Steve Woods

Cutting the Strings

In What Day is it? on November 12, 2009 at 11:41 am

Death is a release from the impressions of the senses, and from desires that make us their puppets, and from the vagaries of the mind, and from the hard service of the flesh.  ~ Marcus Arelius

The story of Husayn Ali


Takur, near Tehran, Iran, where Husayn Ali was born

Husayn Ali was born on November 12, 1817 in Tehran, Iran, to the home of an aristocrat, a government minister, who could trace his own ancestry deep into ancient Iranian nobility. Raised in wealth, Husayn did not receive a regular public education, instead learning to ride horses, write calligraphy, handle a sword, and the recitation of romantic poetry.

In Husayn’s culture it was believed that precocious children likely would not survive into adulthood, so his family was quite concerned over him. He more than made up for his outspokenness in intelligence and wisdom beyond his years.  Despite his inexperience, even learned Muslims could be found consulting with him regarding intricate religious matters; not because Husayn knew the answer already, but because he had a mind for figuring these complex issues out.

The puppet show

We are only puppets, our strings are being pulled by unknown forces. ~ George Buchner


What strings pull us around our lives?

Husayn once wrote that as a child, he was brought to watch a puppet show, one of the popular forms of public entertainment at the time.  As often happened, the puppeteer had crafted this performance to make a public statement, the story being about the political motives and greed of a corrupt king’s court.  Husayn was both bothered and intrigued by the performance; however, what happened after the little curtain was drawn and the other children were leaving played an important part in shaping Husayn’s mind and future.  Husayn noted the puppeteer stepping out from behind the curtain and leaving the premises with a big box under his arm.

Curious and unafraid, Husayn asked the man what was in the box.  “All this lavish display and these elaborate devices,” the man replied, “the king, the princes, and the ministers, their pomp and glory, their might and power, everything you saw, are now contained within this box.”  The concept that all of the tapestries of life, those material items struggled toward, that we all-too-often witness the lives of others being destroyed over, could be rendered lifeless and carried away.  All could be lost at the very gates of death, at the end of our live’s performance, as we too are boxed and buried.  As these thoughts coalesced in little Husayn’s mind, he suddenly viewed all of our lifelong material struggles as nothing more important than children’s playthings, mere past-times, we playing the role of puppets to unknown masters.

What drives our lives?

We are no longer puppets being manipulated by outside powerful forces: we become the powerful force ourselves. ~ Leo Buscaglia


It's not a bad goal to have...

A desire to have a strong, loving and committed relationship with our significant other. A need to see success in our children’s lives, to know they will be secure in their futures.  The ability to retire in relative comfort, with a roof over our heads and not a worry about money.  A desire to attain notoriety in our field of endeavor, to be seen as contributing.  A wish to be loved by others, whether in a small office or on the big screen.  A brand new Mustang convertible is always good. There are millions of hopes and dreams we all have, sharing more than a handful of them with most.  Sometimes these dreams are directly in competition with someone else’s. Where did these hopes, desires, and dreams come from? Who pulls our strings?

When Husayn’s father passed away, the very desirable and financially secure ministerial position he held was offered to Husayn, who turned it down to pursue a life of charitable work, wishing to put to good use his belief that the pursuit of wealth and title were nothing compared to the care of others.  He worked diligently to improve the lives of the many poor in the surrounding community, earning him reverence and the title of “Father of the Poor.”

Who pulls our strings?

Men are not great or small because of their material possessions. They are great or small because of what they are. ~ James Cash Penney


Wait! Don't run off just yet!

Before you hit the Close Window button on your browser, I’m not on a soapbox today.  There’s nothing wrong with buying a lot of cool things and keeping them.  I’m staring at twin 27″ screens, when I could’ve done this sort of work on a simple 15″ one. There’s a whisper quiet brandy new PC under my desk, running Windows 7.  My shiny (but not so new) iPhone is always within arm’s length. I own way too many weird ties and an assortment of coffee cups. But bear with me for a bit…

We have to work to survive, so we work.  For most of us, it means the job you did not dream of as a child, because the income was nice, the benefits pretty decent, we had a family that prefers food on the table, and there’s a decent retirement plan on the horizon.  We’re busy after work driving our children to appointments, baking something for fundraisers, getting our garages ready for the next yard sale, and trying to keep ahead of the impending Christmas shopping rush.  Basically treading water, right?

It’s a difficult economy right now, and I’m starting to look at the Christmas list with a bit of tredipation.  I likely won’t be spending quite as much as last year, and am feeling a twinge of guilt about it.  But you know what? I’m starting to ask myself why I feel bad about it.  Do I have to spend every cent I have in the malls purchasing more of those trinkets to eventually store in the boxes in my garage, or for my kids to toss in the closet with the ghosts of Christmas past?  Are the unknown forces that drove my father and his father going to drive me too, or will I take a new path in life?

The dangers of stepping through unknown Gates

The World is all gates, all opportunities, strings of tension waiting to be struck. ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson


Downtown Tehran, early 1900s

In 1844, a young man by the name of Siyyid Alí-Muhammad changed Husayn’s life forever.  Siyyid referred to himself as the Báb, which meant “the Gate” in Arabic, and proclaimed that all faiths served a single God, and therefore must come together in unison.  Siyyid made sure everyone understood that he wasn’t that person, but that he would soon come.   What the Báb taught rocked Iran’s nobility and faithful, and his renown spread quickly, with Husayn becoming one his most ardent supporters.  To the clerics, supported by and controlling the government, it would appear a movement was afoot, and fears slowly grew that they might someday lose power…

Four years after Siyyid introduced his new philosophy, Husayn found himself a captive of the government, being tortured for his support of the Báb, as his captors repeatedly beat the soles of his feet with long wooden rods.  It was only the start of many such episodes in his life, as he was either chased to or sent to a variety of prison locations, ending up over 2,800 km from his place of birth.


