Archive for the ‘Human potential’ Category

Family history
November 5, 2008

It’s surprising how easy it is to lose our connection with the past. The TV programme Who do you think you are, which traces the family history of celebrities, shows how difficult it is to find relatives from the past.

I can only vaguely remember my grandparents on my father’s side, but that’s as far as it goes.

The only snippet of information I have beyond that is from a conversation with my father not long before he passed away. He was trying to work out how I had become so interested in religion. He said that that it must have come from his side of the family because they used to call his grandfather the pope!

I tried to probe further, but all my father would say is that his grandfather was nicknamed the pope because of his religious fervour!

Since then I’ve always wanted to trace my family history and felt even more motivated since watching Who do you think you are on TV.

Like the celebrities on that programme, I’m sure I’d get a few surprises and discover relatives I never knew I had. But I wonder what I’d find out if I went back many generations in my family history?

Apparently, scientists have done just that and traced back the ancestry of the human race to a very small number of people. So, according to their research, I have close relatives all around the world!

While these relatives may look very different to me on a racial level, scientists have found that this dissolves when you probe beneath the skin. Because DNA studies have revealed that 99.9 per cent of the human genes are the same in everyone.

Unfortunately, what has been proven in the laboratory, about humanity being just one family, is not yet accepted socially. And that’s because the barriers of race, nation, religion and colour have divided us up and prevented the unification of the human family.

Yet, over 100 years ago, Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, made a statement that cuts through these barriers to unity when He wrote: “There can be no doubt whatever, that the peoples of the world, of whatever race or religion, derive their inspiration from one heavenly Source, and are the subjects of one God.”

So even if I never get any further with my family tree, there’s one thing that both science and religion can tell me about my relatives  – that regardless of race or creed, we really are all kin beneath the skin.   


Physical and spiritual power
November 3, 2008

Have you ever forgotten something really important in your life? We may forget birthdays or anniversaries, but would anyone forget how much they have in the bank?

Our life is totally dependent on money, but only up to a point, because, as the saying goes, you can’t take it with you.

The Egyptian Pharaohs certainly didn’t take anything with them. They spent their lives accumulating gold and building magnificent pyramids, planning for an eternity of luxury. Imagine their disappointment when 3,000 years on, their gold, far from being of any use to them, is on display in museums all around the world. It wasn’t quite how they planned it.

Their staggering belief in the immortality of material things made them think they were building an eternal existence.  But in reality they were creating a material civilisation that soon perished.

Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, suggests building a more balanced civilisation – a Divine Civilisation, which is made up using both material and spiritual means.

In the Bahá’í Writings we read: “For man two wings are necessary. One wing is physical power and material civilisation; the other is spiritual power and divine civilisation. With one wing only, flight is impossible.”

Imagine a bird forgetting to use one of its wings, flapping about on the ground using only one wing! Yet many of us live our lives using only the wing of materialism. No wonder we sometimes feel grounded!

For me, this is where religion comes in. Not the rituals and traditions that are passed down and blindly followed through generations, but a sense of the sacred and divine that lifts us when we’re feeling like a bird with a broken wing.

Bahá’u’lláh writes: “I am the Sun of Wisdom and the Ocean of knowledge. I cheer the faint and revive the dead. I am the Royal Falcon on the arm of the Almighty. I unfold the drooping wings of every broken bird and start it on its flight.”

I like the idea of a religion that instead of clipping your wings, inspires you to spread your wings and soar heavenward.

Suffering for perfection
October 30, 2008

A few weeks back, while reading a book by Somerset Maugham,  I was struck by a comment made by one of the characters about suffering. He said: “It’s not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering, for the most part, makes men petty and vindictive.”

Well, I have to say it got me thinking about whether or not that’s really the case. Does suffering ennoble the character, or make us petty and vindictive?

Image after image of human suffering went through my head – the starving mothers and children of Africa, HIV ravaged communities in developing countries, the wounded and dispossessed in war zones and the orphaned victims of man-made tragedies. Does suffering ennoble their character? I think you may come to the same conclusion I did.

