Sunday, January 27, 2008

Positive? Negative?

My college Baha’i club was something of a haven for certain members of the local Baha’i community. One woman had memorized a prayer which she said at every opportunity. It was something like, “O, God, make me so meek and such a nothing that no difficulty perturbs me in the slightest . . .” You know, that sort of thing, though of course in much more elaborate language. The line that got me bad every time was about quelling every rebellious passion. I would sit there in the silence of my rebellious passion and think, “I can’t help it, I hate this prayer.”

From a different person I might have felt it differently. But the combination of those words with that personality, everything so neatly ordered and just so and tied up with perfect reasonableness, rationality and good cheer . . .What was it we used to say in sixth grade? Gag me with a spoon. Life is not neat, or reasonable, nor, if you’re paying attention, does it give cause for never-ending good cheer. And a prayer like that should be handled with care, if at all, as it is the kind of thing that helps keep people (women especially) in very bad places when feelings of rebellion and repulsion and the assertion of self should propel them out. I wondered why I never saw this prayer in print, and it gave me unholy pleasure not much later to discover that it was inauthentic, or at least not authenticated for Abdu’l-Baha or Baha’u’llah.

Now I find that another oft-referenced passage that I have always disliked, for much the same reason, is apparently unauthenticated as well: “Look always at the good and not at the bad. If a man has ten good qualities and one bad one, we must look at the ten and forget the one. And if a man has ten bad qualities and one good one, we must look at the one and forget the ten.” According to the handy-dandy search tool at TrueSeeker, this appears in Baha’u’llah and the New Era, in the section titled “The Sin-Covering Eye” (p. 82–83). We are told that “Abdu’l-Baha tells us,” but not when and under what conditions Abdu’l-Baha tells us.

A longer text (BC#36) containing this passage can be found at Baha’i Library. That version comes from the personal papers of one Dwight Barstow. If anyone can trace it to any other source, I would love to know. The title given for this longer version is “The Commands of our Blessed Master, Abdu’l-Baha as revealed in tablets and instructions for the beloved in America,” which suggests it is a kind of summary or paraphrased compilation. Not only the title but the text indicates that the writer was not Abdu’l-Baha but an individual Baha’i, as it contains the phrases “our Master has said,” “the Master also said that,” and “our blessed Master said.” My guess is that these are notes of a talk by Abdu’l-Baha, possibly the same talk of which a different version appears in The Promulgation of Universal Peace (pp. 452–453). It was given on December 2, 1912, in New York, and ends, “Be illumined, be spiritual, be divine, be glorious, be quickened of God, be a Baha’i.” I am sure you know the one.

The two texts cover much the same territory and have stylistic similarities, though I greatly prefer the “Consider all men as your equals” of the latter to the “Know that we are less than anyone else” of the former. Each contains passages that are in some sense about seeing only good in others. Both have weak provenance. In any case, my business is not to define the real principle of the Faith by weeding out inauthentic passages and looking at what remains in the context of reason, experience, and the whole body of Baha’i writings. I am interested in examining what is widely believed by Baha’is partly because of these passages. And although these texts don’t, when scrutinized, look very authoritative, the likelihood is that Abdu'l-Baha did say things of this sort. We have similar passages, solidly authentic (I think, but I do start to wonder about everything), such as in Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha (p. 169), “One must see in every human being only that which is worthy of praise,” and a bit down the page, “Thus it is incumbent upon us when we direct our gaze toward other people, to see where they excel, not where they fail.”

It is a principle often signified by the succinct phrase “the sin-covering eye.” At first I thought this phrase must have some prominent place in primary writings, judging from how often I saw it deployed. But p. 169 of Selections is the only place I’ve located where Abdu’l-Baha uses it, and that in the strange context of his story (not found in the Gospels) about Jesus extolling the whiteness of a dead dog’s teeth while others exclaimed how disgusting was its rotting carcass. The term occurs twice in Shoghi Effendi’s searchable writings, once in God Passes By (pp. 164–165), in reference to Baha’u’llah’s response to his brother’s covenant-breaking activity, and once in Directives From the Guardian (pp. 140–142), where he distinguishes between what should be the response of individuals to the failings of others and an Assembly’s appropriate response.

In Baha’i discourse, “the sin-covering eye” is a whole complex of beliefs about what can and can’t or should and shouldn’t be thought, said, or done; about the of nature persons, organizations, and communities; about negative and positive, bad and good, in what sense they coexist and how we should respond to them. It ranges from sophisticated to simple, from individuals to everything. I can’t possibly take on the whole array in one essay so I won’t. Ironically, speaking openly of negatives, faults, or problems is one bad thing for which devotees of the sin-covering eye will often suspend their principle of seeing only the good. The one definitely addressable negative is the addressing of negatives. This knocks my funny bone.

Some years ago a friend of mine took to describing Larry, my husband, whom she had met only a few times, as very honest. This is what Larry was to her, honest. “He’s really honest. I think he’s very honest.” She was, I think, fulfilling her idea of her Baha’i duty to identify good qualities in this particular other and hold them up. And while I think it is essentially true that Larry is honest, it is not, as the phrase goes, who he is. And so long as she holds onto that as who-he-is, she will know nothing of the real wilderness that is his particular person.

