From every standpoint the world of humanity is undergoing a re-formation. The laws of former governments and civilizations are in process of revision, scientific ideas and theories are developing and advancing to meet a new range of phenomena, invention and discovery are penetrating hitherto unknown fields revealing new wonders and hidden secrets of the material universe; industries have vastly wider scope and production; everywhere the world of mankind is in the throes of evolutionary activity indicating the passing of the old conditions and advent of the new age of re-formation. Old trees yield no fruitage; old ideas and methods are obsolete and worthless now. Old standards of ethics, moral codes and methods of living in the past will not suffice for the present age of advancement and progress. — Abdu’l-Bahá, True Modernism, Foundations of World Unity
Three decades ago, when I first encountered the Bahá’í Faith, this concept of the coming of age of mankind was something I hadn’t heard of before. Many of the churches I was familiar with—some of which I had attended—held that mankind had been created in perfection, but was increasingly headed in the opposite direction. To put it in scientific terms, entropy happens. In stark contrast, Bahá’u’lláh stated that human beings were a noble creation and were evolving capacities that would allow us to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization. We are, according to Bahá’í sacred texts, growing into our potential as human beings. There is a saying—also from Bahá’í scripture—that the virtues of today’s saints will be the sins of future ones.
Despite what my churches taught, when I actually studied the Biblical texts, they seemed to indicate a similar trajectory. Both the Old and New Testaments presage a time when God’s law will be written on the hearts of human beings rather than learnt by rote or imposed via external authority. Christ urges His followers to be perfect “as the Father is perfect”.
How, one might ask, could that occur without significant growth on our part?
Perhaps that’s a subject for future speculation, but in the last thirty or so years, something interesting has occurred: more and more people whose prose I read, or whose thoughts on the matter I’ve sampled, have suggested that they, too, believe mankind is approaching some sort of new maturity level and that the chaos we seem to be experiencing is much like the pubescent angst and hormonally spawned craziness that many human teens go through on their way to adulthood.
The biggest surprise was that some of this was coming from people who did not consider themselves religious. In fact, one of the places I encountered the idea that we are coming of age as a species was an atheist forum I frequented.
To be sure recent world events can sometimes seem to conflict with this view, but then, I suppose a parent confronting a rebellious teenager they’ve had to drag home from a drunken party might also doubt that this nasty-tempered, disobedient, selfish creature might—in just a few years—turn out to be a truly awesome adult.
I see a lot of that teenaged angstiness in what the world has been going through over the last hundred years or so. And I also see that Abdu’l-Bahá is absolutely right when he says that:
Old trees yield no fruitage; old ideas and methods are obsolete and worthless now. Old standards of ethics, moral codes and methods of living in the past will not suffice for the present age of advancement and progress.
One of those old standards of ethics that Abdu’l-Bahá speaks of, in my opinion, is the human modality best summed up in the phrase “the selfish gene”. Small children are all about themselves. To one degree or another, they begin to learn through observation of the behavior of their parents, elders and peers, that there are other people in the world and that—as every mother has no doubt informed her child at one time or another—they are not the center of the universe.
This is a hard lesson to learn. Even with a strong desire to learn it, and guidelines for learning it, it is hard. I personally think that being married is a great teacher in the art of putting someone else’s needs before your own. Having children is even more so. I have seen having a child turn a self-centered teen into a nurturing adult and forcing them to grow up very quickly.
Still, something about the teen years triggers an almost flight or fight response in some of us. On the verge of growing up, we suddenly doubt that we really want to do so. We are eager for adult freedom and loathe the thought of adult responsibility. We leap headlong into the exercise of the one and assiduously dodge the other.
But that responsibility will not go away no matter how much we might wish it would. It is the flip side of having adult rights. An adult, for example, may have the right to express himself any way he wishes. Words that were off limits to a child are permissible to an adult. Ditto on behaviors. Often, a teen’s response to suddenly feeling adult-ish is to express her rights by using previously banned words, indulging in previously banned behaviors and doing it in a way that is ultimately harmful to herself and others. We see it so often in society that it’s become a trope, a cliche.
