Nine Reasons to Work for Race Unity

This is the other half of a pamphlet I wrote 18 years ago. It still applies today.

1) Because racism hurts everyone. It is not just the occasional race riot or hate crime that hurts us. Rather, it is the daily dose of tension, suspicion and distrust that crosses racial lines in both directions and eats away at human potential from every side.

2) Because these tensions raise the over-all level of violence and aggression in our country, which, in turn, increase stress, depression, domestic violence, drug abuse, and a host of other social and spiritual ills.

3) Because our children deserve the chance to live in a world free of prejudice.

4) Because, “All humanity are the children of God; they belong to the same family, to the same original race.”

5) Because the belief that some people are better or more valuable than others is a spiritual cancer that can consume our souls and destroy our relationships.

6) Because love between black and white Americans will set such a powerful example that it will encourage peace and cooperation around the world.

7) Because treating everyone with dignity and respect is the spiritual essence of the Golden Rule.

8) Because making friends and feeling comfortable with people from diverse backgrounds is so much fun and feels so good.

9) Because it is God’s Will – and it is always smarter to be with God than against Him.

Nine Ways to Work for Race Unity

This is one half of a pamphlet I wrote 18 years ago.
1) Promote education – both your own and other’s, because ignorance and blind imitation are the root causes of prejudice.
2) Recognize the essential nobility of the Human Soul – Many of the symptoms of racism are the result of either projecting or internalizing feelings of unworthiness. When we like ourselves, we feel less need to hate or fear others
3) Practice the qualities of “genuine love, extreme patience, true humility, consummate tact, sound initiative, mature wisdom, and deliberate, persistent and prayerful effort.”
4) Become sensitive to forms of prejudice and oppression that you might experience from a different perspective, (like sexism or ageism) and apply what you learn to your own racial attitudes.
5) Develop a personal awareness of the Oneness of Humanity as a spiritual and scientific reality.
6) Read the Holy Writings of the world’s religions – including the Bible, Koran and the Bahá’í Writings – and pray for guidance every day.
7) Contemplate the mortality of your body and the immortality of your soul.
8) Develop a thirst for justice because “The best beloved of all things in My sight is justice….” and “The purpose of justice is the appearance of unity amongst men.”
9) Make lots and lots of diverse friends so that you have many opportunities to study unity and practice virtues.
“We work and pray for the unity of mankind, that all the races of the earth may become one race, all the countries one country, and that all hearts may beat as one heart, working together for perfect unity and brotherhood.
“Only have faith, patience and courage – this is but the beginning, but surely you will succeed, for God is with you!”

It is the 35th Anniversary of the Creation of Special Ideas

Thirty-five years ago this month, I returned from my first Pilgrimage to the Baha’i Holy Land with an idea for a new company – a company that would not only create unique materials for teaching the Baha’i Faith, but would explain how to use them, when, where and with whom. Here’s the story of how it all began:
How I Created Special Ideas 35 Years Ago

I became a Bahá’í forty-two years ago, on June 27th, in the summer between high school and college. From the moment I signed my card, my heart was devoted to serving the Cause and teaching the Faith. In college, I majored in art, and spent most of my creative energy designing posters and fliers for the many Bahá’í Club meetings we held every week. I also created portable fair booths out of fabric, and travel-taught every summer, giving musical slide shows and talking about love, unity, and the non-existence of evil.

It was at one of those firesides that I heard about a job opening at the Bahá’í Publishing Trust. It was a dream come true to be offered a job there just a few months after I graduated. I was “Assistant Production Coordinator for Special Materials.” As exciting as that may sound, I discovered that they weren’t really interested in having me help develop any special materials. My job was to make whatever the people in charge wanted made. They were wonderful, dedicated people, but they simply weren’t as interested in teaching as I was. In the year I was there, we made greeting cards, records and jewelry, but not a single teaching card, radio spot or button. Our catalog included only one pamphlet, and no T-shirts. Needless to say, I was frustrated.

My heart wanted to teach, but working in Wilmette, I was surrounded by Bahá’ís, not seekers.  I was not helping anyone else teach either. I decided to quit and spend my meager savings travel-teaching again while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life.

This is where it gets interesting.

I had no intention of starting a company, but I did have one good design that everyone told me I should do something with. Maybe you remember it. It was the “United Doves” logo, with a white dove and a black dove coming together to form a heart. Well, I had offered the design to the Publishing Trust, the Race Unity Committee, the Teaching Committee and the Office of Public Affairs. None of them liked it. So I decided I would print up a few posters to sell to fund my travel-teaching. I had a printer make film and plates to print up some posters.

That is when it got REALLY interesting.

One week before my last day at the Trust, I got a call from the Pilgrimage Office. Did I have a passport? They wanted to know. It turned out that someone had cancelled at the last minute and there was an opening for pilgrimage three weeks later, the second week of June. I jumped at the chance to go, but… I would have to spend the money I had saved to pay for my travel-teaching AND for the printing of the posters.

I went on Pilgrimage to the Baha’i Holy Land in Haifa Israel – a wonderful experience – and spent much of the time praying for guidance. What should I do now?

The answer, given to me while my forehead was on the Sacred Threshold, was that I should use the posters I was printing as the seed of a new business producing the Bahá’í teaching materials that I loved.

On my way home from Haifa, I had arranged to spend two weeks travel-teaching in Norway. I was in Kristiansand, at the home of the secretary of the Norwegian National Teaching Committee for my 7th Bahá’í birthday, dreaming dreams and making plans.  By the time I got home, I had the name of my new company and a dozen product ideas. Keep in mind that I was an art major and had no idea of how to run a business (and I had no money). But I was passionate about teaching. My secret marketing scheme was that I would not just tell people what I was selling, but I would give them detailed explanations as to how to use them so their teaching work would be more effective. I would teach people how to teach – and in so doing, I would help create my next customers! I would also have enough faith in the Community to risk printing things in huge quantities so that I could sell them really cheaply.

Which brings us back to those posters. If I printed 100, they would cost $5 each, but if I printed 20,000 I could sell them for 19¢ each. The problem was that I didn’t have the money to pay for any of them, but the plates were already made. So I talked the printer into giving me 90 days to pay. I then gathered the names of all the people I had met while travel teaching, and sent samples out to them. People bought them by the hundreds, then by the thousand, with one community giving out 1,500 at an Educator’s Conference a few years later. The posters got paid for, and the rest is history… sort of.

