Sunday, 9 August 2020

A Better Future

 

On 4th August, 2020, a fire started at a warehouse in the Port of Beirut, Lebanon, which ignited a quantity of fireworks stored there. It is likely that the fire was caused by some welders working on the warehouse door. The fire soon spread to an enormous store of ammonium nitrate, which had been taken off a damaged ship six years before. Over those six years, repeated letters to the courts, asking for permission to sell the ammonium nitrate, which was not being stored under safe conditions, went unanswered.

The ammonium nitrate exploded in what may have been the largest non-nuclear explosion ever caused by human activity. It damaged ships in the port, destroyed both the warehouse, an adjacent grain silo and most of the other port buildings. Nearly 220 people are known to have died, including sailors, port workers, and nurses and patients at the nearest hospital. A number of those killed were people from other countries. Over 7,000 people were injured, as the shock wave from the blast blew in windows, destroyed balconies and houses, and caused immense damage.

In the Beirut area, a large number of people have expressed general disgust at the way in which circumstances in their country have been deteriorating rapidly over the last few years, and of which this explosion represents a low point. Corruption is considered to be endemic. The economy has been in freefall. Unemployment is rife, about half of the population have now fallen into poverty. Rubbish has not been collected in Beirut. As a result, many are calling for a new type of political leader, rather than the current figureheads who represent different segments of the population. Lebanon has several different sects of Christians, different sects of Muslims and also the local Druze religion, in addition to other ethnic groups such as Palestinian refugees. The political system used at present guarantees seats in government for all the main groups. The same families have been in power for decades. In these circumstances, the idea that all religions are essentially one, and that religion should be a force for unity, is difficult to establish. So is the idea that the people are one, and can be in unity.

Elections within the Bahá’í community are organised on a quite different basis. For a start, there are no candidates. No-one puts themselves forward. Within each town or village, the Bahá’ís come together once a year for a meeting organised on spiritual lines. After prayer, and some short readings encouraging the election of people of “recognised ability”, of “mature experience” and of “selfless devotion”, each person simply writes down the names of nine Bahá’ís within that town/village. The voting papers are collected, and the nine people who receive the most votes are automatically considered to have been elected as the Local Spiritual Assembly. Of course, there are further details, but in essence that is how it is done. The Bahá’ís do not even discuss between themselves the qualities of other individuals. The election is considered as between the voter, his or her conscience, and God.

The result is a harmonious process in which no-one knows who has voted for whom, and in which no cliques can form. The nine people elected are likely to be reasonable and moderate people, whereas an adversarial system can sometimes favour more stubborn people, with strong opinions. Given the historical background in Lebanon, more stubborn people feature widely in the current system.

“Well, yes,” you may say. “It is easy for a small group of people who know each other. It wouldn’t work for the whole country.” Fair point. What happens, in the election of the National Spiritual Assembly, is that the Bahá’ís in each area vote for one person, who becomes their delegate and goes to a national convention. The delegate, once at the convention, will again be able to vote for nine people, again without any hindrance from the procedures of nominations, canvassing, etc. And the odd thing is – it works! Every vote is cast for someone, because of their positive qualities, rather than, as sometimes happens elsewhere, against someone, because of their less attractive qualities or their predetermined ideas. The voter does not have to choose between various parties, none of which actually represents a person’s views in their entirety.

Democracy means “government by the people”, but the actual system for achieving that varies widely from country to country. In the case of Lebanon, what is needed is one body seen to represent the entire country, and not factions seen as protecting particular partisan interests.

In the Bahá’í system, both the Local Spiritual Assembly and the National Spiritual Assembly are automatically elected afresh every year, so there should always be some renewal alongside a certain continuity. With no candidates, and no canvassing, there is no possibility of anyone trumpeting their achievements, or of making extravagant promises for the future.  Confrontation and opposition are simply not required as part of the system at all. There are no competing groups or parties, so everyone naturally pulls together.

Lebanon has featured in Bahá’í history in the past. Beirut was an administrative centre within the Ottoman Empire, and Bahá’u’lláh was banished to nearby Akka. Although Bahá’u’lláh Himself was confined to that city, His Son ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had reason to travel to Beirut on various matters. At a later time, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá sent His grandson, Shoghi Effendi, first to school, and then to university in Beirut. Shoghi Effendi learned English there, and his command of the language was so good that he was later admitted to Oxford University. There is a small, but significant, Bahá’í community in the country, which has never been involved in any of the factional fighting, and has always promoted the idea of the oneness of religion.

