“We live in an age when an aggressive materialistic culture is invading every segment of society. The exaggerated occupation with self that is woven into the fabric of this pervasive culture presents us with numerous challenges as we try to assist youth in developing their capacities. Even efforts that sincerely seek to release the potential of the youth can suffer from the negative influence of a worldview that is individualistic at its core. The problem is complex.” Thus begins a paragraph at the end of section 5 of unit two of Book 5 “Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth”, in the main sequence of courses offered by the Ruhi institute. This curriculum is now adopted as the main offering of some 250 regional or national training institutes throughout the Bahá’í world. While this educational process thinly covers the whole planet, like the Bahá’í Faith itself, it has not yet penetrated the consciousness of most young people. Therein lies the opportunity for selfless service.
Just last night we were studying this passage in a study circle in our home. What does it mean to say that efforts that sincerely seek to release the potential of youth suffer from negative influences of a materialistic culture that is individualistic at its core? We know that human nature has two sides: a dark materialistic selfish side, and a bright spiritual selfless side. Materialistic cultures are blind to our spiritual side and assume that all people are essentially self-interested, and they compete to acquire greater and greater material goods and benefits for themselves. The social order that emerges from this is an educational system that itself is competitive, to equip people to compete for the best jobs in ever growing corporations that produce material goods and services for insatiable consumption in ever more attractive shopping malls, online or offline, supported by a commercially driven advertizing media that entertains as it corrupts every human concept of modesty, contentment or decency. This system produces a few examples of spectacular “success” and millions of dissatisfied failures, in the form of those who did not get better grades, did not get better jobs, could not buy better goods, did not achieve fame or fortune in competitive sports or arts, and finally lost their self confidence.
So the lesson goes on to say that “The present world system does rob vast numbers of human beings of the ability to deal with life; therefore self-confidence is an issue to be addressed.” How does the materialistic culture address self-confidence? It only knows one side of human nature, so it begins to encourage and bolster the ego. For example, a television show produced within the context of a materialistic culture may try to boost the self-confidence of young people by dramatizing an episode where the main actress declares that she, tired of always trying to please others, will now focus on pleasing herself. Such a focus on our lower nature “crushes people’s sense of true identity”. Self-realization then becomes synonymous with self-centeredness. Likewise self-discovery is seen in terms of discovering what talents we have so that we can better succeed and have a competitive advantage over others. And all this because the fundamental ontological assumption of materialistic cultures is the sovereignty of the individual, as distinct from, and as categorically opposed to, institutions and communities.
We need self-confidence, self-discovery and self-realization. But the solution cannot be found in materialistic cultures by romanticizing the individual and bolstering the ego. Doing so will only further rob vast numbers of human beings of the ability to deal with life. It crushes people’s sense of true identity and makes multitudes oblivious of the life of the Soul. Genuine individual development involves the abandonment of self. And this can only be achieved if we recognize human nature as essentially noble, innately inclined to selfless service to others. We need to turn our face towards our higher nature and to foster in the young true spiritual susceptibilities, so that their tender hearts are stirred by attraction to knowledge and beauty. Service as an animator for a group of junior youth will not only help the participants, but even more, it helps the animators fulfill their inner desire for self-confidence, self-discovery and self-realization through selfless service.
The point of this blog is not simply the vague and pious hope that we should be selfless, but that the society should be redesigned in such a way as to avoid those programs and constructs that promote ego and replace them with such other programs that promote selfless service.
Baha’u’llah wrote: “O Son of Spirit! I created thee rich, why dost thou bring thyself down to poverty? Noble I made thee, wherewith dost thou abase thyself? Out of the essence of knowledge I gave thee being, why seekest thou enlightenment from anyone beside Me? Out of the clay of love I molded thee, how dost thou busy thyself with another? Turn thy sight unto thyself, that thou mayest find Me standing within thee, mighty, powerful and self-subsisting.”