The first 15 years were a bit rough. Everyone thought I was crazy. First of all, most people didn’t think independent Bahá’í companies were allowed. Second, if they WERE allowed, they certainly couldn’t make any money. Third, if they were going to make money, it would not be by selling teaching materials! Fourth, you know, you really need to know something about business… Plus, I think I moved the company 15 times in 15 years. I’m amazed anyone could find me, but you did – and I thank you. Friends and strangers would buy more than they really needed just to help keep Special Ideas afloat. I bless you all. Then I met Karen and things fell into place. She was the stable ground that my creativity needed in order to flourish.

It has now been 35 years since I returned from Pilgrimage. I recently browsed through the fifty or more catalogs I’ve mailed out in that time. They contain literally thousands of different products – most of which we published ourselves – that represent millions of individual teaching items, from pamphlets to billboards, stickers, posters and prayer books. We have distributed over a quarter of a million copies of The Hidden Words and close to half a million prayer books. Several million assorted stickers have been given away. Countless pamphlets have been read. The name “Bahá’í” has been placed on the walls of thousands of homes and classrooms because of our posters. Who can tell how many conversations have been started because of a T-shirt, window decal, button, or piece of Bahá’í jewelry? Through all of these millions of items – each of which were sold for only pennies in profit – we have managed to fulfill our mission and our passion, while eking out enough income to keep our small family alive. It is a blessing for which I thank God every day.

Teaching is still the central mission of Special Ideas, but we’ve also expanded our vision to include interfaith fellowship, teaching virtues and emotional healing. I hope you’ve enjoyed following our evolution. Some of you, I know, were on my very first mailing list, while many others have been faithful customers for decades. I know your names. I recognize many of your voices. Sometimes I even know your parent’s names. It’s been that long.

I’ve loved serving the Bahá’í Community all these years, and I will continue to serve you as long as you let me – and as long as you all continue to need materials that make the world a better place.

Justice Saint Rain

My Favorite Author Interview

I was fortunate enough to be interviewed for a series of podcasts called A Baha’i Perspective, produced by Warren Odess-Gillett. He asked me about my life and influences, then we talked about how I got into publishing. At minute 23 we start talking about the four main books I’ve written – Falling Into Grace (minute 23), Why Me? (minute 28:30), My Baha’i Faith (minute 36:30), and we round out the interview with an extended discussion of the three separate parts of Love, Lust and the Longing for God starting around minute 42:20.  If you haven’t read any of my books and would like a quick, painless and free way to learn the basic concepts behind each of them, this is your chance.

Click here to listen to the podcast, and click here to go to the home page of the series to see who else you might want to hear about.

How to Rescue the Publishing Industry

My Current Thoughts:
In the digital age, a book is no longer a “thing.” Reading is a “process.” Our current system for both books and music is still tied up with the idea of objects rather than a time-based process.
As technology improves, I believe that instead of tracking purchases of books and music (that we might never actually process) our gadgets will track the time we spend listening to each track of music and the number of words we read in a book, then charge a unified account accordingly (think nickels, not dollars), with royalties being disbursed to the appropriate artists or writers.
Amazon is experimenting with something along these lines with their loaning library system in which readers “join” in order to “borrow” Kindle books, and the authors are only paid if the reader reads more than 10% of the book. But you pay to join, and you may never get your money’s worth out of it. (And authors are encouraged to write really short books.)
I suspect that there will soon be competition in which you don’t join, but are charged by the item, and by the percentage of the item you “process.” I, for one, would rather pay 10-cents every time I hear a song I like than pay $15 for a CD or even $1 for a song on my ipod. I would rather pay 10-cents for every 5,000 words I read of a book, than risk $1 on a self-published e-book that I might stop reading after two pages. This would be especially true if I knew that the author or artist was actually receiving the bulk of the fee.
Right now, with Amazon controlling so much of the market, they can take a hefty portion of everyone’s royalties (though not as big as traditional publishers). They are trying to consolidate their lead by forcing authors to choose Kindle-only services or get left behind. That can’t last long. There are too many pre-Amazon books out there, and they can’t control the technological advances on their way.

My Book Tour Talks Are on YouTube!

I gave five talks in three days during my book tour of SE Michigan.  Three of them were recorded, but at this point only snippets of two are available at Alan Gamble’s page.  You can check them out by clicking here.  If you just want a taste of my presentation, here’s a short clip about finding the right person to spend your life with.

I had such a good time that I’m eager to hit the road again.  If you would like me to come to your area, let me know.

Book Tour!

It is time for another book tour – this time South Eastern Michigan – and it is this weekend! I’d love to see you all. Here is the schedule:

Friday March 28
The Secret of Emotions
3:30-5pm Jackson District Library’s Carnegie Branch, 244 W Michigan Ave., Jackson – .

A Conversation on Healing
7-8:30pm Hannah Community Center, 819 Abbot Rd., East Lansing

Saturday March 29
The Science of Happiness
1-2:30pm Adrian Public Library, 143 E. Maumee St., Adrian

Songs & Conversation on Unity
4-6pm King Community Center, 1107 Adrian St., Jackson

Sunday March 30
The Secret of Happiness
12:30-1:30pm Baha’i Center of Washtenaw County, 5550 Morgan Rd., Ypsilanti

By the way, if you would like me to come speak in your area, all you have to do is ask (and help with expenses).

The Hard Way – Lessons Learned from the Economic Collapse

For thousands of years, wise men and prophets have warned us that greed, selfishness and arrogance were not good for us and that we should practice generosity, service and humility.

We didn’t believe them.

Moses said “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

We ignored Him.

Jesus said “feed the hungry, clothe the naked and comfort the sick.”

We stuck our fingers in our ears.

Mohammed said “Woe betide every slanderer and defamer, him that layeth up riches and counteth them.”

We kept on counting our money.

All three of them told us not to charge interest on loans.[i]

We conveniently forgot.

Baha’u’llah[ii] said we should eliminate the extremes of wealth and poverty.

We never acknowledged His existence.

We thought that these were moral teachings designed to get us into heaven.  We never dreamed that they were economic teachings designed to make the world function more smoothly.  After all, what does God know about economics?

Actually, as it turns out, quite a bit.

You see, God designed the universe in such a way that moral behavior also makes the material world function more smoothly.  When we follow God’s guidance, it doesn’t just get us into some future heaven, but it also helps build a kind of heaven right here on earth.   Believe it or not, part of God’s plan is for us to have a healthy and stable global economy that can sustainably support the entire population with a comfortable standard of living!  God wants the very best for us, and therefore the best is possible. If we follow God’s guidance, then that is what we will get.  If we don’t … well, you can see how successful we have been by trying to do it the other way.  Maybe now we are ready to learn the lessons the recent collapse has to teach us – starting with the need to eliminate the extremes of wealth and poverty.