The immediate fate of the country depends on the ability of the country to reform itself. It needs to function as one people, instead of a rainbow of rival Christian and Muslim groupings. The parliament needs to function on behalf of the whole country. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá put it,  “The prime requisites for them that take counsel together are purity of motive, radiance of spirit, detachment from all else save God, attraction to His Divine Fragrances, humility and lowliness amongst His loved ones, patience and long-suffering in difficulties and servitude to His exalted Threshold.”

The more Lebanon is able to create a system of government by the people and for the people, the more it will thrive, rise above its present conflicted state and create a better future for its people.

 

 

Saturday, 4 July 2020

Earl Cameron - A life well lived


Today we have heard of the passing of our close Bahá’í friend, Earl Cameron, aged 102. He was an actor, and was still acting even into his nineties.

Among the many films in which he acted were Pool of London, Simba, Thunderball and The Interpreter, which was his last major role. When I was young, I remember seeing him in Thunderball, and being initially very surprised that the Chief Secret Serviceman in the West Indies was black, although it took me only seconds to realise that this was, in its way, quite natural!

Earl told me how his grandfather had become a slave. His grandfather was a boy of perhaps fourteen years old, and was fishing at sea with one of his friends in a small boat off Senegal. They were captured by a passing British merchant ship and taken to be sold as slaves, despite this having now been made illegal by Parliament. They were taken across the Atlantic, and Earl’s grandfather made good his escape once they had reached land in Bermuda. But of course he could not speak the language, and the chances of remaining free on an island were rather small! He was taken again and used as a slave.

Earl himself joined the British merchant navy. He found himself stranded in England in 1939, due to the outbreak of war, and hit upon the idea that he would like to be an actor. He used to turn up at the theatres, and talk to the people there, hoping to be given a way in to the profession. The answer always came down to the fact that you cannot act without an Equity card. Equity is the trade union for actors in the United Kingdom, and the only way to get an Equity membership card is to be acting. Acting, therefore, was a “closed shop”, and difficult to get into. Earl once told me how this impasse ended. He was walking along the street and bumped into a theatre producer. “Earl!” said the man. “You want to be an actor? Well, now, here’s your chance! One of our wizards hasn’t turned up for today’s show! How would you like to be our fourth wizard?” Earl jumped at the chance, and was promptly handed an Equity card! He explained to me what that first performance was like: “There was the singer at the front, and there were four wizards, two nearer the front and two behind them. They put me as one of the ones at the back. I tried to learn the words of the song, and the dance steps. But there wasn’t enough time for me to learn it all! That first performance was terrible, with me not singing, and making all the wrong dance moves! But from then on, I was in.”

I saw Earl quite frequently over the last few years. The basic meeting of the Bahá’í community is the “Feast” (it is a spiritual feast!), which happens once every nineteen days. The Bahá’ís from all of central Warwickshire often meet together in one home each time, and Earl was usually there with his wife, Barbara. His fine actor’s voice added to the timbre of the prayers being read out, and Earl was always an enthusiastic supporter of all types of Bahá’í activity. Every year, the Cameron family provided support for the Bahá’í stall at the Leamington Spa Peace Festival, and over the years I have come to know three of his daughters personally. (His son, Simon, is my friend on Facebook, but lives in the Solomon Islands where Earl and his first wife, Audrey, served as Bahá’í pioneers for some years.)

The other service I regularly performed for Earl was the supply of literature. My wife and I serve as  distribution agents for Bahá’í books, and Earl frequently rang me: “Paddy, do you have a copy of ‘Bahá’u’lláh and the New Era’?” Earl considered that particular book to be the best introductory book on the Bahá’í Faith, as do I – although some people prefer other ones. Earl was constantly meeting new people, and was always keen on sending people a good, solid read, if he thought that they were at all interested! And even at his advanced age, he was still reading books himself, and used to ring me up asking for new titles which had come out.

