When I was a child in early primary school my mother became a Baha’i. We learned as a family about what it meant to be a Baha’i and we didn’t have a conscious awareness of the importance of unity – especially between siblings. My sister and I fought a lot and I was often very cruel to her as the older sister. If we played in the pool, for example, we might splash each other and if at some point I splashed so hard that I made her eyes sting from water and chlorine I would think nothing of it, and her visible suffering would probably only encourage me to splash harder.
In 1984 I was 11 years old when my mother, sister and I attended the dedication of the Temple in Samoa. There were many Baha’is staying in the same hotel as us. I remember playing in the pool with two children whom I had never met before and have never met since – though I’ve heard they live in our region. We chased each other and splashed each other. And over thirty years later I still remember the profound impact of the behaviour of those children on me. Navid splashed his sister Nava and they were having fun, but then the water got in her eyes. Nava indicated that her eyes were hurting and her brother immediately stopped and swam over to her, apologised and checked that she was ok. I had never seen anything like it. He behaved with the same kindness in his interactions with her as he would have with me (a stranger) or with his teacher or with anyone. Kind was the only way he knew how to be. It was a highly developed quality of his soul, not a performance that could be turned on and off depending on circumstances.
Abdu’l-Baha articulates the qualities He wants us to develop in the following way:
The wish of Abdu’l-Baha, that which attracts His good pleasure and, indeed, His binding command, is that Baha’is, in all matters, even in small daily transactions and dealings with others, should act in accordance with the divine Teachings.1
In this passage and in the countless others available to us, we note that Abdu’l-Baha exhorts us all to manifest these qualities all of the time. He does not make exceptions. In our society there is an overall agreement that being respectful and kind, for example, are praiseworthy but we also routinely normalise disrespect and unkindness in particular groups. When we see boys being aggressive or violent and we say “boys will be boys” we are normalising and uncritically accepting aggressive or violent behaviour in a particular group of human beings. When we speak of disrespectful behaviour in teenagers as if it was an inherent part of that stage of life, we are normalising and uncritically accepting disrespectful behaviour in a group of human beings. I believe and hope, that Baha’is are less likely than others to embrace these ideas. But when it comes to relationships among siblings it sometimes feels that we have bought into society’s ideas about “exceptions”. That is, we accept that it is natural and unavoidable to have disunity, disrespect, discourtesy among siblings. If we believe that, we are likely to have a high tolerance for it. But our teachings do not appear support this belief. Baha’u’llah says, “Nothing whatever can, in this Day, inflict a greater harm upon this Cause than dissension and strife, contention, estrangement and apathy, among the loved ones of God.”2
By vigilantly and diligently addressing disunity when it arises among siblings we can communicate that the development of spiritual qualities is essential to the health of our soul. We can communicate that there must be absolute coherence between our behaviour in our home and our behaviour outside our home. We can challenge the idea that courtesy, respect, consideration are things we “turn on” or that manifesting them is part of our “best behaviour”.
Years after that poolside experience in Samoa when I became a Baha’i parent, my goal became to raise children like Navid and Nava – siblings whose relationship was characterised by respect, kindness and thus unity. Some of the concrete ways this goal was pursued included the following.
Firstly, as parents we manifested very low tolerance for disunity. Each argument over a sock, a toy, a decision became an opportunity for a peaceful, focused conversation. It would start by each child being invited to describe the experience from their perspective without interruption. Sometimes the versions of the stories were vastly different, but as the children matured and were able to approach the conversation with greater fairness and detachment, the versions tended to align more and more.
Then each of the children would have a chance to identify what she could have done differently to ensure she contributed to unity. It was always very easy for each to identify what the other could have done differently and the identification of that was actively resisted in the initial stage. Each child might identify that she could speak in a different tone, speak before grabbing, walk away from the situation, allow the other to go first, or calmly express what she wanted.
If a given child could not identify anything she could have done differently, the other child could offer suggestions – which were always forthcoming! This approach builds opportunity for power of expression, analysis, and making conscious choices from a very young age.
Secondly, every fun activity was conditional on unity. We could be on our way to the beach or a picnic or to pick up a friend for a sleepover – if unity could not be achieved and maintained – the activity was cancelled. This was not done with anger or used as threat. It was expressed as a simple natural consequence. We might be on our way to the beach when an argument broke out. We might stop and try to talk it through and then keep driving. If the disunity was maintained we might stop the car. Pull over to the side of the road. Then very lovingly, very calmly, modelling the respect we want to see in the children, explain, “Unity is beloved of Abdu’l-Baha. Our choices, words, behaviour are not creating unity and is displeasing to the Master. We are going home.”
Thirdly, whenever they wanted to express gratitude or please me or give me a gift, I would ask for unity. One year my birthday present was a signed pledge to maintain unity throughout the day.
Fourthly, in the midst of the conflict, I would declare, “You are breaking my heart!” At the time the children thought it was just a silly and exaggerated expression that their momma would use, but years later Liza, who is now serving as an Institute Coordinator and constantly engaging with children and junior youth, said she realises now it is actually a true feeling. When she witnesses disunity among the junior youth she now feels and declares, “You are breaking my heart!”
When I arrived in the Holy Land on my youth year of service 25 years ago, the first prayer I ever said at the Shrine of Baha’u’llah was for forgiveness for how I had treated my little sister. We are very close now but I wish I had bestowed the same kindness I bestowed on many others during my childhood, on my little sister.
- Abdu’l-Baha quoted by the Universal House of Justice, retrieved from https://www.bahai.org/library/authoritative-texts/the-universal-house-of-justice/messages/19800210_001/19800210_001.pdf [↩]
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah [↩]