From economic disparity to economic collapse

It would be easy to learn the wrong lessons from the recent collapse.  Those who are too close to the problem see it in terms of housing bubbles and credit default swaps and all sorts of very specific financial instruments.  Those who see the big picture accurately name the culprit as greed.  Unfortunately, if the only lesson we learn is that people shouldn’t be greedy, we will not have gained any useful insights.  A useful lesson needs to fall somewhere between the grand spiritual principle and the specific economic transactions.

Understanding the role that economic disparity played in the collapse – the ever widening gap between the rich and the poor – would give us useful insights that we could apply to personal, national and international policies.  It would offer many points of intervention that could gently shift our policies and priorities in new, more healthy and more spiritual directions.

“But the principal cause of these difficulties lies in the laws of the present civilization; for they lead to a small number of individuals accumulating incomparable fortunes, beyond their needs, whilst the greater number remains destitute, stripped and in the greatest misery. This is contrary to justice, to humanity, to equity; it is the height of iniquity, the opposite to what causes divine satisfaction…

“It is, then, clear and evident that the repartition of excessive fortunes amongst a small number of individuals, while the masses are in misery, is an iniquity and an injustice. In the same way, absolute equality would be an obstacle to life, to welfare, to order and to the peace of humanity. In such a question a just medium is preferable. …”  ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions pg. 273

Up to here, I’ve told you what you already know – that economic disparity is not a good thing.  You probably already believe this for moral reasons.  Here is where I leave both religion and standard economic theory behind and try to figure out why economic disparity is bad for the economy.  If you want the “usual” analysis then read the newspapers.  If you want divine Truth, jump ahead to the appendix.  But if you are curious about how the system got so far out of balance, I humbly offer you my own entirely personal opinion…

It is clear how economic disparity is a moral question, but how does economic disparity hurt the economy itself?  To see the causal connection, we must first understand how a healthy economy works.

The Heartbeat of a Healthy Economy 

What makes an economy healthy and self-sustaining?  In a healthy economy, people produce goods and services, they are paid for producing them, and then they go out and buy different goods and services with the money they earn.  That’s it.  It really isn’t all that complicated.

One of the miraculous aspects of a healthy system is that it can chug along quite nicely without needing to grow or generate excess profits. This is important. It does not have to be driven by a 40-hour work week or constantly increasing consumption.  If the needs of the community can be met in 20 hours, then it can stop producing.  It doesn’t have to go on to produce twice what people need and then tell them to go buy more stuff.  In the developed world, we don’t really need to consume more, but we may need to consume more wisely. There are still some parts of the world, however, in which more is still needed for basic survival.  When efficiency and productivity gains provide this increase, then, in a healthy economy, that increase is reflected in wages so that those extra goods can be purchased.  What makes an economy healthy is not its size or its growth, but the continuous circular flow of resources.

The Economic Cycle

Excess wealth interrupts this natural flow of resources.

It is not necessary – or even desirable – for everyone in a healthy economy to be paid the same amount, just so long as everyone earns enough to get by, and everyone spends what they earn.  The problems arise when a few people are allowed to make so much money that they can’t spend it all.  When this happens, then this excess wealth is diverted away from the purchase of goods and services and put into savings instead.  This diversion of resources disrupts the natural flow of money through the system, causing the economy to spiral downward.  If goods go unsold, then the companies who hire workers won’t make enough money to pay their wages.  Not only that, but these companies will have excess inventory and will have to cut back on production, so they won’t need as many workers. This will reinforce the downward spiral.

Now, before you go out and spend your retirement savings in order to rescue the economy, let me make a distinction between personal savings and excess wealth.  Personal savings are what you use to send your kid to college, or set aside for a rainy day, or invest to prepare for retirement.  It is not excess wealth, it is deferred consumption.  It is money that you plan to spend – just not today.  If everyone were paid equitably, there would be enough legitimate savings in the system to finance needed ventures.  Excess wealth, on the other hand, is money that will never be spent.  It is gathered and increased for reasons of status or power or pride.  It will be passed on from generation to generation and never reenter the normal flow of commerce.  It is this constantly increasing pool of excess resources that eventually overwhelms the financial system.

This excess wealth is money that the rest of us don’t even realize exists.  It is hard for us to imagine that there is a surplus of savings when we are constantly told that Americans don’t save.  Most Americans – indeed most people around the world do not have enough disposable income to save enough to cause even a blip in the flow of the economy.  But a few Americans, and a small number of others do have enough savings to disrupt the natural flow of the economy. One of the places that people store their excess wealth, for example, is in stocks. Before the last market crash, Americans had taken over 17 trillion dollars of their savings (150% of our annual GDP) and bought stocks.  Of that, the richest 10 percent of American families owned about 85 percent of all outstanding stocks.  In addition, they also owned about 85 percent of all financial securities, and 90 percent of all business assets.  This means that 85-90% of the savings in the US were accumulated by just 10% of the population.  This shows that a significant portion of our nation’s wealth is tied up in savings, and that it is mostly controlled by a very few people.  This represents money that is not available to be used to purchase cars, food, clothing, education, medical care or any other part of the real economy.  No wonder our economy is struggling. No matter how much the bottom 90% of the population tries to spend, they don’t have a chance of compensating for the 85% of the savings that are pulled out of the system by the rich.  On a global scale, according to analysis by Credit Suisse, just one percent of the global population owns around half of the world’s wealth.  Clearly, the 1% cannot actually spend all of that wealth on consumer goods, no matter how many shoes and yachts they buy.

This is obvious.  Anyone can see this.  So why isn’t anyone doing something about it?  Because everyone “knows” that as long as all of that saved money is invested – that is, if people use their excess money to generate even more money– then it goes back into the system as though it were being spent.  In other words, people believe that using money is the same as spending money.

It isn’t.

Why Can’t Investment Compensate for Savings?

There are three primary ways to invest savings – Capital Investment, Loans, and the Stock Market.  Each of these is a valuable tool for economic development under the proper circumstances. When the amount invested exceeds the economy’s actual needs, however, then each of them can cause more harm than good.    Even the best of things turn bad when they pass the bounds of moderation.[iii]

Only a few economists[iv]  acknowledge the dangers of having too much to invest, so let me explain why each of these investment tools ceases to be beneficial when investment exceeds need. Remember, the problem with savings is that it reduces the amount of money that is available to buy goods, which reduces consumption and increases the excess supply of goods. For investments to compensate for these savings in a positive way, they have to help increase consumption, or decrease the over-supply of goods.