Oddly, despite the huge difference in our ages, Earl and I came across the Bahá’í Faith because of the same event. In April, 1963, the Bahá’ís of the world held their first World Congress at the Royal Albert Hall, in London. One of Earl’s friends from Bermuda was a Bahá’í, and came to London for this large gathering. Staying with Earl, he managed to persuade Earl to come along for one session. Earl was not interested in organised religion, but went as a favour to his friend, and was absolutely bowled over by the friendly spirit, the openness, the enthusiasm and the inclusiveness of the Bahá’ís. He never looked back! When people questioned his sudden enthusiasm for religion, he used to say, “But this is different!” Meanwhile, when I was a teenager being driven through London, I was stuck in a traffic jam outside the Albert Hall. My mother, who loved London, was saying, “Look, boys, that’s the Albert Hall!” I looked, and people of all sizes and colours were pouring out of it, many of them in national costume. The large banner proclaimed: “Bahá’í World Congress”. “What’s that ‘B’ word, Dad?” I asked. Luckily, my father knew what it was, because my mother’s best friend from her schooldays (Audrie Reynolds, née Rogers) had become a Bahá’í. Audrie was, of course, at the Congress, and met her husband there. Later that year, I attended their wedding… I never told Earl about this odd connection between our lives.

So, what happens now? Bahá’u’lláh states that “The world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother. When the soul attaineth the Presence of God, it will assume the form that best befitteth its immortality and is worthy of its celestial habitation.” In other words, we move on into another world, another plane of existence.

Such a lovely man will surely make steady spiritual progress in the next world.

               


Wednesday, 24 June 2020

We can see clearly now



It would be easy to become depressed about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic - it has caused a lot of suffering. However, it is part of human nature to look for the positive in things, to wonder if any good has, or will, come out of them.

One positive result of this pandemic, and the numerous national lockdowns introduced to restrict the spread of the disease, has been the immediate improvement in the environment. As factory, vehicle and aeroplane emissions have rapidly reduced, many parts of the world have much less polluted air. For example, in China there has been a 25 per cent reduction in carbon emissions, and a 50 per cent reduction in nitrogen oxide emissions. Oddly, this may have saved over 75,000 lives, among those people more susceptible to poor air quality. This reduction in emissions will have slowed the process of global warming – at least in the very short term. The noticeable benefits of unpolluted air have also triggered a shift towards governments investing in greener energy systems, and to individuals walking or cycling more, rather than using types of transport which emit fumes. Unfortunately, the pandemic will also have provided cover for some illegal activities, such as further deforestation and increased poaching. But it is the improved air quality which is the most obvious result for millions of people. For example, in many parts of India, you can now see much further – as in the photographs at the top. In the northern plains of the country, huge numbers of people can once again see the Himalayas in the distance. For the younger generations, this will be the first time they have ever been able to see them!

Another positive result is that there have been subtle shifts towards the appreciation that all mankind is one, and that everybody is in this together. This is not yet universal, especially in areas less affected by the disease. But there is a much greater recognition that all human beings live, suffer and die in the same way, whatever background they are from. During the period of the pandemic, other events have contributed to this sense of oneness. The avoidable death in custody of George Floyd has re-ignited the “Black Lives Matter” movement, and the protests that the event has sparked – despite the risk of increased disease transmission – are showing that people of all races increasingly believe that no race should be left behind in humanity’s search for a better future. In 1985, the Universal House of Justice, which is the Bahá’í world body, described racism as “one of the most baneful and persistent evils”. They also said that it is an outrageous violation of the dignity of human beings. Ordinary people from many backgrounds are responding to the truth of this statement.

People in general are also being more caring towards one another. Huge numbers have volunteered to deliver food to those isolated by the illness, or by a susceptibility to the illness. People have cooked food for those less able to do so for themselves or for hard-pressed medical staff; others have donated food to food banks. Yet others have set up instant food banks where none existed. People have delivered medicines to those isolated at home. People have regularly phoned those who are isolated, just for a chat. Many retired doctors, nurses and others have come back to work, in a desire to be of service to others.

In the world at large there have been other major effects of the pandemic. In a number of countries, reports suggest that rival armies have called for ceasefires, to allow for preparation for the medical onslaught. Their common humanity is threatened by the virus, and in these circumstances their historic rivalries seem somehow less important. It seems ironic that a virus taking away human lives may have the effect of stopping human beings from themselves taking human lives.

