. . . the time has come when each human being on earth must learn to accept responsibility for the welfare of the entire human family. Commitment to this revolutionising principle will increasingly empower individuals and Bahá’í institutions alike in awakening others to . . . the latent spiritual and moral capacities that can change this world into another world.
One of the most useful insights I gleaned from Hayes et al’s book on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy concerned their clear definition of a trap you can fall into when you firmly believe you are enacting your values. It’s when you confuse values with goals (page 231).
A value is a direction, a quality of action. By definition, values cannot be achieved and maintained in a static state, they must be lived out.
This was completely coherent with my own experience in my field of clinical work.
It is important therefore not to confuse values (why we do things) with the steps we have decided to take to enact them (the what) or even the outcomes that we hope to achieve as a result of those steps. We have to be open to the possibility that this step or that outcome, as we experience working in that way, comes to seem at odds with the value we are seeking to give expression to or with a value we come to realise is more fundamentally important to us than the one we thought we wanted to express.
It would be easier perhaps to give a concrete example.
A value that is central to the work of the Bahá’í Faith at the moment is making the world a better place by striving to empower others to help themselves. This is why we do much of what we do. Because Bahá’ís believe that this is a process that depends for its success upon spiritual power first and foremost, we are encouraged to hold devotional meetings. This is a key step (what) in our process of helping heal the world.
There is a third aspect to this though. Simply to invite people to our homes, sit down and say a few prayers, uplifting though that may be, is not enough. It might make some small contribution to improving the world, at least while it is happening. Prayers are powerful after all. But it is not in itself empowering others either to hold similar meetings of their own, or by the nature of what is happening to feel inspired to work for the well-being of their neighbours more than they do already. It needs to be spelt out that this is what such meetings are for. That will help. Even better is to see it create an opportunity for us all to link in with other experiences that will be more likely to change the way we behave towards others in the future. This relates to how we hold devotional meetings.
If we find that the way we host such meetings does not bring about such changes in us at least (and hopefully in other people who attend of course, but in the end they are free to choose what use they make of the experience) we may have to check out whether we have truly understood why we are holding them and the implications that has for how it should be done.
If we have failed to fully grasp the why of it (i.e. the value underpinning the activity) then we will fail fully to understand the how of it (i.e. the manner and spirit in which it should be carried out) and to that degree the action involved (i.e. the what) will not achieve its full potential. If we do not add into the mix of what we are doing a sense of its underlying value, what we do will fall seriously short of what needs to be done at this juncture in the world’s affairs. While you may not agree with the way I have defined the how and the why, the underlying concepts are what matter and hopefully the illustration has conveyed them clearly.
What is required of us if we are to succeed in doing that?
There is a key passage in the message from the Universal House of Justice of 28 December 2010. I believe it is so important that I am quoting paragraph 38 in full:
It is heartening to note that the friends are approaching the study of the messages of the Universal House of Justice related to the Plan with such diligence. The level of discussion generated as they strive to put into practice the guidance received, and to learn from experience, is impressive. We cannot help noticing, however, that achievements tend to be more enduring in those regions where the friends strive to understand the totality of the vision conveyed in the messages, while difficulties often arise when phrases and sentences are taken out of context and viewed as isolated fragments. The institutions and agencies of the Faith should help the believers to analyse but not reduce, to ponder meaning but not dwell on words, to identify distinct areas of action but not compartmentalize. We realize that this is no small task. Society speaks more and more in slogans. We hope that the habits the friends are forming in study circles to work with full and complex thoughts and to achieve understanding will be extended to various spheres of activity.
It is useful to note in passing that the Plan referred to is one designed to lift our attempts at community-building to a level where the healing of society becomes increasingly within the reach of those who are empowered by the processes we are piloting. It is also worth picking up on the need to apply our understanding, and learn from the results, if our understanding is to improve. The value of this is unpacked very clearly by Peter Reason when he says:
. . . [T]he practice of co-operative inquiry requires skills which are in short supply in our world today – particularly the skills of working in genuine collaboration on a complex task with a group of peers; of managing the anxiety which arises as we genuinely examine our world and our practice; of paying critical attention to our experience as we act in our world. All these skills are important; the last calls for a subtle rigour of consciousness which is particularly unusual. . . . These skills can only be learned through doing.
(From The Co-operative Inquiry Group in Human Inquiry in Action, page 19)
In terms of our theme of the moment though it is crucial to be clear that the study of the messages of the House of Justice (the what in this case), if we are to be true to the purposes for which we are studying them (the why, i.e. to learn how to build a better world), then we must be careful how we approach the task (i.e. we need to do it in a way that helps us to ‘understand the totality of the vision.’)
This interaction between why, how and what underpins almost everything we do. The three aspects are not always so conveniently located in one place, as in this example, but making sure we pull them together in our minds is one way of ensuring that we do not take things out of context or treat them as isolated fragments. You cannot get a better grasp of the picture in a tapestry by unravelling the different coloured threads. You have to find a way of holding their relationships more vividly in mind.
It is a valuable exercise for any of us to try to pick up on how these three ways of thinking about what we are doing sometimes have to be pulled together from different places, not only from within one message from the Universal House of Justice but also on occasions from across several messages written at different points in time.
In the next post all we will have time to do is look at another small set of key ideas from ACT and how they might illuminate the path we are seeking to tread. The focus will be partly on language and its weaknesses and potential dangers.
An interesting slant on how slogans can be unhelpful when we come to act in the real world was pointed up in a recent BBC exploration of fairness and the ‘big society” with Professor Michael Sandell and an audience in the lecture theatre at the London School of Economics (I cannot find it on iPlayer now though there is a series still there which is cast in the same format but at Harvard).
The vast majority of the LSE audience considered the big society to be a slogan with little practical meaning in the real world. Further exploration revealed though that the audience as whole, regardless of position on the slogan issue, had some highly significant common ground. There is ‘an important public space,’ Sandell summed up by saying, for ‘civic activism and engagement,’ which, in the words of one of the audience, is the ‘third leg of the stool’ to complement the state and the market.
This space is clearly where cultural creatives operate. Certainly it is where the Bahá’ís are working in the Western world, where states and markets are strong. The slogan, for this audience at least, seemed to have failed to grasp and convey this complex reality.
The debate, though, still missed what Karlbeg points up, which makes describable reality even more complicated than the slogan: the modern state and the modern market are rooted in a competitive model of the social and political world, whereas the LSE debate highlighted that civic activism has to work with dialogue and co-operation. If the modus operandi of this third leg spreads to the other two, in the market place and in politics, there would be very interesting consequences for the way the world develops. But that is another story, and one this blog has explored already from many different angles (see the Karlberg link above for a good example).