Capital Investment

A capital investment is when you spend money to buy equipment to increase productivity. In a healthy economy, this is a good thing.  Perhaps that is why it has been allowed by every major religion.  Islamic countries still use investments rather than loans to run their economies. In a healthy economy, when productivity increases, so do wages.  Everyone comes out ahead.  But in an unhealthy economy, the people who are making the capital investment feel they have a right to the majority of the profits generated by the increased productivity.  This means that wages don’t increase along with productivity.  More and more goods are produced, but fewer workers have enough money to buy them with.  This just makes the problem worse, because if the supply of excess goods increases, then workers will be laid off to compensate.

The economist who originally said that capital investments would compensate for savings modeled his theories on the kind of healthy economic spirit enunciated by Henry Ford: “There is one rule for the industrialist and that is: Make the best quality of goods possible at the lowest cost possible, paying the highest wages possible.” Unfortunately, that spirit no longer dominates business.  Since 1975, the rise in America’s GDP (a measure of everything we produce) has been decoupled from rises wages.  In other words, we all have produced more, but haven’t gotten paid accordingly.  Between 2001 and 2006, for example, productivity in America soared by 16% per worker, while real median wages dropped by 2.9%.[v]

Today’s economists know this, but they haven’t reformulated their theories accordingly.  In today’s economy – where the gap between the rich and poor continues to increase – using savings for capital investments only reduces wages and employment, and diverts more resources away from the healthy flow of the economy and into the hands of the rich. 

Productivity Gains

As individual wages fell, women entered the workforce to stabilize household income , but median income still did not keep pace with rising productivity.

Stocks

Related to capital investment is the purchase of stocks. If you buy new stock, then you are making a capital investment.  In a healthy economy, in which the gains of investments are shared equitably, then the stock market is a reasonable way to pool resources and encourage capital investments.  In an unhealthy economy, these capital investments create the problems I just described.

When there is too much money in the system, then there is no demand for new capital investments.  This means that if you want to buy stock, you have to buy pre-existing stock.  In this case, all you are doing is trading one person’s savings for another person’s savings. The terms stock exchange and trading stocks are accurate descriptions of what is going on.  No consumption is taking place.  It is like a bunch of kids getting together to trade baseball cards.  They may be really excited about what great trades they made, but no new cards have been created or consumed.  Very few people actually take money out of the stock market, so this money is not being used to buy goods or services.  This means that the money sitting in the stock market might as well be stuffed under a mattress, for all the difference it makes in the greater economy.  Whether stock prices are up or down, it does not change our ability to consume goods until such time as we actually sell our stock. (It can, however, change our perception of our ability to consume goods, and increase our willingness to borrow against our perceived wealth.)  People selling stock without buying new stock are generally retirees who are part of the 90% of the population that only own 15% of the stock.

Loans

The third way in which the wealthy use their savings to make more money is through loans.  This is potentially the most dangerous and destructive way to use excess savings.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam all forbid charging interest on loans.  The Bahá’í Faith allows interest, but Bahá’u’lláh admonishes us to show moderation, fairness, justice, tender mercy and compassion towards each other when giving loans.[vi]  When there is no moderation in the distribution of wealth, then it is impossible to have moderation when that wealth is loaned out.

It is easy to see why.  As the amount that the wealthy have to loan out increases, the amount the poor have with which to pay off those loans shrinks at a compounded rate.  There is an invisible line that, once crossed, tips the equilibrium of the economy into a cascading avalanche of bankruptcies, defaults and foreclosures.   Since the poor often borrow money in order to repay borrowed money, the line is passed long before the first wave of delinquent payments appear.

If loaning more money than people are able to pay back is a problem, then interest compounds that problem.  Interest charged on loans increases the gap between rich and poor because it hurts the economy twice – once when the savings are removed from the regular flow of commerce, and again when interest is removed and added to those savings.

Economists say that when savings are loaned back into the economy, they allow people to buy more goods and keep the economy moving.  It takes a calculated blindness to believe that a loan and a paycheck will have the same effect on the health of the economy.  A loan allows you to buy today with tomorrow’s income, but when tomorrow comes, you will have to pay back both the money and the interest.  In the long run, you will end up buying less.  This means that if the economy needs consumers to buy more goods, they need to be paid more, not loaned more.  But this is not what has happened.  As the gap between wages and productivity has risen over the last 30 years, we have been encouraged to make up the difference by going deeper and deeper into debt.  What the right hand took away in wages, the left hand returned in loans so that we never realized just how out-of-balance the system was.  The long-term consequences were as predictable as they were catastrophic.

Until recently, consumer loans appeared to be a limitless source of free money for the rich. Bankers’ attitude towards plowing excess wealth into consumer debt in order to make a profit seems to have been the same as polluters’ attitude towards putting excess garbage into the ocean:  “There is always room for more.”  Well, as we’ve discovered, there isn’t.

Though the rich seemed to have a limitless supply of money to lend, there was clearly an upper limit to the amount that the middle class could borrow before they became unable to pay off their loans.  For every dollar loaned, there had to be a dollar borrowed.  Once a person owes more than they can possibly pay off without sacrificing their health or giving up their first-born child, then they give up and walk away from the loan.  This is why the sub-prime mortgage market collapsed.  The rich wanted to make money by loaning to the middle class — forgetting that they had already milked them of any ability to pay their debts.

There is an old saying: If I loan you $100, that’s your problem.  If I loan you a million, that’s MY problem.  The rich finally loaned more than they could afford to lose.  Instead of accepting that they had been unwise, they blamed the borrowers and came to the government for a bail-out.  Not only did they not learn their lesson, but they are actively working to stop laws that would prevent the same mistakes from happening again.

Business loans are a different situation. Business loans at reasonable interest rates are a legitimate way to finance capital investments if they will generate enough profit to compensate for the interest.  Nevertheless, as loans, they suffer the same shortcomings as consumer loans when it comes to putting money back into the economy.  They have to be repaid with interest, so the net effect is a decrease in the money available to the borrower for purchases. In addition, loans put into capital improvements create the same problems as any other capital investment if productivity gains are not shared with workers.