Across the world, there will be a great need for the cautious easing of restrictions, and almost certainly a need for some economic restructuring when the pandemic recedes. There may be some general feeling that a fairer economy should be developed. There may be more of a common feeling among humanity that we have all faced a problem – indeed, a common enemy - together. This may lead us to be more tolerant, and to overlook the petty differences which we allow to divide us, and lead us to a greater consciousness of mankind being one. There is reference in the Bahá’í Writings to a process which “forges mankind into a unified body through the fires of suffering”. The unfortunate arrival of this virus in the human population certainly seems to be taking on this role at the moment.

Human beings are learning that pulling together helps in all situations. Countries are learning to look at what is being done elsewhere, to see what works, instead of blindly forging ahead on their own path. Some people are now calling for a greater unity in support of whatever institutions have been set up to protect us world-wide. So following the guidance put out by the World Health Organisation becomes a necessary over-riding principle, rather than concentrating on its possible short-comings as an institution. Much of the population has been respecting the rules brought in by the respective governments, understanding that these rules are there for the sake of everybody’s protection. Social media have now realised the necessity of trying to remove the misinformation and conspiracy theories which have abounded among those who distrust the “mainstream” media.

We can see clearly now that mankind needs to establish much stronger world-wide institutions, with the authority and the resources to prepare for the next epidemic which is sure to occur at some time. The nations of the world need to form some kind of world government which can ensure unified action, and can direct a clearer response to any emergency. Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, was already urging this step in the nineteenth century. It is based on the principle which He stated, that “The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.” He urged each individual person: “Let your vision be world-embracing, rather than confined to your own self.” There is a need for an authority beyond those self-serving political leaders who down-play the threat from COVID-19, or even manipulate the statistics to serve their own ends. The need for such global institutions is also clear when considering environmental and climatic problems. A way forward must be found which can be recognised as being for the good of all. The need for world unity, to achieve global results, is becoming clearer at the present time.

                

Sunday, 17 May 2020

”People need things. How can we help?”



This coronavirus pandemic has many aspects. The virus has confirmed the oneness of mankind – we are all in this together. To the surprise of some, it has shown that love for, and concern for, our fellow human beings is a fundamental consideration in our lives. This pandemic has challenged our material well-being, and has brought forth a spiritual response. At the same time, it has made obvious the need for more co-ordination and co-operation between nations.

One important response to the pandemic has been the way in which service to others is now being seen as the most important kind of work. The general population is openly showing its appreciation of many others who have often been taken for granted, such as carers, nurses, doctors, and ambulance staff. These people are potentially sacrificing their own lives by treating or caring for patients suffering from the virus, often without adequate personal protection. Literally hundreds of doctors, nurses, carers, hospital porters and so on have died during this outbreak – including retired people who had come back specially to offer their services during the emergency. People are now also beginning to appreciate the fact that shop workers, delivery drivers, food packers, farmers, growers, waste collectors and many others have essential roles which make life more bearable, or even possible, for the rest of us. At the same time, ordinary people are offering their own services in huge numbers: delivering food to people in isolation, providing comfort at the end of a telephone, making masks and gowns, volunteering at food banks, and in numerous other initiatives. We can take heart from this outpouring of concern for others.

Most countries have struggled to provide an immediate and effective response to all the different aspects of the pandemic. In the U.K., local groups of volunteers sprang into being long before the government-organised volunteer force could be implemented. The more developed countries have a strong government organisation to call on but many other countries do not have the administrative infrastructure that is common in Europe or in North America. In some places without local government capacity, the grass roots Bahá’í administration has been able to step in. We are hearing stories of places where the Local Spiritual Assembly (which is the elected Bahá’í body in any town, village or city) has organised a proper community response to a particular need. For example, in India, the unannounced, draconian, nature of the lockdown led many people to suddenly lose their livelihoods, and in many places, the Local Spiritual Assembly organised Bahá’ís to give migrant workers lifts back to their home villages (sometimes over a hundred miles away), and also organised food parcels for those who could not be transported in time. To Bahá’ís, service to others is a natural part of life. It is also part of the spiritual life: “Order your lives in accordance with the first principle of the divine teaching, which is love. Service to humanity is service to God.” And in another place in the Bahá’í Writings we read: “This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer.”

