By Phillis Edgerly Ring
I think a lot about gratitude each November, of course. Back when I was making turkeys by tracing my preschooler-sized hand on construction paper and decorating the cut-out shape with feathers, I understood that that’s what Thanksgiving is for.
In more recent years, I’ve tended to reflect more on the relationship between gratitude and generosity. The good examples of these that I’ve witnessed in many lives seem to indicate that the more that you consciously cultivate one of these attributes in your life, the more you automatically intensify the other.
Nowhere has this been personified for me more thoroughly — and inspiringly — than in the life of someone who also comes to mind around the end of November, at least if you’re a member of the Baha’i Faith, as I am. November 26 and 28 each mark dates associated with events in the life of Abdu’l-Baha, whose father, Baha’u’llah, was the prophet founder of the Baha’i Faith.
Picture someone who essentially put others before himself every time and exuded remarkable happiness while doing so and you have a rough idea of why so many loved Abdu’l-Baha so much. From the age of 9 until his early 60s, he was more or less a prisoner, along with the rest of his family. That’s because the things his father suggested about what would remedy mankind’s ills never found much favor among those who held positions of power and authority. As one source put it, “They didn’t find their personal interests advanced by his teachings.”
Stories about Abdu’l-Baha play a key part in the life of Baha’i families because he exemplified precisely what a life would look like when guided entirely by spiritually motivated choices. His actions illustrate in a concrete way the very qualities that his father urged humanity to explore, develop and, perhaps most important of all, apply.
In raising our children, we found no better example to turn to when looking at questions of spiritual integrity. This was so much the case that the question we typically found ourselves asking in the face of many challenges was, “What would Abdu’l-Baha do?”
Once he was finally free, although quite an elderly man, he struck out for Europe and the United States (including a week in the Portsmouth area) to share what his father had taught, the light that had illumined his own path in such a way that even those who declared themselves his enemies and rose to attack him eventually came to love and protect him.
One story about him remains my favorite because it illustrates both literally and symbolically just what sort of person he was. It occurred when he was probably about 6, at a time when his family, who had descended from nobility, still had wealth. (A few years later, it would be seized by the government and they would all become exiles.)
On the day in question, Abdu’l-Baha was sent out with an adult companion to inspect the work of the shepherds tending his father’s sheep. When the inspection was finished and he turned to leave, the man who had accompanied him said, “It is your father’s custom to leave a gift for each shepherd.”
Abdu’l-Baha grew quiet for a while. He hadn’t known or expected this — and what would he give them?
Then an idea came to him that made him very happy. He would give them the sheep!
When his father heard about this he was, rather than angry or displeased, absolutely delighted with this early evidence of truly spontaneous generosity. He humorously remarked that everyone had better take good care of “Abdu’l-Baha, because someday, he would give himself away.
And that is exactly what history shows that he did, over and over, all while bringing joy everywhere he went.
Although I’m a long way from emulating that myself, I do know that gratitude and generosity are two prime factors in the equation. I hope that’s at least some progress from the simple, glad-for-my-own-happiness sort of gratitude I felt back when I was tracing those turkey shapes. That was about personal deliverance. Abdu’l-Baha’s more encompassing kind of example can help heal a whole world.
Phyllis Edgerly Ring, mother of two, is a parenting columnist for several publications and writes on issues of family and culture from her Exeter home. She may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New Hampshire, USA
© 2006 Portsmouth Herald