Dealing with the Excess

From this quick analysis, we can see that while it is useful to have a moderate amount of excess wealth available to invest, there is a limit to the amount of excess that the economy can absorb.  This simple statement points to a fundamental dilemma.  If there is more excess wealth in the system than the economy can safely absorb, what do you do with what is left?  Trying to answer that question in a way that puts even more excess wealth in the hands of the already wealthy is what led investors into increasingly risky and sometimes illegal schemes.  As Branko Milanovic of the World Bank said:

“Overwhelmed with such an amount of funds, and short of good opportunities to invest the capital as well as enticed by large fees attending each transaction, the financial sector became more and more reckless, basically throwing money at anyone who would take it.”[vii]

So if there is no good way to invest this excess wealth, the only logical solution is to find a way to reduce it. In other words, if the rich have more than they can safely use or invest, then for their own sakes and ours, we must find a way to get that excess into the hands of people who can use it effectively – that is, the poor and middle class.

The long-term solution to the world’s economic cycle of boom and bust, then, is to work to reduce the disparity between the rich and poor.  This can be done through policies that help increase wages, share profits, and limit or tax excess accumulation of wealth. Five years after the collapse, the International Monetary Fund is finally realizing the truth of this. Let’s hope that they follow through on their own newly-discovered insights.  

When matters will be thus fixed, the owner of the factory will no longer put aside daily a treasure which he has absolutely no need of (for, if the fortune is disproportionate, the capitalist succumbs under a formidable burden and gets into the greatest difficulties and troubles; the administration of an excessive fortune is very difficult and exhausts man’s natural strength). And the workmen and artisans will no longer be in the greatest misery and want; they will no longer be submitted to the worst privations at the end of their life.(Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 274-278)

There is, of course, great resistance to this solution from the wealthy who feel that they deserve all they have and more.

Investors were looking for the next big Money Tree, forgetting that…

The Moral Hazards of Wealth

Most people are aware of what Jesus says about the dangers of being rich: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

The “eye of the needle” was what they called the small door within the larger gate to a city.  Once the gate to a city was closed, a traveler could still get in, but his camel would have to crawl through on its knees – showing humility – in order to enter.  This means that the rich are welcome in heaven – but only if they are willing to let go of arrogance and show some humility.

Bahá’u’lláh says something similar:  “The rich, but for a few, shall in no wise attain the court of His presence nor enter the city of content and resignation.”  But He goes on to say, “Well is it then with him, who, being rich, is not hindered by his riches from the eternal kingdom….” This means it is not wealth itself that gets us into trouble, it is something about our response to being wealthy.  Without pointing fingers at anyone in specific, I would like to explore what is it about having wealth that makes it difficult for some people to also have humility.

When people become too wealthy, they often try to make sense of their enormously good luck by convincing themselves that they must somehow deserve to be rich, and that others, obviously, do not.  It is much easier to look at a poor person and see how they are receiving handouts and entitlements than it is to recognize the silver spoon that some are handed at birth.  Money is like a lever.  The same amount of effort creates a hundred times more results.  When rich people see the results of their efforts, they can’t help but think it is their effort, their brilliance, their talents that generated all of their wealth, when in reality it was the leverage created by their money.  They can’t see that millions of others might have done even greater things – if they had only had the chance to use the magical leverage of wealth.

None of us can truly imagine what we might accomplish if our circumstances were different, so we can’t blame the wealthy if they have an irrational belief that their efforts are worth, not two, not ten, but hundreds or thousands of times more reward than the efforts of those who work for them.  This is why the CEO’s of companies in the U.S. feel that they deserve to make 261 times the wage of the average worker, and 812 times the minimum wage.  One famous CEO once made 36,000 times more than his lowest paid workers.  I’m sure he was brilliant.  But was he 36,000 times more brilliant than everyone else?  Not even Einstein was that smart.

The top CEO income would fill your entire screen and a whole lot more.

What the ultra-rich find difficult to understand is that it is physically impossible for one person to generate a million dollars in wealth without the assistance of hundreds, or even thousands of other people’s labor.  No matter how wonderful one person’s ideas are, or how creative or talented they are, or what wizards of finance they may be, it takes an entire infrastructure in order to bring these ideas, talents or transactions into existence.  Each person in that chain is deserving of a share of the wealth.  Each person is a soul with needs, dreams and capacities. The irrational conviction that one’s own life is inherently worth more than the lives of these thousands of others is spiritually deadly.  It is what allows one person to live in a mansion while surrounded by the starving and homeless.  It threatens to destroy the very qualities of compassion and empathy that make us human.

“It is the animal proclivity to look after one’s own comfort. But man was created to be a man — to be fair, to be just, to be merciful, to be kind to all his species, never to be willing that he himself be well off while others are in misery and distress — this is an attribute of the animal and not of man.” – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá Foundations of World Unity pg. 42

The simple fact is that the rich don’t need all that they have.  If they did, they would spend it and we wouldn’t be in this mess.  It is the need for power, fame and the intangibles that money bring that cause people to hoard a thousand times a King’s ransom.  If these same people were motivated by intangibles like love, service, honor, compassion, and justice, then the world would be a different place.

Spiritual Solutions to the Economic Problem

The world’s religions told us not to be greedy, not to hoard money, not to charge exorbitant interest, and not to let the gap between rich and poor become extreme.  We ignored them, and now our economy is in the worst crisis it has faced since the last time the gap between rich and poor became this big.  It is clear that God knows more about running the economy than we do.  In light of this fact, can we turn to religion to give us insights as to how to get ourselves back out of this mess?

As we’ve discovered, religious teachings that appear to be strictly spiritual in nature often turn out to have significant economic impact.  We could therefore suggest that every word of scripture from every religion probably contains within it the seed of a solution to our problems – from “Do unto others,” to “Noble have I created thee.”  As a believer in all of the world’s great religions, I would like to highlight a few spiritual principles that I believe are particularly applicable to the current world situation.  Please keep in mind that these observations are my extrapolations of the scriptures quoted. Others might come to a different conclusion.

World Citizenship and the Oneness of Humanity

“The earth is but one country and mankind its citizens.” – Bahá’u’lláh

“The world of humanity is one and God is equally kind to all.”[viii] ‘Abdu’l-Bahá

These simple principles imply a whole new approach to understanding our economy.  First, they recognize that the world’s economy is a closed system.  Economic theories that treat the economy as an open system; that rely on the exploitation of people or resources from “outside” the system; that assume an unending supply of resources; that depend on unsustainable growth – all have to be abandoned in favor of a single integrated system.

Second, they point us towards the development of a world currency and global standards of banking and finance.

Most important, they call for a whole new way of seeing ourselves as members of one human family – cooperating and communicating in a way that leaves no one out.  We are truly all in this together.

