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The glowing smiles of poorly-clad children in the winter of the Hindu Kush have penetrated indelibly into my consciousness. The radiant faces of one-toothed grandfathers in Ethiopia and Kenya have stayed with me for years.
In the West we pride ourselves in our “high” standard of living. Clean running water, electricity and a general semblance of order ensure a level of comfort which the emperors of bygone ages would have begrudged. But has it all come at the expense of smiles? Beamy-faced selfies are no doubt the fad for presidents and celebrities alike. But what’s with the polished faces, the bleeched teeth and the seductive poses if they lack heart and soul? A sincere smile is a many-splendored thing. The kind that is radiant and innocent rather than pretentious and pasted on the face.
The well-nigh miraculous rags-to-riches story of Finland, my native land, has (for now) climaxed in a prosperous and organized high-tech society which many Finns are proud of. But have all these great benefits banished the welcoming smiles towards strangers which the Italian explorer, Giuseppe Acerbi, reported witnessing on the soot-covered faces of the dirt-poor Finns at the end of the 18th century? Have they overthrown, in their wake, a sense of higher purpose from a gritty struggle for survival, sober cultural values and a gravitation into deep thought, stimulated by silence and serene nature, which once provided the Finns with a profound sense of meaning? No, I’m not on some sanctimonious mission to glorify the bliss of poverty or to awaken the world’s rich to the evils of wealth. Neither am I suggesting that a society where everyone isn’t happily grinning every minute is deprived of all mirth and gaiety. Things don’t have to look Disney to be great. But if the final fruit of “development” is really a grandmother living all alone in a comfortable inner-city apartment without any visitors, or an IT consultant with children going through a difficult divorce, is it ultimately worth the loss of a large, loud and closely-knit family that leads — in spite of a boiling stew of material and social problems — an essentially happy little life in a shoebox?
Anybody can be happy in the state of comfort, ease, health, success, pleasure and joy; but if one will be happy and contented in the time of trouble, hardship and prevailing disease, it is the proof of nobility.‘Abdu’l-Baha
Of all the “developing” countries I’ve visited and worked in, Afghanistan left me the deepest imprint. Regardless of ethnicity, gender or age, most Afghans display uncanny fortitude, friendliness and hopefulness. The initially grim countenances of bearded men often enshroud an exceedingly polite gentleman whose child-like curiosity knows no bounds. Yes, the Afghan women wear the infamous burqa more often than not, but quite regardless of their attire, they often prove chatty, loud and even bossy epitomes of human grit. Behind their submissive masks lie cheerfully chattering exemplars of tenacity. Depressed and downhearted faces are a rarity albeit by Western reckoning virtually every Afghan ought to suffer from some sort of dire privation, lack or repression.
Afghan hospitality is historic. Families are large and lively. Despite the evident ills of inequality, most family relations are tight and caring. On fridays families retire to crowded parks for picnic and fellowship. Kite-flying children and youngsters abound in towns and villages. Not only women and girls but also men are visibly child-loving. While many Afghans have witnessed unspeakable crimes against humanity from earliest childhood, they have time and again proven surprisingly gentle in demeanour, soulful and sober-minded. Large families, great communal bonds, a staunch faith and a brutal sense of humour have provided a stronghold for many, shielding them from complete psychological breakdown. Lesser traumas in “more developed” countries have driven scores for life-confinement in the loony bin.
The greatest inspiration has ever come from those that remained happy even in the face of violent persecution and torture. The very mention of Badí and Mullá Husayn stirs us to our depths. The greatest souls seem to have suffered like none other. Despite their ability to attract masses, how can well-fed gurus basking in admiration within the safety of their extravagant ashrams, honey-tongued opportunists inviting generous donations by abusing religious sentiment, urbanized oracles selling self-help books with a fluffy spiritual philosophy, and privileged preachers flying their learjets between jam-packed stadiums, inspire us to triumph under agonizing trials?
Indeed, happiness under hardship is the mark of a true prophet. And not just any kind of hardship, but the devastating kind that targets your loved ones, destroys your body and gives you a rude reminder that you are really nothing but a spit bowl for the most twisted-minded oppressor. Baha’u’llah – robbed, tortured and imprisoned for life – experienced some of the most brutal aspects of humanity and yet remained utterly unwavering, till His hour of death, in His call upon mankind to rejoice in the greatness of its true calling. With the stubbornness of a Hebrew prophet He never stopped insisting that within the human frame “are potentially revealed all the attributes and names of God to a degree that no other created being hath excelled or surpassed”.
It took an inspired Orphan with a stammering speech, hunted by a pharaoh, to motivate millions of Jews to remain happy under the worst of hardships. It needed a spirit-filled homeless Carpenter destined for crucifixion to instil a deep sense of joy in the daily grind amongst hundreds of millions of devout Christians. Only an Illiterate ablaze with passion, driven out into the desert with a war thrust upon him and his companions, could inspire over a billion Muslims to remain contented and patient in the tumult that is life.
True prophets, in the annals of world history, are a mere handful. But they are real. And the lesson of their living example is near-identical: You, my friend, have a far, far greater calling than comfort.
Who is to be preferred, he that hath sheltered himself behind curtains, or he that hath offered himself in the path of God?– Baha’u’llah
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