In the United States, young Bahá’ís, who have been used to organising themselves in acts of service to the community - which they have already been doing as part of the activities of the “Junior Youth Groups” they were in - have been responding to a wide variety of needs caused by the coronavirus outbreak. The photograph at the top shows some young Bahá’ís in Texas, with support from their mother, making masks which they are then distributing to their neighbours. Bahá’í youth in Chicago have been creating informative videos about health measures in the different languages commonly spoken in the community. They are also assisting families who face language barriers in accessing government services. Such barriers exist in many other areas, such as in Prince William County, Virginia, where many parents, without access to translators, had been unable to adequately access online school programmes for their children. “At first we thought that children missing classes was related to internet access, but we were wrong,” says a youth from one of the groups. “It was actually because the parents had no idea of what the school arrangements were.” These youth, having identified the families requiring additional assistance, are now holding regular online sessions to share the necessary information in various languages and to assist their peers with their
assignments.

Another example comes from Nicaragua. Even before concerns about the global outbreak were in the public consciousness, a Bahá’í-inspired community banking programme there took the initiative to implement measures for the safe handling of money and made arrangements for transactions to take place online and by telephone. “These banks are founded on the Bahá’í principles of service and care for the well-being of all,” says the programme’s national co-ordinator. “So, with the economic challenges and the evolving health crisis, we have not only been conscious of continuing vital services that support the economic life of the community, but also of ensuring that our operations do not put people at risk.” She continued: “We recognise that we are not just businesses looking to our own affairs but we are here to serve the common welfare.”

As so many parts of the world have introduced some form of lockdown, many of the enterprises generating income and providing services to society have been at a standstill, and it is thought that many may not survive in their present form. One of the results of the disease may therefore be a re-building and re-balancing of society, in which monetary, social and economic arrangements are subservient to the needs of the community, rather than being their masters. The underlying response should not be: ”People need things. How can we make money out of them?”, but rather: ”People need things. How can we help?”

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Rising to the challenge


Most countries of the world are now threatened by a particularly virulent new disease – COVID 19. In many countries, strategies have been adopted to curb its spread which have had a severe impact on the lives of ordinary people. Shops have been shut, people are having to distance themselves from others, people cannot have visits even from close relatives, there are to be no meetings and no travelling. People have lost their jobs and their livelihoods. On the positive side, volunteers have mobilised in many places to help those in isolation or who are short of food (as discussed in my previous blog). Despite all the restrictions, sadly hundreds of deaths have been reported in some countries, thousands in others.

One of the less expected results of this sudden change in lifestyle has been the spiritual response of many people. Put bluntly: if human life on earth has a purpose, many of us now have extra time to give serious consideration to what it might be! At the same time, people who have been seriously ill with this virus, but who have survived it, often seem to be changed by the experience. We hear people saying that they have changed what they think is important, and that their job and their material possessions now mean less than family, human relationships and life itself. It is sad that people have had to suffer so much to come to that realisation.

A fundamental aspect of this spiritual response is consideration of the question of life after death. The human body ceases to function at some point – we die. We are all aware of this fact, although when we are younger it is easier to put off consideration of the matter until later. However, we are now suddenly faced with the possibility of losing our loved ones prematurely. Will we meet them again – in whatever time or place, or indeed in whatever form? If we decide that the answer is “No”, then what is the point of our existence as conscious and reflective beings? Bahá’u’lláh, the Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, gave a very positive and heart-warming response to the question of life after death: “Know thou of a truth that the soul, after its separation from the body, will continue to progress until it attaineth the presence of God, in a state and condition which neither the revolution of ages and centuries, nor the changes and chances of this world, can alter.” If we decide that the answer is “Yes”, then perhaps we need to get on with preparing ourselves for the life to come. In the same way that we grow limbs and eyes in the womb ready for life in this world, we need to grow our spiritual qualities ready for the next world. Bahá’u’lláh’s Son, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, said: “That world beyond is a world of sanctity and radiance; therefore it is necessary that in this world he [the human being] should acquire these divine attributes. In that world there is need of spirituality, faith, assurance, the knowledge and love of God. These he must attain in this world so that after his ascension from the earthly to the heavenly Kingdom he shall find all that is needful in that life eternal ready for him.”