Service to Humanity is Worship to God

When Jesus said “Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me,” He was setting a standard that was about more than feeding the hungry or clothing the naked.  He was saying that service of any kind that makes human existence better is service to God and a form of worship. Bahá’u’lláh is even more direct when He says “It is enjoined upon every one of you to engage in some form of occupation, such as crafts, trades and the like. We have graciously exalted your engagement in such work to the rank of worship unto God, the True One.” (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 26)

This perspective offers an alternative to greed and competition as the motivating force behind economic progress.  It elevates the station of the lowliest worker, while calling into question the role of those who make a lot of money, but do not make the world a better place.

Economic Justice

While economic justice is an implicit extension of the Golden Rule, which is reiterated in every major religion, only the Bahá’í Faith offers specific policy guidelines for organizing a just society.

Progressive taxation is clearly enunciated as a principle – not just as a way to generate revenue for the funding of public works projects, but specifically as a way to moderate the extremes in income.

 “All must be producers. Each person in the community whose income is equal to his individual producing capacity shall be exempt from taxation. But if his income is greater than his needs he must pay a tax until an adjustment is effected. That is to say, a man’s capacity for production and his needs will be equalized and reconciled through taxation.”      (Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 37)

There is a fear, expressed by some, that by increasing taxes on the ultra rich the economy will somehow be hurt.  They say there won’t be enough money available for investments, or the wealthy will stop working because they won’t make enough money.  The answer to this is three-fold.  First, history does not support this claim. The top tax rate in the U.S.is currently[ix] 35%, with a proposed increase to 38%.  During the 1950’s – a time of great growth and prosperity – it was 91%.  This did not hurt the economy at all.  There was still plenty of money available for wise and productive investments.  Second, it is an excess of investment wealth that enabled the reckless investments that caused the recent crash. Reducing it would be a good thing. Third, if the people who have more wealth than they are able to spend were to decide to retire early in order to pay less taxes, then that would just free up more jobs for the millions of unemployed.  If, for the wealthy, work is not considered a form of worship, then perhaps the economy would do just as well without them. After all, no one is indispensable.

Profit sharing is also highly praised in the Bahá’í writings – both as a way to equalize wealth, and as a way to encourage cooperation between capital and labor – giving workers a stake in their efforts.

“The owners of properties, mines and factories, should share their incomes with their employees, and give a fairly certain percentage of their profits to their workingmen, in order that the employees should receive, besides their wages, some of the general income of the factory, so that the employee may strive with his soul in the work.” (Dr. J.E. Esslemont, Baha’u’llah and the New Era, p. 146 – quoting ‘Abdu’l-Bahá in NH 1912))

Fair wages are specifically called for.  Though the term “minimum wage” does not appear in the Bahá’í writings, it would be in keeping with the principle of justice to raise the minimum wage to one that could support a small family.

Since no Holy Scripture is so detailed as to address the specific economic situation we are facing today, the following observations are just my personal musings:

Most of the solutions being sought today seem to be about “freeing up the credit market” or “getting credit flowing again.” To me, this sounds like getting rid of an alcoholic’s headache by giving him easier access to the tap.  It only pushes the problem further into the future, when it will hit back twice as hard. We already have too many loans and not enough wages to pay them back.  The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough money to loan, but rather there are too few people (or institutions) who are worth the risk. Making it easier to borrow only tempts people to make poor decisions. The solution is to get higher wages, not more debt, into the hands of ordinary people who will spend them on goods and services that will get the economy flowing again.

Because my Faith puts an emphasis on both work and education, values science and respects the environment, I would like to see money go into wages for workers in education, research and renewable energy, as well as infrastructure and mass transit.  Wages for these valuable projects should be generated through higher taxes, not more debt.

Other than spending money for the public good, I believe that the fastest way to get the economy in balance again would be to reduce interest rates on existing loans, and forgive or drastically reduce the principle due on mortgages and credit card debt.  While many might consider this extreme, it is no more extreme than forgiving an entire country’s debt, or handing trillions of dollars to the wealthy so they can pay for their unwise financial gambles, or letting both corporations and individuals go bankrupt.  When an individual goes bankrupt, all debts are wiped out, even those he or she might be able to pay.  This creates unneeded stress on other lenders.  The individual also usually loses his house, which is a stress on the entire community.  Reducing principle owed would do the least damage while allowing the individual to retain his dignity and strive to behave responsibly in the future.

The principle of forgiving debt goes all the way back to the Jewish law of the Jubilee. While the Jewish law is no longer practiced, the principle of forgiving the debts of those unable to pay them has been applied by many cultures for thousands of years.

“At the end of every seven years thou shalt make a release. And this is the manner of the release: Every creditor that lendeth ought unto his neighbour shall release it; he shall not exact it of his neighbour, or of his brother; because it is called the LORD’s release… Save when there shall be no poor among you…”     (Deuteronomy15:1-4)

I look forward to the day when there will be no poor among us.

Spiritual Transformation

Ultimately, changing policies, tax structure, minimum wages, forgiving debt and the like will not be enough.  As a nation and as a world we need to completely reorient our attitude towards the material world.  The poor and middle class are just as addicted to consumerism as the rich are addicted to wealth and power.  No one is innocent.  Everyone contributed to the collapse. If we don’t want to see the cycle repeat itself generation after generation, we need to change our priorities, recognize our interdependence, work towards sustainability, acknowledge intangible forms of wealth, and generally start caring a whole lot more about one another.  When the world is spiritually out of balance, how can we possible expect it to be in balance economically?

In order to understand the economy, we had to step back from the specifics of the current collapse.  To truly solve our economic problems we have to step back even further.  We have to take a God’s-eye view of life and the world in order to remember what is really important, and how everything fits together in one beautiful, interconnected whole.

The work we do in service to others is the path we walk on our way to God.  The wealth we receive in return is both the reward for our efforts and a tool for future service.  This wealth consists of more than just money.  It includes all of the lessons we learn, the virtues we develop and the relationships we build.  No matter what happens to the material economy, no one can take away our true wealth.  We carry it with us wherever we go, and it will carry us through whatever troubled times lie ahead.

If we learn these lessons – even if we learn them the hard way – then the economic collapse will have been a blessing in disguise.

Appendix

Here are just a few relevant quotations from the world’s great religions:

Ensnared In nooses of a hundred idle hopes, Slaves to their passion and their wrath, they buy Wealth with base deeds, to glut hot appetites….      (Hindu, Bhagavad Gita (Edwin Arnold tr))

Craving for wealth, the foolish man ruins himself by destroying others.           (Buddhist, Dhammapada – Sayings of the Buddha 3 (tr. J. Richards))

So Moses went back to the LORD and said, “Oh, what a great sin these people have committed! They have made themselves gods of gold.  Exodus 32:31

Ecclesiastes 2:26  To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.

