Unlike our animal cousins, human beings’ behavior is less affected by instinct than it is by observation, nurture, experience and guided learning. We live in complex relationships that form an even more complex society. Existing in that society requires that we learn the skills necessary to that existence.
As children, we require the guidance of parents, teachers and a body of knowledge about ourselves and our world. That guidance must originate somewhere—especially in areas where the effects of blindly following instinct can be ambiguous and/or dire—for we seem not to be very good at these things naturally. Or, as a psychologist acquaintance put it on a panel we shared, we may be born with nascent qualities—empathy, for example—and unlearn them. We human beings need someone to teach us—not what to think—but how to think, how to treat other humans, how to love, how to balance our personal desires and rights and responsibilities against those of the people around us.
Even more central to the human experience, we must learn how to balance our material or physical desires against our total welfare. An example of this is the brain/mind dichotomy when it comes to physical pleasure and/or addictions. What the brain desires, the mind rules against, knowing things that can bring intense, if ephemeral physical pleasure can be destructive to the total person.
There is much cruelty in human lives. Most of it is self-caused and unnecessary. My parents taught me that God was the Source of human education in the areas I mentioned above. I was raised as a Christian, so I learned from my parents and from the words and deeds of Christ, that God was like a kind parent who wishes his children to grow to adulthood with the qualities that will allow them to live together in peace and happiness. Thus, He began teaching us from the very beginning of the world what things will bring us honor and peace and happiness and what things will bring us pain and suffering.
A look around reveals many people who are desperate, unhappy, fearful, angry, jealous. It also reveals, clearly, that when they act on these emotions, they make the people around them miserable, as well as making themselves more miserable than they were to begin with. The more powerful these people are, the larger the number of human beings they imprison in the mesh of their own devices.
It seems to me that the teachings of such Beings as Bahá’u’lláh, Christ, Krishna and others, changed this. They offered each person who accepted the Teacher and His Words a transforming set of principles that offered, in turn, new life—free of fear. The prescriptive principles of these Beings offered a way to live in the world without becoming governed by it. A way to be free—even if one was a slave or a prisoner in the physical world.
The son of Bahá’u’lláh, Abdu’l-Bahá, lived most of his adult life as a prisoner of the Ottoman Empire. When He was released from prison, he traveled throughout Europe and the United States and gave talks at a variety of venues from synagogues and churches to universities. Here is how he concluded a talk he gave November 22, 1911 in Paris.
You see all round you proofs of the inadequacy of material things—how joy, comfort, peace and consolation are not to be found in the transitory things of the world. Is it not then foolishness to refuse to seek these treasures where they may be found? The doors of the spiritual Kingdom are open to all, and without is absolute darkness.
Thank God that you in this assembly have this knowledge, for in all the sorrows of life you can obtain supreme consolation. If your days on earth are numbered, you know that everlasting life awaits you. If material anxiety envelops you in a dark cloud, spiritual radiance lightens your path. Verily, those whose minds are illumined by the Spirit of the Most High have supreme consolation.
I myself was in prison forty years—one year alone would have been impossible to bear—nobody survived that imprisonment more than a year! But, thank God, during all those forty years I was supremely happy! Every day, on waking, it was like hearing good tidings, and every night infinite joy was mine. Spirituality was my comfort, and turning to God was my greatest joy. If this had not been so, do you think it possible that I could have lived through those forty years in prison?
Thus, spirituality is the greatest of God’s gifts, and ‘Life Everlasting’ means ‘Turning to God’. May you, one and all, increase daily in spirituality, may you be strengthened in all goodness, may you be helped more and more by the Divine consolation, be made free by the Holy Spirit of God, and may the power of the Heavenly Kingdom live and work among you. — Paris Talks, p. 111-112
Abdu’l-Bahá’s life—and his Father’s, as well—is a rather literal illustration of the freedom conferred by focusing on the spiritual and intellectual and living by divine principles. Every human being has the capacity to find this freedom from the dictates of nature, the frailties of the animal condition, and even the malice of other human beings.
Christ began His mission in a synagogue in Nazareth by reading a passage from the Book of Isaiah.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed; to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” — Luke 4: 18-19
“To proclaim liberty to the captives.” Christ and Bahá’u’lláh both did this by demonstrating that the limitations imposed on our bodies can never touch our souls. Even death could not touch the soul. Jesus showed this by allowing His body to be crucified—Bahá’u’lláh by allowing His to be tortured and imprisoned over a period of 40 years. Their enemies thought they could put out Their light. Instead, they only caused it to be spread.
There is a miracle in that.