At the very time when people are looking for spiritual guidance, places of worship have been shut, in order to prevent possible transmission of the disease among the congregation. These congregations are simply no longer able to meet together. Luckily, however, this new coronavirus has hit the world at a point where many humans have access to information and communications technology. Things are possible now which were scarcely dreamed of even a few years ago. The Bahá’í community, like many other religious communities, is already broadcasting devotional programmes which people can receive on their computers, laptops and phones. Another development is the online gathering. Instead of holding a physical meeting in a central place each Bahá’í month, many Bahá’ís and their friends are using new technology to join together and say prayers (see picture above) and engage in conversation and consultation through their display screens. This is providing spiritual sustenance, including often to those who have been unable to physically meet all their fellow-believers for a while because of ill-health. Those who do not have online access at home can still be in contact by phone, letters and cards. No-one should feel forgotten. We all need to keep our spirits up and use prayer and/or meditation to develop our spiritual lives. Then we can see how to cheer others.

Everyone is finding life difficult during the current situation. But this is our opportunity to find the spiritual power in our inner selves. Can we rise to the challenge of carrying on with our lives, making the most of the opportunities we have, helping others and staying cheerful?  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a wonderful example. He dedicated His life to serving others, especially the poor and sick, despite His own problems. For much of His life He was imprisoned, kept under house arrest, and suffered in many ways. He put it quite clearly, saying: “Anybody can be happy in the state of comfort, ease, health, success, pleasure and joy; but if one will be happy and contented in the time of trouble, hardship and prevailing disease, it is the proof of nobility.” This is the universal personal challenge of today.


Sunday, 22 March 2020

Let it bring out the best in us



In many more countries now, governments are putting restrictions on people’s movements, to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus causing the disease COVID-19. Some are telling all shops to close, other than food shops and pharmacies. Some have closed schools, clubs and meeting places. Many have restricted travel. Large numbers of people are confined to their own homes. Hundreds of millions of people across many parts of the globe now have layers of worry in their lives – uncertain income, the collapse of businesses, plans ruined, and of course health concerns for themselves and their families.

But as human beings, we need to have a set of definite, positive goals to work towards. We can do little to stop the progress of the virus, except by staying away from other people and observing strict hygiene. This is where our community spirit should come to the fore. This community spirit should also prevent people from selfishly or mindlessly stockpiling things beyond their obvious needs. Of course, vulnerable and elderly people will have more need to stock up a certain amount, because they should not be exposed to possible infection by being frequently in shops. There is clearly an opportunity for those less at risk from the effects of COVID-19 to make arrangements for others, offering to obtain and deliver supplies to the vulnerable. Indeed, in many places this is already happening – as in the picture of the young boy above. Participation in such schemes will give the more healthy parts of the population a positive role in this crisis. Perhaps those who find that they have already overstocked for their own needs could donate the surplus to food banks, which are often running short of supplies, or they could offer their surpluses to needy neighbours. In many places there are organised groups to help with shopping, but we can all check that our friends and neighbours have what they need. This means actively keeping in touch by phone or internet with those who have had to isolate themselves, either because they have the coronavirus or because they have been told to do so for their own protection.

In some countries, the gathering of congregations for worship has been temporarily suspended. Bahá’ís in many countries were disappointed not to be able to gather for Naw Ruz (New Year), at the end of the fasting period. However, in the Bahá’í Writings it says: “This is worship: to serve mankind and to minister to the needs of the people. Service is prayer.” So we have plenty to do.

Every action of every government in trying to stop the spread of this new virus is concerned with the prevention of unnecessary suffering and death. This is motivated by the underlying human emotion of love for others. The lives of all the people under their care are being largely re-ordered out of basic human concern for the elderly and the more medically vulnerable. This motive has been spelt out very specifically in the Bahá’í Writings as a conscious thing: “Order your lives in accordance with the first principle of the divine teaching, which is love. Service to humanity is service to God.”