Ignoring the bad and focusing on the good, if taken up simplistically, thus mutilates people in one’s imagination. Persons become collections of qualities that are distinct, separable, and evaluable as good or bad. Whatever is deemed to be bad is ignored, and whatever is deemed to be good is taken as the whole. I don’t doubt that there is something sick in us that wants to fondle what we take as other people’s faults, missteps and wrongdoings, or even to become obsessed with trying to correct them, rather than attending to the order of our own homes. But people are not collections of good and bad qualities; who we are is not divisible, and what is awry in us affects all of who we are in complex ways. If in other human beings you reject and ignore what you deem to be faults, you don’t get something wonderful to affirm, you get a dissected carcass of personhood in your imagination. And you may get a significant danger in your life.

If Baha’i children are raised to see only the positive in others and to perceive faults only in themselves, how then are they, on coming of age, to be equipped to investigate the character of another and to choose someone to spend their life with? It’s like being expected to do calculus when you’ve been banned from doing arithmetic. Inability to see the negative sets people up for victimhood. What’s to stop a Baha’i child from getting in the car of a stranger who offers them a ride? The person is being friendly, right? Why look at negatives? How will her good Baha’i parents protect her from abusers who would gain their own trust through good qualities—favors, kindness, openness? And if a young woman is taught to see only the uprightness, good service, and generosity of the young men she looks upon with interest, what are the chances that she will be skilled in perceiving how one who returns her interest uses these to mask his duplicity, ambition, self-righteousness, and violence?

Selectively seeing the faults of others is like saying, “You suck and I don’t.” But selectively not seeing the faults of others is like saying, “Please use me.” Hands go up, objections are made: The Baha’i Faith does not condone abuse. It is for justice and for the punishment of abuse. People should not allow themselves to be abused.

Yes, but how? There seems to me an assumption in this line of thinking that you can get rid of something and keep it at the same time—ditch your cake and eat it too. An assumption that you can not see the faults in others, yet be able to do just that when it really matters. But abuse is complex; recognizing it is far from automatic. And it isn’t separable from lesser sins like manipulation and lying. Where is the line between what can be perceived and discussed, and what shouldn’t? And if the sin-covering eye is not meant to overlook real wrongs, if ignoring the “bad qualities” only means not freaking out when your spouse doesn’t put the cap back on the toothpaste, then what are we talking about, anyway? Are breaches of etiquette sins?

Shoghi Effendi wrote,

There is a tendency to mix up the functions of the Administration and try to apply it in individual relationships, which is abortive . . . But individuals towards each other are governed by love, unity, forgiveness and a sin-covering eye. Once the friends grasp this they will get along much better . . . (Directives from the Guardian, pp. 41–42)

But LSAs, NSAs, and the Universal House of Justice cannot handle everybody’s problems, difficulties, and faults. There are too few of them and too many of us; there always will be. And besides, how are assembly members to be skilled in doing this if before they’re on the assembly they’re not allowed to think, converse, and make decisions about the bad stuff? Everybody has need of perceiving more than just the nicenesses in others in making decisions as parents, citizens, supervisors, landlords, tenants, patients, teachers, just about every role a person can occupy. Hell, merely in opening the front door to a stranger who has knocked, one needs to be alert to more than the pretty whiteness of his teeth.

The idea that all critical thought about actual people can be left to assemblies is frankly dumb. And writing an over-long essay to point this out seems dumb too. Like, duh. Yet I’ve seen the trouble these ideas can make. And I think every religious community should look honestly at the ways its culture, ideals, scripture, and ways of functioning can enable abuse.

But I’m not saying it’s OK to talk however, whenever, whatever. I don’t believe that. Talking needlessly about what’s wrong with other people is probably one of the more recurrent sins of my life. I can remember being in middle school and talking with a friend during a sleepover about everyone we knew, picking them apart for pleasure. When we’d done with one we’d think of another. I think the game was driven more by me than by her. I remember saying, “Who next? What about so-and-so?” and having simultaneously a hovering awareness, slightly outside the moment, that something was not right in me. I think after that I never engaged again in this practice overtly as a form of entertainment. I’m still figuring out, though, the more subtle and not-so-subtle ways I err in my thought and speech about others.

But I thank Baha’u’llah, Jesus, the boogie man, maybe even the tooth fairy—certainly my own desire to be a whole healthy person in good relationships—that I never really succeeded in implementing this “Baha’i ideal” of the sin-covering eye, that never sees the “faults” of others. Life is just way too hard, way too dangerous for that.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Minus the Facial Hair

It's winter in Vermont.

It's what you call beautiful.

Out every window . . .



living room,

and from the driveway.

On cold insomniac nights the wind rushes through the clear cut across our road to howl in the trees on our hillside, while I shuffle about the 55 degree house unable to build a fire (we heat with wood), unwilling to wake Larry. Every time I catch a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror I think that I, in my new wool hat, remind myself of someone. Suddenly, after a few nights of wondering, I know who it is, and pulling out my Basic Baha’i Dictionary I find the image.

Yes . . . in that new hat, Ms. Leaf bears a suspicious resemblance to Baha'i calligrapher Mishkin-Qalam.

At least, it seemed that way at 3:00 am.

(A real post is coming soon, probably.)

(I think I can. I think I can.)