Day to day happenings from one end of my life to the other. Snowstorms, regional conferences, and flat tires are all fair game, as are holidays, bouts of bronchitis and hang-outs with friends. Maybe even pictures of my breakfast.
I charge you all that each one of you concentrate all the thoughts of your heart on love and unity. When a thought of war comes, oppose it by a stronger thought of peace. A thought of hatred must be destroyed by a more powerful thought of love. Thoughts of war bring destruction to all harmony, well-being, restfulness and content. Thoughts of love are constructive of brotherhood, peace, friendship, and happiness.
Like many people, we live in a residential area, where many people commute to work, whether by car, bus, or bicycle. The other day at noon, a neighbour’s car alarm went off. It seemed the owner was away, because it kept on going—honking for several minutes at a time, then pausing for a minute or two before starting up again. It was still going when I got home, in the late afternoon. Quynh met me outside and told me she had gone to look at the car, and that she’d seen a bunch of handwritten notes stuck on the car’s windshield, with dark, angry messages—insulting and cursing the car’s owner, calling them the worst neighbour in the world, and worse. She didn’t like the noise at all—it gave her a headache—but she also felt bad for the car’s owner, who obviously was away and would have had no idea what was happening. How could people leave such terrible notes?
We talked about how stress and anger can lead people to lash out against others and to lay blame. Along the way, we met some of the children and youth who live in the neighbourhood, and we continued the conversation with them. Some of them felt annoyed, saying they couldn’t stand the noise any more. We asked them if they had seen the notes that had been left behind. They had. Some of them agreed with the sentiments that were written. But the owner was obviously away, another one said. How would it be fair if we blamed someone for something that was completely out of their control? And how would we feel if we were in the same situation, and we came home from a hard day at work to a windshield full of angry notes calling us names? Terrible, that’s how, and full of despair. Several heads nodded in agreement.
“So what can we do to change the situation?” Quynh asked. It didn’t take long for one of the children to find an answer: replace all the nasty notes with a nice note. The children brainstormed a message together, settling on “Sorry about all the bad notes, tomorrow will be a better day.” After writing it out in black marker on a sheet of paper and decorating it with hearts, stars, and peace signs, they took it and walked together towards the now-silent car. When they got there, they noticed that all the nasty notes had already been removed, so they simply left their positive note under the windshield wiper. All of a sudden, one of the neighbours stepped out of her house, looking exhausted. “So sorry about all the noise,” she said. It was her car. She had just arrived, seen the notes, and disabled the alarm. She looked around at the children, who apologized—as members of the neighbourhood—for all the notes people had left, pointing out the more positive note they had left on her windshield. Her face brightened immediately, as if a veil of misery had been lifted.
It turned out that she had taken her bicycle to work that day to save on gas. She worked across the river in Quebec, so it was a long ride. Late in the afternoon, she explained, she suddenly received a call—from the Ottawa police, who had received a complaint about her car alarm, which had been going off for hours. Nobody could tell what had happened—it might have been an electrical fault that set off the alarm, or a cat, or an actual burglar—but they advised her to come home as soon as possible to shut it off. Shocked, she biked home as fast as she could, only to find all the angry messages littering her windshield. She had just finished getting rid of the notes when the children came to leave one of their own. She thanked them sincerely for their kindness, and the children wished her a pleasant evening—reminding her that tomorrow would be a better day. When we walked back home after meeting, we assured the children that their action had restored hope to that neighbour’s heart.
Whatever happens in life, we always have a choice of how to respond. These choices we make determine whether we will create hatred or love, war or peace, despair or hope. When we create love, peace and hope in our families and in our neighbourhoods, it grows and trickles upwards through our cities, our regions, our nations and our world—that’s why we say world peace starts with us, inside of us. It makes our lives—and the lives of those around us—lighter, brighter, more livable.
C’est aujourd’hui que commence une grande conférence à Montréal, regroupant des jeunes d’à travers le Québec, le Nunavut, et les provinces maritimes du Canada, “qui aspirent à se défaire de la léthargie que la société leur impose et à travailler côte à côte dans leurs quartiers et leurs villages pour commencer un processus de transformation collective”. Rappellant mes jours de service au Québec, et inspiré par le zèle et l’enthousiasme de la génération présente, j’ai composé quelques versets en leur éloge.
Ces jeunes qui quittent leurs foyers,
se rassemblant, se dispersant
tout comme autant d’aigrettes au vent,
parsèment de vie les prés d’été.
Se mêlant parmi leurs compères,
ils soufflent en eux la brise de foi,
et fracassant les chaînes du moi,
s’occupent à récréer la terre.
Voyez comment leur danse est belle!
Ces âmes célestes, esprits de bien,
reserrent les nœuds, renouent les liens,
en répondant au grand appel.
“Voilà des anges,” l’on dira d’eux :
bien qu’issus de lignée mortelle,
mais bénis d’une force spirituelle
propre aux habitants des cieux.
The inevitable has happened! No, not world peace, not just yet. No, I mean Quynh and I are expecting a baby. A baby boy, at that. Congratulations are flowing in from all sides, with hugs and pats on the back from all. No cigars yet, thankfully.
The feeling of impending parenthood is at once joyous and portentous. Sort of like the feeling of having a nice, fresh bun in the oven, and knowing that when the bun’s done baking, it’ll spend months—nay, years—making strange noises nonstop, spilling dough all over your kitchen, and swapping the scent of baked bread for the less delicate fragrance of poo. OK, I know, that’s not all there is to parenthood. I guess I’m just trying to get psyched by reminding myself that the next chapter in our lives will be quite intense.