What will be the legacy to my children?

It’s a bit daunting, the concept of figuring out what drives my life.  But I don’t want to be known affectionately in the future by my children as the guy that once got them the Wii Mario Cart game.  I want to be known as the guy who taught them how to freely say “I’m sorry,” upon discovering they wronged someone.  I’d much rather be remembered as the man that taught them loving acceptance of the wonderful variations of humanity around them, than the guy who brought home a piping hot cheese pizza every Friday night.  That said, I also want to enjoy a nice pizza and beat their cheerful little butts on the Wii once in awhile.

It’s a balancing act, isn’t it?  To be a good parent, to remember to teach the lasting life skills in a patient manner, while still providing the many material objects that my kids (and I have to admit that I) drool over in the store. I have to build the Gate through which they’ll cross from idealistic, angst-filled teens to loving and decent adults.  And I have to help them walk that sometimes tortuous path.

Cutting the Strings

My desire to exit the game is greater than my desire to remain in it. I have searched my heart through and through and feel comfortable with this decision. ~ Barry Sanders


Prison in Akka, Israel. Husayn's cell in upper right corner.

In 1850 the Báb was killed, along with a number of his most ardent supporters by government forces and the powerful clerics.  Although Husayn was spared execution, he was sent off to a prisons in Tehran, Adrianople, Istanbul and Akka, each place progressively worse.  And in each of these fetid, smelly, dark places he received revelations, divine images telling him things he had difficulty understanding or accepting.

According to the visions, Husayn was the chosen one spoken of by the Báb.  A year after arriving in Baghdad, Husayn took leave from his family and followers, and went up into the nearby mountains of Sulaymaniyyih for 2 years, to consider in solitude how to accept this mantle, and what he must do.  When he returned, he began writing a number of religious books, and with renewed vigor the Bábi community rapidly embraced him as a leader.

Ten years later, in 1853, Husayn officially proclaimed himself to be the Bahá’u’lláh, the chosen one that the Bab referred to, the promised one he believed was to be found in all scriptures, who had now come to unite the faiths in brotherhood.  And he was once again sent off to prisons in faraway lands.


I have some cutting to do...

I’m not going to be around forever. Duh.  To be a better parent to my children, I have to intensify my focus on them, to listen to the voices in my head that tell me to take the time and teach, to slow myself and them down, to offer both toys and wisdom.  I have to cut some of the strings in my life, too.  I have to cut the string that says I have to spend all of my hard-earned money each month.  Or the big ol’ credit card stringie. I have to cut the string that says I have to always get that new, shiny thing even though the old thing still works.  The watch every football game string (that’s a painful one…) Oh, there are a variety of other invisible strings pulling me around, and I will have to take some time examining (and cutting) some of them too…  But I know my kids and fiancée are worth it…

Staying out of the box

In 1867 Bahá’u’lláh penned letters to all of the leaders of the great nations including Emperor Napoleon III, Queen Victoria, Kaiser Wilhelm I, Tsar Alexander II, Emperor Franz Joseph, Pope Pius IX, Sultan Abdul-Aziz, and the Iranian ruler, Nasiri’d-Din Shah, telling them that he was a messenger of God, and exhorting them all to join God’s plan in putting down their arms and working together in peace and unity.

Even more than being a good parent to my children, I want to be a good citizen of the World.  I want to understand, to embrace the varieties of existence around me. I believe as long as I keep my eyes (and mind) wide open, I just might be able to stay outside of that little box for awhile…

Bahá’u’lláh and the Bahá’í Faith

And suddenly, like light in darkness, the real truth broke in upon me; the simple fact of Man, which I had forgotten, which had lain deep buried and out of sight; the idea of community, of unity.  ~ Ernst Toller

As a result of angry response to his letters to World leaders, Bahá’u’lláh was finally exiled to the prison city of Akka, Israel, to join the murderers, theives and political prisoners sent there by the Ottomans.  It was believed that Bahá’u’lláh and his followers would die there, and that the new faith would soon crumble without his continued presence.

Within months of arriving under harsh treatment, Bahá’u’lláh and his follower’s treated the sick and suffering in silence, an act which led authorities in Akka to lower restrictions against them, including finally allowing visitors, who travelled hundreds of miles to see their religious leader.  During this time, Bahá’u’lláh began laying out the essentials of the Bahá’í faith as it is known today, creating a roadmap of how the World could come together.  After having accomplished so much in sharing the message he had received, after having lived as an exemplar of spiritual philanthropy, Bahá’u’lláh died peacefully in 1892.


We can all live together, regardless of faith...

In case you were wondering, I’m not a member of the Bahá’í faith.  I am a very liberal Jew in the Reformist tradition, reaching out to and learning from the words embodied in a variety of faiths.  I can see many merits in the Bahá’í philosophy of unity and caring for each other, and have noted these same exhortations in a variety of religions. I can see the value of Bahá’u’lláh’s desire to see all of us control our own destinies, ignoring those that tell us to live meaningless lives in pursuit of things that tarnish with time, and erasing the many boundaries that have been constructed to separate us from one another.

In celebration of the birth of the founder of their faith, Bahá’í houses of worship and national centers near you are holding special programs, artistic performances tonight, as well as offering to the public food and refreshments, kindness and fellowship.  If you are up to it, feel free to step through a new Gate and join them.  You just might find out a way to stay out of that box too…

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