Matthew 6 19-  Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon earth, where moth and rust doth corrupt, and where thieves break through and steal: But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust doth corrupt, and where thieves do not break through nor steal: For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.

Luke16:11  So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches?

Quran 2:195  Spend your wealth for the cause of God, and be not cast by your own hands to ruin; and do good. Lo! God loveth the beneficent.

The beginning of magnanimity is when man expendeth his wealth on himself, on his family and on the poor among his brethren in his Faith.      (Baha’u’llah, Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 156)

49. O CHILDREN OF DUST!  Tell the rich of themidnightsighing of the poor, lest heedlessness lead them into the path of destruction, and deprive them of the Tree of Wealth. To give and to be generous are attributes of Mine; well is it with him that adorneth himself with My virtues.  (Baha’u’llah, The Persian Hidden Words)

Detachment does not consist in setting fire to one’s house, or becoming bankrupt or throwing one’s fortune out of the window, or even giving away all of one’s possessions. Detachment consists in refraining from letting our possessions possess us. Abdu’l-Baha, Divine Philosophy, p. 135

Wealth is most commendable, provided the entire population is wealthy. If, however, a few have inordinate riches while the rest are impoverished, and no fruit or benefit accrues from that wealth, then it is only a liability to its possessor. If, on the other hand, it is expended for the promotion of knowledge, the founding of elementary and other schools, the encouragement of art and industry, the training of orphans and the poor – in brief, if it is dedicated to the welfare of society – its possessor will stand out before God and man as the most excellent of all who live on earth and will be accounted as one of the people of paradise.  (Abdu’l-Baha, The Secret of Divine Civilization, p. 24)

Then rules and laws should be established to regulate the excessive fortunes of certain private individuals and meet the needs of millions of the poor masses; thus a certain moderation would be obtained. However, absolute equality is just as impossible, for absolute equality in fortunes, honors, commerce, agriculture, industry would end in disorderliness, in chaos, in disorganization of the means of existence, and in universal disappointment: the order of the community would be quite destroyed. Thus difficulties will also arise when unjustified equality is imposed. It is, therefore, preferable for moderation to be established by means of laws and regulations to hinder the constitution of the excessive fortunes of certain individuals, and to protect the essential needs of the masses. For instance, the manufacturers and the industrialists heap up a treasure each day, and the poor artisans do not gain their daily sustenance: that is the height of iniquity, and no just man can accept it. Therefore, laws and regulations should be established which would permit the workmen to receive from the factory owner their wages and a share in the fourth or the fifth part of the profits, according to the capacity of the factory; or in some other way the body of workmen and the manufacturers should share equitably the profits and advantages. Indeed, the capital and management come from the owner of the factory, and the work and labor, from the body of the workmen. Either the workmen should receive wages which assure them an adequate support and, when they cease work, becoming feeble or helpless, they should have sufficient benefits from the income of the industry; or the wages should be high enough to satisfy the workmen with the amount they receive so that they may themselves be able to put a little aside for days of want and helplessness.

When matters will be thus fixed, the owner of the factory will no longer put aside daily a treasure which he has absolutely no need of (for, if the fortune is disproportionate, the capitalist succumbs under a formidable burden and gets into the greatest difficulties and troubles; the administration of an excessive fortune is very difficult and exhausts man’s natural strength). And the workmen and artisans will no longer be in the greatest misery and want; they will no longer be submitted to the worst privations at the end of their life.

It is, then, clear and evident that the repartition of excessive fortunes among a small number of individuals, while the masses are in need, is an iniquity and an injustice. In the same way, absolute equality would be an obstacle to life, to welfare, to order and to the peace of humanity. In such a question moderation is preferable. It lies in the capitalists’ being moderate in the acquisition of their profits, and in their having a consideration for the welfare of the poor and needy — that is to say, that the workmen and artisans receive a fixed and established daily wage — and have a share in the general profits of the factory.

It would be well, with regard to the common rights of manufacturers, workmen and artisans, that laws be established, giving moderate profits to manufacturers, and to workmen the necessary means of existence and security for the future. Thus when they become feeble and cease working, get old and helpless, or leave behind children under age, they and their children will not be annihilated by excess of poverty. And it is from the income of the factory itself, to which they have a right, that they will derive a share, however small, toward their livelihood.

…Good God! Is it possible that, seeing one of his fellow-creatures starving, destitute of everything, a man can rest and live comfortably in his luxurious mansion? He who meets another in the greatest misery, can he enjoy his fortune? That is why, in the Religion of God, it is prescribed and established that wealthy men each year give over a certain part of their fortune for the maintenance of the poor and unfortunate. That is the foundation of the Religion of God and is binding upon all.  (Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 274-278)

 


[i] You shall not charge interest to your brother — interest on money or food or anything that is lent out at interest. To a foreigner you may charge interest, but to your brother you shall not charge interest, that the LORD your God may bless you in all to which you set your hand in the land which you are entering to possess. (Deuteronomy 23:19,20)

[ii] The Prophet-Founder of the Bahá’í Faith – 1817-1892.

[iii] “If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation.”           (Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 342)

[iv] For more on this, see Revenge of the Savings Glut, an editorial by Paul Krugman, NY Times, March 2 2009, and The Global Saving Glut and the U.S. Current Account Deficit, a talk by Ben Bernanke, March 2005. and Economy: Root of the Crisis  by Branko Milanovic of the World Bank, DailyTimes.com May 7 2009

[v] Lane Kenworthy – Professor of Sociology and Political Science, University of Arizona Weblog  “Slow Income Growth for Middle America” September 3, 2008

[vi] Therefore as a token of favour towards men We have prescribed that interest on money should be treated like other business transactions that are current amongst men.