But then I got to thinking about people whose suffering changed them from ordinary people going about their day to day lives, into extraordinary champions of justice and education. There are numerous examples here in the United Kingdom. Diana Lamplugh, the mother who became one of the country’s foremost experts on personal safety, after her daughter disappeared while working as an estate agent twenty years ago. Or what about Colin Parry who established a trust to help children learn peace-building skills after his son Tim was killed in the IRA bombing of Warrington?  And there are plenty of others.

According to the Bahá’í teachings, personal suffering shouldn’t make us petty and vindictive, but should be regarded as opportunity for spiritual growth.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, one of the central figures of the Bahá’í Faith, was well qualified to speak about suffering, spending more than 50 years of His life as an exile and prisoner.

He wrote: “Men who suffer not attain no perfection. The plant most pruned by the gardeners is that one which, when the summer comes, will have the most beautiful blossoms and the most abundant fruit… Look back to the times past and you will find that the greatest of men have suffered most.”

There’s no doubt in my mind that the human spirit has a great capacity to turn despair into hope, tragedy into constructive action and grief into forgiveness and progress.

Investigation and immersion
October 27, 2008

I am often asked how an Irish Catholic girl ended up a Bahá’í. Well, I was always a questioning type, even to the point of being called a doubting Thomas. But that’s no surprise, since asking questions about your religion in Ulster can be seen as a lack of faith.

It’s sometimes assumed that religion is what you’re born into, where thinking and questioning don’t come into it at all. But this way of life wasn’t for me. I found blind following of anything, including religion, meaningless. It was much more interesting to ask questions than to sit passively and accept everything you heard in school or church.

In fact, years later I found that asking all those questions instead of weakening my faith had helped me develop faith, to a point that I could no longer view people of different religions as enemies, but as members of the same one Faith of God.

This simple idea that religions are all from the same source was enough attraction for me to the Bahá’í Faith.

But, being the questioning type, I couldn’t just accept the unity of religions as a fact. It was a claim that had to be fully investigated. And given the amount of wars that are blamed on religion, investigated urgently. The need to urgently seek answers reminds me of a story about a student who asked his teacher how should he look for truth.

Without answering, the teacher took the pupil to the water’s edge and thrust the student’s head under the water until he was struggling for breath.

Eventually the poor student was pulled out of the water and regained his breath.

The teacher then said: “That’s how we must seek the truth. With the urgency of a drowning man who seeks the life-giving air.”

But what kept my head above water was what Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith calls “independent investigation of the truth.”

Having lived in Ulster where communities are divided by old traditions, investigation of truth sounded like a breath of fresh air to me. And unlike that student’s experience it didn’t hurt me at all! 

The Olympic ideal
October 23, 2008

This summer I was inspired by the Olympic Games. And how relieved I was to learn that only eight competitors in the games tested positive for drug use. In previous years, my enjoyment of the Games had been marred by so many allegations over the use of performance enhancing drugs. There was a general feeling of disappointment that the Olympic movement had fallen short of its ideals.

It’s a mark of our times that ideals aren’t working as they once did. Political ideologies, religious movements, even the ideals of the United Nations have left behind a bitter taste too.

The result of these disappointments has been that we daren’t cling on to ideals, just in case they fall short of their promise. But that’s a shame, because it means we daren’t believe in a future that’s more fulfilling than the present.

Perhaps that’s why we are increasingly living only for today, as we spend, buy and consume, now, as if there is no tomorrow.

But doesn’t everyone needs some kind of ideal, whether political, religious, economic or whatever? But how do we avoid the disappointment of seeing these falling short of their promise?

Experience shows that divisive ideals such as political ones cause the most disappointments. They divide people up into opposing camps so that one person’s idealism becomes another person’s fanaticism.

For me, anything that isn’t divisive and has universal appeal has a more promising future.

And this is how the ideals of the Olympic movement have survived as long as they have. They enjoy universal support despite their many problems, challenges and failings.