Unfortunately, a certain proportion of people who catch this disease will suffer from severe symptoms. For others it will be relatively mild, like having a cold. The following is a Bahá’í prayer for times such as these:
“O my Lord! Thou knowest that the people are encircled with pain and calamities and are environed with hardships and trouble. Every trial doth attack man and every dire adversity doth assail him like unto the assault of a serpent. There is no shelter and asylum for him except under the wing of Thy protection, preservation, guard and custody.
O Thou the Merciful One! O my Lord! Make Thy protection my armour, Thy preservation my shield, humbleness before the door of Thy oneness my guard, and Thy custody and defence my fortress and my abode. Preserve me from the suggestions of self and desire, and guard me from every sickness, trial, difficulty and ordeal.
Verily, Thou art the Protector, the Guardian, the Preserver, the Sufficer, and verily, Thou art the Merciful of the Most Merciful.”

Service to others, love for our fellow human beings, prayers for humankind. If it is possible for anything of worth to come out of this medical emergency, let it bring out the best in us.

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This posting is the second one on the coronavirus. The first, “We are all in this together”, was published in February, 2020, and talked about the oneness of mankind, the need for a unified world approach in combatting this virus, the need for freedom of information, and the need for world authorities.

Friday, 6 March 2020

Out of harm’s way


When I first became connected to Facebook, one of my younger Facebook friends had, as her Facebook picture, a sign which read: “I hurt myself, so that you can’t”. I do not know whether she was physically harming herself or not, but it seemed to be a defence against perceived hostility from others. A well-known recent case in Britain concerns a young girl called Molly Russell, who became depressed, and then immersed herself in self-harming and suicide chatrooms, and then sadly took her own life at the age of fourteen. These chat rooms have been allowed to flourish as places where people can encourage one another to do harm to themselves. Molly’s death was certainly not the first caused (or even partly caused) by these groups, but significantly, her father is now campaigning for the social media platforms to do more to remove these negative groups.

Why should people want to cut themselves and cause themselves physical pain? I never heard of this practice when I was young, but the idea seems to have spread from somewhere, and is now unfortunately commonplace. At this time, when many young people often do not seem to see a purpose in life, they sometimes seem lost, and unsure of their place in the world.

Bahá’ís understand that the body is the dwelling-place of the soul, and as such, it must be looked after. While the soul is connected to the material world, it needs the physical body as its means of learning. It is the soul which is our true essence, and it is the soul which should be growing towards perfection, towards what we call God. In the Bahá’í understanding, life does have a purpose. It is not just a meaningless maze of random fortune and misfortune. Our purpose on this earth is to make ourselves ready for the next world, which we can barely begin to imagine. Bahá’u’lláh explained that “the world beyond is as different from this world as this world is different from that of the child while still in the womb of its mother.” Much of what we need to learn involves attributes or virtues, such as kindness, tolerance, love for others, honesty, trustworthiness and so on. These all involve looking outwards, which makes us far happier than retreating into ourselves, which often leads to a downward spiral. We each need to recognise our own worth as a person, and have a love for ourselves, as we are, whilst still realising that we need to make progress. Bahá’u’lláh said that one of the first things is “that man should know his own self and recognise that which leadeth unto loftiness or lowliness, glory or abasement.”

People often feel vulnerable when they are growing up. They need a strong sense of self-worth, of purpose, of the difference they can make to the world. (We have recently had the example of the climate campaigner, Greta Thunberg, to show us what a fifteen year old can achieve!) Bahá’ís realised this need quite some time ago. Back in 2000 the world body of the Bahá’í Faith drew this to the attention of the Bahá’ís worldwide: “Among the young ones in the community are those known as junior youth, who fall between the ages of, say, 12 and 15. They represent a special group with special needs as they are somewhat in between childhood and youth when many changes are occurring within them. Creative attention must be devoted to involving them in programmes of activity…” Therefore Bahá’í communities offer junior youth groups for those aged from about 11 to 15, specifically designed to provide a space where they can discuss the issues they are grappling with, discover their identity and develop a sense of service to the community around them.

If someone has a strong sense of their own value as a person, they won’t be brought down by negative comments or bullying. They may well realise that the people making negative comments may simply be jealous, indeed they may be struggling with their own self-image and identity. We all need to realise why we are here, to take the opportunities which life gives us, move forward with confidence in our future and become the best we can possibly be. Then we will be out of harm’s way.