Pregnancy is its own little roller coaster ride. From the initial lift after discovering “the second stripe”, we descended into the Valley of Nausea, with stops at Morning Sickness, Afternoon-and-Evening Sickness, Overdosed-on-Orange-Juice Sickness, and so on, before rising again to the top of Mt. First-Ultrasound, where we caught a first glimpse of little Tôm (Vietnamese for “shrimp”, since that’s what he looked like at our first meeting). Once past the peak, we careened into the Learning Curve, which was quite steep, and into the 1,000-Decision Corkscrew, before rising again onto the Found-a-Great-Midwife Plateau and Mt. Perfect-Test-Results. At the moment, we’re sailing into ever more ups and downs, including the Heavy-Belly Slide, the Feeling-the-Baby-Kick Lift, the Backache Drop, the Prenatal-Class and Ever-More-Frequent-Checkup Loops—with more to come. And come November, it’ll be a whole new ride—one that lasts a whole new, shared lifetime.
They say that having kids is a transformative experience. For almost ten years now I’ve been aware that educating children is “among the most meritorious acts of humankind”, and I’ve expended a lot of effort in learning how it works through organizing and teaching neighbourhood children’s classes. Becoming a parent, though, is a whole new ball game for sure, and will require a constancy, strength and perseverance that’s never really been required of me before. I’d like to think I feel ready—but who’s ever really ready to become a parent? All I know for now is that I’m willing to learn, and to grow. Perhaps God doesn’t ask much more than that?
Humanity is no stranger to adversity and suffering. Maybe it’s due to my own growing awareness of world events, but since the turn of the 21st century, it seems like the world has been confronted with an ever-accelerating chain of shocks—ever more frequent, ever more varied and costly ones. Natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, or the tsunami in the Indian Ocean and off northeastern Japan, or earthquakes in Iran, Kashmir, China and Haiti. Widespread droughts in places like the Western United States and the Sahel, threatening food security and human well-being. Growing social unrest and terrorism, resulting in the deaths of innocents everywhere—from the Middle East to Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook. In the face of such enormous suffering, one thing we often end up doing is shutting it out—changing the channel rather than thinking about it. But what happens when our neighbourhood is the one that’s flooded, shot through, or reduced to rubble?
Resilience is the quality of being able to bounce back from crises, to recover quickly from adversity. When tragedy strikes, resilience helps us to regain hope, recover our strength, rebuild our lives and move on. Very often—if not always—resilience depends upon strong family and community relationships. If we are surrounded by support from family, friends and neighbours who are looking out for our well-being, we have a better chance of weathering a crisis.
I witnessed something of this in action after Quynh’s father passed away in August 2010. Summoned to return much earlier than intended, I arrived in Vietnam two weeks after his passing, to find the grieving family—especially his beloved wife—in tears. Around them, close family, friends, neighbours and concerned well-wishers circled, first offering words of solace and support, then drawing back to allow time for grief to run its course, then returning when the time was right. At several points during my visit, they gathered at the family home for memorials, to burn incense and offer prayers. These memorials, I learned, were no mere expressions of superstition. Rather, they were signs of solidarity, and a way of providing structure for and sustaining the grieving family. I did my part as a Vietnamese son-in-law, taking up basic tasks to support the family, and in doing so, became part of a network that helped them recover from their pain over the months and years that followed. If that network wasn’t there, or if it wasn’t strong, what would have happened to the family? Nothing good, that’s for sure. But because the community was united in their concern for each other, they rallied around our family, visiting them and helping them to recover from their loss.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve been treated to the unmatched pleasure of following along as friends, family and acquaintances gathered at the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, Israel, to attend the Eleventh Bahá’í International Convention—the eleventh edition of what’s been called the world’s “only worldwide election”. As I mentioned previously, the primary purpose of the Convention is to elect the Universal House of Justice, the Institution at the head of the Bahá’í Faith, in a reverent, joyful process one friend of mine described as “spiritual democracy”. The Bahá’í World News Service expanded on that description:
In a unique electoral process, all forms of campaigning, electioneering and nominations are strictly avoided. Rather, after prayerful reflection, the assembled delegates silently and privately wrote down the names of nine individuals who they felt would be best able to serve on the institution.
Photojournalist Shannon Higgins shares a beautiful portrayal of the spiritual atmosphere that reigns at the convention, a far cry from “regular” elections:
Baha’i elections don’t look like anything else — they have no bells and whistles, no campaigns or electioneering or nominations or candidates. Nine delegates from each nation, themselves elected to serve on the national governing body from the believers of their respective nations, silently pray and meditate and simply write down nine names. They elect those they feel will best serve the international governing body of the Baha’i Faith. […]
Absolutely nobody talks about how they think the votes will go. No one mentions whom he or she voted for — no speculation, no “preliminary reports”, no “buzz”, no “spin-room”… period. For the Baha’is, this election represents a sacred spiritual endeavor, not a popularity contest or a political exercise.
The assembled delegates then began to take counsel together, sharing “their thoughts, experiences and insights as part of a global learning process”. Their consultations, writes Higgins, touch on “community building, on social and economic development projects for the poor and underprivileged around the globe, on the education of the children and youth. They encourage others in their success and struggles, crisis and victories. They focus on the work of Bahá’ís everywhere, making the world a better place for all.” Feeding their consultations was a letter addressed to the convention by the Universal House of Justice, outlining the work that stands before the Bahá’í community “as it strives to contribute to the spiritual and material advancement of civilization”. Also contributing to the delegates’ consultation was a new documentary film entitled Frontiers of Learning, which showcases the community development process underway in four different Bahá’í communities in different parts of the world: Norte de Bolivar, Colombia; Lubumbashi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo; Toronto, Canada; and Bihar Sharif, India.