So much so, that it’s difficult to think of anything with a more universal appeal across the 6 billion population of earth.

Take the idealism represented in the gathering of sports men and women at the centre of the stadium at the opening of the Olympic Games. The mass of different colours worn by the representatives of over 200 nations, showed what can be achieved: Unity in Diversity.

Bahá’u’lláh, founder of the Bahá’í Faith said: “It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens.”

We’ve tried divisive ideals for too long. Perhaps now it’s time for those ideals that are universal. Unity would be a good start.

Grains of Wheat
October 21, 2008

I watched a programme on TV recently about an exciting discovery in an ancient tomb. In among all the gold and treasures, they also found some grains of wheat. And why are grains of wheat worth mentioning?

Well, as you can imagine, these were special grains. Not only were they two thousand years old, but scientists managed to grow them into wheat!

On the face of it, the TV programme was about a scientific discovery of how seeds were preserved all this time. But for me, an even more important point was that these seeds still had the potential to grow into wheat – even after two thousand years.

The reason they hadn’t grown was because they were deprived of the right environment – and a tomb filled with gold certainly wasn’t the right place for the seeds to grow. They needed soil, water and sun for their potential to be revealed.

And so it is for everything that grows in nature. Potential can only be developed in the right environment.

We humans develop our potential for physical strength in a gym, and develop our intelligence by attending school. But what about another potential – the potential to grow spiritually?

What spiritual potential you might ask? Surely it’s the power that motivates us to sacrifice for others, and expect nothing in return. And to doubt that we have this potential for spiritual growth is like seeing those seeds in the tomb, and saying What wheat?” Or seeing an acorn and saying “What oak tree?”

The fact is, that potential, by its very nature, is always hidden, and can only be developed in the right environment. Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, uses the metaphor of hidden treasures to describe the potential within each human being. He wrote: “Regard man as a mine, rich in gems of inestimable value.”

What a shame if we don’t bother looking for these gems within us. But we better be quick in finding them in this fleeting life – because unlike those treasures in the ancient tombs, once we find these spiritual gems, they will stay with us forever.

October 10, 2008

A friend asked me if I’d heard of the radio station WIFM. No, I said, I’d never heard of it, but he insisted that I must have. He said WIFM is short for “what’s in it for me”, and wherever I’d go I would see people tuning into it.

What’s in it for me, he said, is a truly universal concept and speaks every language, and it was about time a radio station was dedicated to it.

He was joking of course, but he had made his point. After all, self-interest is at the heart of most things we do in life. Even economics and politics, which are the very embodiment of our civilisation, are focused around preserving the interests of a nation, group or an individual.

It’s not hard to imagine tuning into a radio station called “What’s in it for me” as people around the world compete with each other for the world’s limited resources.

Of course as we know this isn’t a rhetorical situation. People have been fighting for the same resources for thousands of years.

I wish we could tune to a different station; one that was dedicated to reporting the world run on a different basis than self interest. Difficult though it is to imagine, there is another way of running the world, one which we try to teach to our children in the nursery: sharing.

Unfortunately, countries find sharing very difficult. For a start, any politician with an election ticket to share our wealth with, for example, the people of Africa, wouldn’t get elected.

According to Bahá’u’lláh, Founder of the Bahá’í Faith, the reason that these problems continue is lack of unity among the nations of the world. In the middle of the 19th century, Bahá’u’lláh wrote: “The well being of mankind, its peace and security are unattainable unless and until its unity is firmly established.”

Imagine what life would be like if we viewed the earth as one homeland. Perhaps we would find sharing easier. For example, when we pay taxes we’re accepting to share our wealth, as citizens of one country.

I’m sure we could still share if our country was seen to encompass the entire world. Then again, perhaps our taxes would go up!

Whatever the cost, I think that unity is worth a try. After all, we’ve tried the self-interest approach for centuries. If unity doesn’t work, we can always switch back to the old familiar sounds of WIFM – What’s in it for me.