False Dichotomies

As to the terminology I used in my letter, bidding thee to consecrate thyself to service in the Cause of God, the meaning of it is this: limit thy thoughts to teaching the Faith. Act by day and night according to the teachings and counsels and admonitions of Bahá’u’lláh. This doth not preclude marriage. Thou canst take unto thyself a husband and at the same time serve the Cause of God; the one doth not preclude the other. Know thou the value of these days; let not this chance escape thee.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Selections from the Writings of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, p. 100

Closely related to the habit of reducing an entire theme into one or two appealing phrases is the tendency to perceive dichotomies, where, in fact, there are none. It is essential that ideas forming part of a cohesive whole not be held in opposition to one another. In a letter written on his behalf, Shoghi Effendi warned: “We must take the teachings as a great, balanced whole, not seek out and oppose to each other two strong statements that have different meanings; somewhere in between, there are links uniting the two.”

Universal House of Justice, Letter to the Continental Board of Counsellors, 28 December 2010

Every effort is being exerted to ensure that the process reflects the complementarity of “being” and “doing” the institute courses make explicit; the centrality they accord to knowledge and its application; the emphasis they place on avoiding false dichotomies; the stress they lay on memorization of the Creative Word; and the care they exercise in raising consciousness, without awakening the insistent self.

Universal House of Justice, Letter to the Continental Board of Counsellors, 28 December 2010

It brings us equal pleasure to know that the friends are on their guard, lest new false dichotomies be allowed to pervade their thinking. They are well aware that the diverse elements of a programme of growth are complementary. The tendency to see activities, and the agencies that support them, in competition with one another, a tendency so common in society at large, is being avoided by the community.

Universal House of Justice, Letter to the Continental Board of Counsellors, 28 December 2010

It is a compromise between the two verses of the "Aqdas", one making it incumbent upon every Bahá’í to serve the promotion of the Faith and the other that every soul should be occupied in some form of occupation that will benefit society. In one of His Tablets Bahá’u’lláh says that the highest form of detachment in this day is to be occupied with some profession and be self-supporting. A good Bahá’í, therefore, is the one who so arranges his life as to devote time both to his material needs and also to the service of the Cause.

Universal House of Justice, The Importance of the Arts in Promoting the Faith

As we saw in the two preceding sections, we have to be mindful when considering any situation not to break it apart in such a way that we begin to compartmentalize aspects of our lives, which can lead to unnecessary contradictions. In general, the human mind has a tendency to fragment the world it encounters. Reality—physical, social, or spiritual—is too vast to be understood in its entirety. It is not unreasonable, then, to break it up in order to understand it in parts. However, when this is done without taking into account the wholeness of reality, difficulties arise.

If we are not careful and adopt such a fragmented approach to our lives, we can create all kinds of dichotomies that are largely imaginary. Work, leisure, family life, spiritual life, physical health, intellectual pursuits, individual development, collective progress, and so on become pieces that together make up our existence. When we accept such divisions as real, we feel pulled in many directions, trying to respond to what we consider to be the demands of these different facets of life. We are bewildered by apparently conflicting aims: Should I sacrifice my family life to serve the Cause? Will not serving the Faith interfere with my efforts to raise my children? These are two examples of the myriad of questions that can arise.

To resolve the dichotomies we have created, we sometimes try to divide our time equally among the various demands placed on us. On other occasions, we attempt to prioritize responsibilities and focus our energies on those we believe to be the most important at any particular moment. A careful allotment of time and energy is of course necessary. But it is only fruitful when we remain conscious of the interconnectedness of the many aspects of our lives. If we fail to see the whole, the tension created among all the parts can give rise to anxiety and even confusion.

Below are various aspects of life placed in pairs that should reinforce each other, but which are sometimes thought to be in conflict. For each one of the sentences that follow the pair, decide whether it represents the kind of thinking that is conducive to an integrated way of life or whether it is indicative of a tendency towards fragmentation. Mark it with an “I” or “F” accordingly.

1. Family and work

____ My family life will suffer if I work hard at my job.

____ I often discuss with my family my accomplishments at work and the challenges I face there.

____ Of course women can excel in their careers, but the children always pay the price.

____ If I want to raise my children well, I will have to forget about my profession.

____ I can advance in my profession and fully attend to my family responsibilities.

2. Education and service to the Cause

____ I have to choose between pioneering and education, since it is not possible to do both.

____ Academic achievement is a prerequisite for entering the field of service.

____ The knowledge I gain through my studies is an asset in the field of service, and the experience I gain in the arena of service enhances my abilities.

____ I have to abandon my studies if I really want to devote myself to the Cause.

____ One of my greatest aspirations is to learn to apply the teachings of the Faith in endeavors that promote the betterment of the world.

____ The period of service that I dedicate to promoting the Faith or participating in a Bahá’í-inspired social and economic development project will assist me in choosing a suitable field of study.

3. Intellectual development and development of spiritual qualities

____ The independent investigation of truth requires the cultivation of the intellect, as well as the acquisition of spiritual qualities.

____ In teaching the Faith to others, we should just show them love; what we say is not important.

____ Intellectual development requires justice, honesty, and lack of prejudice.

____ To develop spirituality, one has to let go of one’s intellect.

____ Our minds and hearts are not separate from each other; they represent complementary and mutually interactive aspects of one reality—our soul.

____ Spiritual qualities are developed through conscious knowledge and the exercise of good deeds.

4. Material life and spiritual life

____ I must deny myself material pleasure in order to develop spiritually.

____ Spiritual matters should be put aside until we are old; during our youth we should take advantage of every opportunity to advance materially.

____ The material needs of people have to be satisfied before they are ready to pay attention to spiritual matters.

____ The purpose of my life on this material plane is to develop my spiritual qualities and powers.

____ We should enjoy all the bounties that the world has to offer but should not allow earthly desires to take hold of our hearts and prevent us drawing nearer and nearer to God.

Ruhi Book 5: Releasing the Powers of Junior Youth, Unit 1 – 13 Pre-Publication Edition — Version VI.B, p. 13-14

At the heart of the discussion of a strategy of social and economic development, therefore, lies the issue of human rights. The shaping of such a strategy calls for the promotion of human rights to be freed from the grip of the false dichotomies that have for so long held it hostage. Concern that each human being should enjoy the freedom of thought and action conducive to his or her personal growth does not justify devotion to the cult of individualism that so deeply corrupts many areas of contemporary life.

Bahá’í International Community, The Prosperity of Humankind, p. 5