…However, this is a matter that should be practised with moderation and fairness. Our Pen of Glory hath, as a token of wisdom and for the convenience of the people, desisted from laying down its limit. Nevertheless We exhort the loved ones of God to observe justice and fairness, and to do that which would prompt the friends of God to evince tender mercy and compassion towards each other. Tablets of Baha’u’llah, p. 134

[vii] Economy: Root of the Crisis  by Branko Milanovic of the World Bank, DailyTimes.com May 7 2009

[viii] (Abdu’l-Baha, Foundations of World Unity, p. 81)

[ix] Spring 2009

The ABCs of Virtues

If we want people to understand the relationship between virtues and emotions, we will probably need to start young.  Toward that aim, I’m working on a new project – a Virtues Alphabet Refrigerator Magnet set.  I’ve decided that along with the 60 magnets – each of which contains a letter and a virtue that starts with that letter – I should offer my own parent-friendly definition of each virtue.  I welcome your comments.  (Since comments are moderated, they will not appear immediately, but I’ll post them as fast as I can.)
You already know what these virtues mean, but here are some helpful hints as to how to apply them to your children:

Call them active when they initiate activities other than watching TV or playing video games.

Call them adorable when they do something that melts your heart.

Call them attentive when they listen to what you are saying, even if there are lots of distractions.

Call them brave when they try something new or challenging.

Call them beautiful when they are a pleasure to be with.

Call them creative when they put things or ideas together in a new way.

Call them courteous when they say please and thank-you, or are polite in social situations.

Call them dependable when they do what they say they will.

Call them delightful when they make you smile.

Call them eager when they are excited about doing something.

Call them eloquent when they use words well for their age.

Call them energetic when their youthful energy is being channeled wisely.

Call them excellent when they achieve something at the top edge of their ability.

Call them forgiving when they let go of anger or disappointment with a friend.

Call them friendly when they make an effort to get along with their peers.

Call them generous when they share something of theirs with a friend or family member

Call them gentle when they handle small animals, babies or delicate items with care.

Call them helpful whenever they help you do something – even if you have to make up an artificial need so that they can practice this important virtue.

Call them happy when they are enjoying the many virtues that surround them.

Call them independent when they try something new on their own.

Call them intuitive when they express a thought or feeling about their environment that might not be obvious at first glance, or that they figured out through an emotional insight rather than through their rational understanding.

Call them idealistic when they express hopes and dreams for a better world.

Call them just when they choose to be fair, whether it is in a game, or when dividing treats.

Call them joyful when they take pleasure in their own growth.

Call them kind when they show concern for other people and animals.

Call them knowing or knowledgeable when they share with you something new they have learned.

Call them loving when they perform acts of kindness or service for those they love.

Call them loyal when they show support or say positive things about one friend or family member to another.

Call them mature when they behave in a way that is advanced for their age, or do NOT behave in a way that might be considered typical for their age.

Call them modest when they 1) dress and behave appropriately for their age and gender or 2) avoid bragging or boasting about their accomplishments.

Call them noble when they strive to be their very best.

Call them nurturing when they care for those weaker than themselves.

Call them observant when they notice something interesting and point it out to you.

Call them optimistic when they show a positive outlook towards some future endeavor.

Call them organized when they clean their room, compete a puzzle or successfully take on a task with multiple parts.

Call them patient when they wait for you.

Call them playful when they are having fun being silly.

Call them questioning when they want to know more.

Call them quiet when they are willing to moderate their noise level to match the situation.

Call them radiant when they are so full of life and love and enthusiasm that you can hardly stand it.

Call them respectful when they control their impulses in respect for the rights and feelings other people, or when they do thing that show that they value people and things other than themselves.

Call them strong when they put forth extraordinary effort, either physically or emotionally.

Call them sincere when they express how they really feel.

Call them truthful when they tell the truth – even if it is difficult.

Call them thankful when they express gratitude.

Call them unique when they do something that demonstrates their unique personality or way of thinking.

Call them unselfish when they give up something they want for someone else.

Call them unified when they successfully negotiate with other children or family members to do things together.

Call them vibrant when they approach a task full of energy and enthusiasm.

Call them virtuous when they demonstrate a combination of any of these virtues, but especially the kind, loving, selfless and generous ones.

Call them wise when they recognize the difference between what their impulses demand and what their virtues require.

Call them wonderful when you are amazed at how well they are practicing these virtues.

Call them expressive when they use words, gestures and emotions to communicate their experience.

Call them exuberant when their enthusiasm is so contagious that you catch it yourself.

Say “you are being yourself” when they express a personal opinion or do something that makes you want to smile because it is just so “them.”

Say they are yearning when they want something good for them or the world with all of their heart.

Say they have zeal when they express commitment and enthusiasm for achieving a goal.

Call them zestful when their natural joy of life bubbles over.

 

Finding an Alternative to “Better, Special and Right”

I spent much of my life trying to be better, special, and right. The only alternative I could imagine was to be worse, ordinary and wrong and no one wants to be that.
Now I’m trying to teach myself (and my kids) that it is possible to be unique, valuable and connected instead. It is difficult to overcome years of conditioning. I still want to be best. I still want to be right. I still long to be special. But all of those adjectives create barriers between me and others.  They keep me in a state of comparison instead of a state of compassion.

Unique is not special.  We are all unique.  Paradoxically, it is one of the many qualities we have in common with every human on earth.  Our ability to recognize our own and other’s uniqueness helps us to connect with others as sovereign identities.  Being unique is one of the things that gives us value.  Even if every link in a chain appears identical, it is unique, and it plays its unique role in life.  No other person – no other link in the chain of life – can take another’s place.

But for that uniqueness to have an effect, it must be connected.  Without a connection to the rest of humanity, a person’s unique contribution to the world will be lost.  It doesn’t have to be the best contribution, a “special” contribution, or even the right contribution.  It just has to be that person’s contribution.

I came to understand that participation is more important than being right when I realized that Aristotle was wrong about almost everything he said. Seriously.  He had some crazy ideas. But the fact that he was willing to share his ideas and explore them with others made him a valuable contributor to the world of ideas.

Like Aristotle, I can offer unique and valuable insights – even if they turn out to be completely wrong.  I can offer unique and valuable service – even if it is not perfect; even if it’s not better than the guy’s beside me.  It is my desire to be of service, my willingness to contribute and my whole-hearted participation that defines who I am, not whether I am better, special or right.

Even if the only thing I can do is to be the person that someone else practices their patience and compassion on, that is still a link in the chain and it serves a valuable purpose.

This is a real challenge to smart, talented and/or beautiful people – to truly be able to believe that they would still have value if they were slow, untalented and ugly.  Humility is not about seeing yourself as low, but about understanding that EVERY person on earth is just as valuable as you are, no matter how un-special and wrong they may be.

I tell myself this.  I try to believe it, but it goes against 57 years of conditioning. I pray to God that – as I grow old and weak and forgetful and needy – I can hold onto this belief and begin to internalize it enough that I can be at peace when even the dream of being better, special and right is beyond me.

This is what it means to pray for humility.