I have been thinking much about a recent movie: Argo. This award-winning movie, which won best picture in last year’s Oscars, is about a US government agent who creates a fake Hollywood film production in order to rescue a group of American diplomats who had sought refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador to Iran during the uncertain and perilous times of the 1979 Iranian Islamic Revolution.
I have mixed feelings about this movie, and don’t wish to give the story away, however I’d like to offer an alternate storyline. This alternate depiction is the story of a lady who, during the early days of the revolution, had just gotten through a difficult divorce and, shortly thereafter, was fired from her job because of her religious beliefs. These sudden and unforeseen changes in her life made her rethink her priorities and, a few months after the revolution, she decided to leave Iran for good and go to England where her teenaged sons were studying.
Fast-forward: This woman was at the airport, packed and ready to depart for England. As she navigated the airport, juggling her luggage, her necklace broke. She hastily tucked it into her luggage. After going through passport control, she got on a shuttle that took her to the airplane bound for London.
Once all the passengers were seated, the plane began to move down the runway … and then stopped.
After long moments of confusion, a couple of young, armed men—airport security personnel—boarded the plane and strode down the aisle through the rows of terrified passengers. They stopped where this woman was sitting and pointed their guns at her head, demanding that she come with them and get off the plane immediately. They brought her to the front of the plane, where they questioned her for over an hour.
Though she was frightened and intimidated by the guns, she was struck by how young her interrogators were—possibly as young as 16 or 17. She began joking with them, so as to to defuse the situation. She gathered her courage and asked them why they wanted her off the plane. As hard as it was for her to believe, apparently someone had observed her putting the broken necklace into her luggage; this seemingly minor incident aroused the suspicion of the authorities.
Somehow, she convinced these young men that nothing nefarious was going on, and they let her stay on the plane, which eventually took off carrying her safely to London, where her sons waited for her.
This is a true story, and this lady was my mother. My brother and met her at Heathrow airport, not knowing what had transpired.
This was the beginning of a long, thorny yet rewarding journey for our family.
Money out of Thin Air
Fast-forward to the 1980s: my parents, brother and I managed to get papers to immigrate to the United States. Those were difficult times; we came to the east coast of the US with little money in the midst of a severe recession. My mother started working at low-paying jobs, while I got accepted to do a master’s program at Penn State University.
I was about a year-and-a-half into my program, when my mom called me to tell me that she wanted to move to California. She said she desperately needed my support and wanted me to come with her. I told her I would come, of course, but I needed a month or so to finish my thesis. I quit my TA position and, having no place to stay, decided to live on the campus grounds. I was essentially homeless—a starving student, sleeping on dormitory room floors and sometimes near the shower facilities, and trying to finish a very challenging thesis that took longer to finish than I’d estimated.
One day after I’d closed my bank account and had only twenty dollars to my name, I went to a social potluck event for which I had promised to give twenty dollars for my share of food that a friend had purchased on my behalf. In my heart I was determined not to break my promise, to pay my share though it meant I would be penniless afterwards. Just before entering the residence of the potluck’s host, a few feet away from their door, I saw what seemed to be a piece of paper money tumbling toward me in the air. I grabbed it and—I kid you not—it was a twenty dollar bill.
Money sometimes can come out of thin air!
It was then that I realized God would not let me be penniless and would not abandon our family. I eventually finished my thesis, and my mom and I drove from the east coast westward to the San Francisco Bay Area, modern day pioneers, looking forward to better days ahead.
In writing this post, my purpose is not to dwell on the past. Surely countless people have gone through much more severe tests and unimaginable difficulties, but I would like to share with you some insights from the Bahá’í Writings that helped my family through these thunder storms.
Tests are Opportunities for Growth
There are many passages in Bahá’í Scripture stating that tests are opportunities for spiritual development. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá—the son of the Prophet Founder of the Baha’i Faith—states:
“The more difficulties one sees in the world the more perfect one becomes. The more you plough and dig the ground the more fertile it becomes. The more you cut the branches of a tree the higher and stronger it grows. The more you put the gold in the fire, the purer it becomes. The more you sharpen the steel by grinding the better it cuts. Therefore, the more sorrows one sees the more perfect one becomes. That is why, in all times, the Prophets of God have had tribulations and difficulties to withstand. The more often the captain of a ship is in the tempest and difficult sailing the more greater his knowledge becomes. Therefore I am happy that you have had great tribulations and difficulties . . . Strange it is that I love you and still I am happy that you have sorrows.” (‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Star of the West, vol. XIV, no. 2, p. 41)
“Tests are benefits from God, for which we should thank Him. Grief and sorrow do not come to us by chance, they are sent to us by the Divine Mercy for our own perfecting.” (Paris Talks: Addresses given by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in Paris in 1911-1912 (London: Bahá’í Publishing Trust, 1979)
Tests are Healing Medicine and Gifts from God
The Bahá’í Writings are also replete with passages that tell us difficulties are gifts—that trials and tribulations are cloaked and mask the real reason for these difficulties, except for those who see the end at the beginning, and they are in reality bounties of God.
“O SON OF MAN! My calamity is My providence, outwardly it is fire and vengeance, but inwardly it is light and mercy. Hasten thereunto that thou mayest become an eternal light and an immortal spirit. This is My command unto thee, do thou observe it.” (Bahá’u’lláh, The Arabic Hidden Words, Vs. 51)
“O ye homeless and wanderers in the Path of God! Prosperity, contentment, and freedom, however much desired and conducive to the gladness of the human heart, can in no wise compare with the trials of homelessness and adversity in the pathway of God; for such exile and banishment are blessed by the divine favour, and are surely followed by the mercy of Providence. The joy of tranquillity in one’s home, and the sweetness of freedom from all cares shall pass away, whilst the blessing of homelessness shall endure forever, and its far-reaching results shall be made manifest.” (Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 280)
Turning Stumbling Blocks to Stepping Stones
One of the most poignant lessons I learned, was that we can turn adversity to stepping stones of progress if we are persistent. Adversity purifies our motives, and in those moments of pain and heartache, our steps are purified by suffering, will have a profound and far-reaching effect. Abdu’l-Bahá States:
“Be thou strong and firm. Be thou resolute and steadfast. When a tree is firmly rooted, it will bear fruit… The trials of God are many, but if man remains firm and steadfast, test itself is a stepping stone for the progress of humanity.” (Fire and Gold: Benefiting from life’s tests. Compiled by Brian Kurzius. page 179)
For me, the purpose of tests is to reach a state in which I can be happy in all conditions, and to thereby gain freedom.
Bahá’u’lláh taught that:
“Unless one accepts dire vicissitudes, not with dull resignation, but with radiant acquiescence, one cannot attain this freedom.” (Adib Taherzadeh, The Revelation of Bahá’u’lláh v 1, p. 100)