialities representing the culmination of the centuries-old process of the evolution of humanity through the energies released by the series of progressive Revelations starting with Adam and concluded by the Revelation of the Seal of the Prophets, marked by the successive appearance of the branches, leaves, buds, blossoms and plucked, after six brief years by the hand of destiny, ground in the mill of martyrdom and oppression but yielding the oil whose first flickering light cast upon the somber, subterranean walls of the Siyah-Chal of Tihran, whose fire gathered brilliance in Baghdad and shone in full resplendency in its crystal globe in Adrianople, whose rays warmed and illuminated the fringes of the American, European, Australian continents through the tender ministerings of the Center of the Covenant, whose radiance is now overspreading the surface of the globe during the present Formative Age, whose full splendor is destined in the course of future milleniums to suffuse the entire planet."

Just imagine that. Take a moment, dear Reader, to visualize what he is saying. Envisage this tree, growing through all history, through all seasons, surging forth with each subsequent Revelation, producing a shoot, a small branch, eventually growing into a larger tree with leaves, and finally, after many centuries, a flower. This flower has grown to produce a seed, which has been taken and ground to produce an oil, which, in turn, has been ignited, casting a light that has shone within their hearts and throughout the world.

What a vision.

But then, as if that wasn't enough, he shows them how much the Faith has grown in the one hundred years since that momentous event. And he doesn't just give them the statistics; he prefaces it within this beautiful poetical vision. He says, "the crushing of this God-imbued kernel upon the anvil of adversity has ignited the first sparks of the Holy Fire latent within it", and then proceeds to unveil to them the immensity of their successes and victories.

The Guardian not only gave us a clearer vision of the teachings of our faith; he not only showed us where we were going as a community; he not only outlined for us the full scope of our Administration and showed us the way to victory; he did all this, and more, with a sense of beauty and poetry and grace.

And with far more grace than I showed when I first enrolled.

Monday, January 5, 2015

That's Correct

In my most recent article, I talked about racism and how we needed to be a bit more aware of it, as well as understand its impact.

The responses were amazing. Thank you, all.

And I don`t mean thanks for the praise, for there wasn`t much of it, and what there was I don`t feel was deserved. It would be like thanking me for pointing out that there is garbage strewn around a park. It's sort of a thankless task.

The reason I am thanking you is for all your heart-felt concerns and questions about your own lives, and the confirmation of the breadth of the problem. The stories often brought me to tears, and the confessions raised some very interesting and real points about how to deal with racism in your own life.

Out of it all, one thing in particular stood out and that was the recurring theme of how to handle someone who does something in the "wrong" way. While the words "correct", "right", "appropriate" and all their synonyms and antonyms came up often when describing the problem, I don't think it was really what was meant.

Let me explain.

One friend very lovingly gave a real example from their own life. He is in a position of hiring people to work with a team of others. When he interviews people, the concern is not only their experience and expertise, but also their ability to work well as part of that team. So far, so good.

Where he lives, in the US mid-west, there is a great difference in style of speech between the African-Americans and the White folk. It is a very real difference, and a lot of prejudice surrounds it. To the White folk, this other style of speech sounds ignorant. To the African-Americans, the other people sound snobbish. This is only exacerbated by my friend's very natural assertion, "we speak correct, un-dialected un-accented grammatically-proper English".

When I read that phrase to my wife, who is from Quebec, she just about doubled over laughing.

You see, what my friend meant was that he was speaking in the normal style for his community. It is an agreed upon standard, and it feels natural to him. It would never occur to him that there is anything else.

But it accented. (To my ear, it sounds very nasal, and that they are about to swallow their vowels.) And it is a dialect. (Their phonology, grammar, and vocabulary are used by a group of speakers who are set apart from others geographically and socially, hence a dialect, just in case you want to dispute it.) And it is only grammatically proper according to that group. If we were to drop anyone from there into the middle of Oxford, England. they would all stand out, and would sound quite ignorant to the people there. (I am certain they would never use the phrase, "up with which we will not put".)

You see, this is the sort of thing that is very difficult to recognize when you are continually immersed in your own group. The problem is not the standard of that group, for that is part of what makes up community. It is the thought that one is right and the other wrong. This inappropriately places one group in a position of advantage while saying the other group is somehow lesser. It is the old "I'm right" reflex. (Search that term in my blog for more information.) And it is the root of most prejudice.

In other words, when speaking of language differences, what you mean to say is that these "others" speak differently than your cultural norm. That's doesn't make it "incorrect" or "wrong". It just makes it different. When you say that your way of doing things is "correct", you are making a judgement call. You are implying that you are right and everyone who does otherwise is wrong.

Another way to look at it is to use French as an example. With French it appears to be easy. After all, there is a board in Paris that decides which words become part of the French language. They are the Académie française, or l'Académie. Yet, even with this board, there are still at least 24 different recognized dialects. Which one is "correct"? The answer, of course, is none of them. They are each and all correct and add to the richness and diversity of both the language and the culture.

In English, though, there is no such board, and there are far more recognized dialects, including various pidgin and English-based creole versions. My friend, whether or not he realizes it, speaks "Inland Northern American English".

While the written standard of English seems to be fairly normalized, in that virtually all variants agree on the written rules, the spoken rules vary widely.

And yet, all this is actually beside the point. The real issue is judgement. I only wrote all the above to show that I am not speaking from a perspective of ignorance, but from the stance of one who loves language, diversity, and the variety of cultures. It's not that I have a doctorate or anything in this area, for I don't, but I am searching to learn, and longing to see greater unity in the world.

'Abdu'l-Baha said, "The fact that we imagine ourselves to be right and everybody else wrong is the greatest of all obstacles in the path towards unity, and unity is necessary if we would reach truth, for truth is one."

With the language issue, it is not a question of who follows which rules, or which dialect is preferred, but whether or not communication occurs. That is the purpose of language. The rules are there to serve that end.

In a social or work setting, to judge someone else based on their language is not only silly, but detrimental to both communication and unity. Einstein's use of English left a lot to be desired, but we don't think of him as ignorant. We know that he was an immigrant, and that English was not his primary language.

If someone has shown themselves to be a good, upright person, with considerable knowledge in a field, it is to our own detriment that we would judge them based on something as silly as a few of their word choices. Soda? Pop? Who cares? We know that both refer to a carbonated beverage.

It is appropriate, though, to let them know of this perception, and help them learn to adapt, while not judging them yourself.

While there may be no right or wrong way to speak, there are cultural preferences, and these can be shared in a spirit of love and respect. But to insist that one is right while all others are wrong is always detrimental to the development of all.

Whether it is clothing, food preferences, hair style, or language, they all influence our perception of others. And when we embrace the great variety of these on the planet, then the world becomes a richer and more beautiful garden in which to live.