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Over a year ago I had a job interview that I had to rush to from my workplace. I’m not the most technologically savvy person but I will still blame the GPS on my phone for what happened. I looked up how to get from work to the interview, jumped on the light rail (or tram), then the train, then tapped the function on my phone to show me how to walk the rest of the way. After walking some time, I arrived back at the train station where I got on the train! With only 10 minutes until the job interview, I started to panic. But then I said to myself: “Well, what will happen if I miss the interview? I have a job anyway. It’s not the best job in the world but it helps me pay the rent and bills and feed my family. I really have nothing to lose!”
So I decided to try to get there on time but not get stressed about it. I was spurred on by a sense of detached determination. I made a second try at navigating my way and I finally arrived at the place half an hour late, my shirt soaked with sweat, and had the interview.
I didn’t get the job but that’s not the point of the story. (As it turns out, I ended up getting a better job!) But I reflected on the experience. Normally in a situation like this I would be in a frantic panic. But this time I managed to keep reasonably calm (by my standards). This combination of two quite different virtues, of detachment and determination, struck me as worth thinking about.
Both of these virtues are present in the Baha’i Writings. On one hand, we are advised to strive and exert ourselves to the utmost:
Exert every effort to acquire the various branches of knowledge and true understanding. Strain every nerve to achieve both material and spiritual accomplishments. 1
He is a true Baha’i who strives by day and by night to progress and advance along the path of human endeavor, whose most cherished desire is so to live and act as to enrich and illuminate the world, whose source of inspiration is the essence of Divine virtue, whose aim in life is so to conduct himself as to be the cause of infinite progress. 2
But at the same time, we are told to accept things as they are:
The source of all glory is acceptance of whatsoever the Lord hath bestowed, and contentment with that which God hath ordained. 3
Be as resigned and submissive as the earth, that from the soil of your being there may blossom the fragrant, the holy and multicolored hyacinths of My knowledge. 4
To me, determination is a very active virtue. It is the drive to never give up. It relies on our will. It seeks to control and utilize every situation in order to attain a goal. Detachment is quite different to this. Detachment is to relinquish control – to accept what is. The images that determination conjures up in my mind are characters like Rocky and people like Nelson Mandela who will stop at nothing to accomplish their goals. On the other hand, detachment makes me think of Buddhist monks who have renounced all earthly possessions and hermits living in caves. So how do both qualities gel into one?
Well, I think determination can be either attached or detached. I would say that most of the time it is full of attachment because naturally we become very attached to whatever it is we are aiming to attain. The real test is the reaction we have when, despite all our efforts, we fail to do so. Most of the time this failure will result in disappointment and even deep grief, revealing that we were deeply attached to the results of our actions. But the person who is not deeply disappointed by failure shows detachment from the goal. This is no easy feat. I remained somewhat detached because I didn’t overly desire the job and didn’t have much to lose. But for many, a lot of energy can be invested in a goal and a lot can be riding on it too. Then remaining detached is much more of a challenge.
Tibetan Buddhism provides an example of detached determination. One practice Tibetan Buddhist monks perform is to painstakingly make an incredibly intricate mandala with different coloured sand. Once it is completed, they blow away the sand to demonstrate the transient nature of life. To most people this is hard to watch. It seems like such a wasted effort to destroy what took so long to make. But the monks seem to be detached. It might be harder to stay detached if the mandalas were destroyed at a later time.
I think people also destroy things they have been working on as a way to prevent disappointment. We often give up trying in situations when we feel we don’t have a chance of succeeding. Maybe it’s when we are playing in a sports game and the other team is winning by a lot. Instead of doing our best, we accept defeat and continue to play half-heartedly. That way when the game is over, we are not disappointed.
Being able to remain determined and accept the result with detachment seems to depend on a belief that everything will be ok, no matter what happens. This could involve having high self-esteem, being thankful for the things in life we do have, believing in a Higher Power that is looking out for us, and generally just having a positive outlook that says “things will always get better.”
- Abdu’l-Baha, from a Tablet-translated from the Persian
- Abdu’l-Baha, in “Baha’i Year Book” [“The Baha’i World”], vol. 1 (New York: Baha’i Publishing Committee, 1926), p. 12
- Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah Revealed After the Kitab-i-Aqdas, p.155
- Baha’u’llah, Gleanings From the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p.322
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