This is also true, I think, of some segments of our global society. For example, Americans take for granted the right to say whatever they wish whenever they wish. We ought, we think, to be able to mock, insult, incite, and humiliate other people and we expect them to be big enough to take it. It is, we assure ourselves, our right to speak our minds. We’re being true to ourselves, we say, and we can’t be expected to consider anyone else’s feelings.
That dialogue is playing out right now with regard to the recent devastating events in Libya. In some ways, it amounts to a war of rights. An American citizen has the right of free speech (which is a principle not well-understood in other parts of the world where sense of community overrides individual expression). Yet, I’ve noted one American after another who, in defending that right, called into question the right of those insulted by an exercise of free speech to even peacefully protest their outrage. It has been well-documented, if not well-reported, that the governments and people of the affected middle eastern countries are horrified at the violence done in the name of their majority faith, even as they are exercising their right to be outraged at the insults to it by an American citizen.
We are, like the stereotypical teen, very much about our own rights but seem to give little thought about the rights and responsibilities of others. Like a teenager, we approach adulthood so hungry for freedom, so enamored of self-determination, that we can neither see nor comprehend how interdependent adult life really is.
In theory, an adult has autonomy. In practice, an adult has duties—toward employers and/or employees, toward spouses and family, toward children, toward community, toward government, toward himself. Our lives meet on every side, are bound together by a network more indestructible than any we have yet fashioned or can even imagine. We are bound to each other by the laws of physics—by human gravity.
I believe the more observant and savvy among us recognize that gravity as love. The same force that binds a mother and daughter or a father and son together even in the moments when the child is in full rebellion. Beneath the shouting and the anger, there is a familial bond that we can damage, even break, but never truly be free of, because—whether we like it or not—we are still bound to each other by the laws of physics.
The fact is, the planet is too small and we are too interdependent to have anything like the autonomy that angsty philosophers like Ayn Rand propose. We can no longer commit groups of “others” to the “them” category by blindly following traditional or popular wisdom about who “they” are. We especially cannot do it on the childish rationale that “well, they’re doing it to us!”
Muslims hate Americans, one segment of American society proposes, so Americans ought to hate Muslims.
Now those of you who are parents or teachers or in some way guardians of children, stop to think what you would tell a child who justified calling a playmate an insulting name or shoving him because “he did it to me, first!” Most child care givers that I know would never accept that excuse from a child for such behavior. And yet I see again and again people justify their hatred of this or that group on the rationale that “well, they hate us, too”. It becomes an endless loop of “yeah, but…”
If it was a child making that time-worn excuse, I think most of us would say, “Grow up and act your age”. Maybe we need to look in the mirror—both as individuals and as a species—and say the same thing. And remind ourselves that if we want adult rights and privileges, we need to be willing to take adult responsibility for what we say and do. rather than blaming someone else—the Americans, the Muslims, THEM.
When I communicate with other people—especially about these volatile issues having to do with identity—I try to bear in mind this passage from Bahá’u’lláh:
Every word is endowed with a spirit, therefore the speaker or expounder should carefully deliver his words at the appropriate time and place, for the impression which each word maketh is clearly evident and perceptible. The Great Being saith: One word may be likened unto fire, another unto light, and the influence which both exert is manifest in the world. Therefore an enlightened man of wisdom should primarily speak with words as mild as milk, that the children of men may be nurtured and edified thereby and may attain the ultimate goal of human existence which is the station of true understanding and nobility. And likewise He saith: One word is like unto springtime causing the tender saplings of the rose-garden of knowledge to become verdant and flourishing, while another word is even as a deadly poison. It behoveth a prudent man of wisdom to speak with utmost leniency and forbearance so that the sweetness of his words may induce everyone to attain that which befitteth man’s station. — Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, p. 173