[This essay was originally published in four parts on BahaiTeachings.org as “The Universal Secret to Success.”]
Many people have floated theories about the secret of life: Woody Allen said that 80 percent of life is just showing up. James Taylor sang that the secret to life is enjoying the passage of time. Douglas Adams, in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, proposed that the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything, was … 42. Unfortunately no one knows what the question is, and so an enormous planet-sized organic supercomputer was designed to ferret out the question over a period of 7.5 million years, and the computer was named “Earth.”
On some level, I could get behind all of those theories. But I now have one that, after my own forty-something years, I’m completely convinced of. I hasten to add that I have not discovered it in the way that Newton discovered gravity or Einstein relativity. Rather I am claiming this in the way I also claim to have once discovered that stoves can be hot. That is, I have now discovered for myself something that many, many others discovered before me. And here it is …
Success in life, whether at the individual level or at the collective, comes from honoring, above all else, process. Now, “process” is not a word that gets our blood pumping. It conjures bureaucrats at their desks stamping files and consulting thick binders of regulations, hardly the stuff of inspiration. But hear me out.
The history of humanity is largely the story of people striving for goals and, naturally enough, striving for them in what they see as the most efficient way possible: “Our goal is to have more food. That tribe over there has more food. Therefore the most efficient way for us to get more food is to move over there and kill them.” Instead of “food” we can substitute the words “gold,” “silver,” “horses,” “oil,” “land,” “stock,” “votes,” and we can substitute the word “kill” with “defeat,” “marginalize,” or “disadvantage.” But the pattern is all the same: we’ll get what we want in the most efficient way, and usually that is at someone else’s expense.
This wouldn’t surprise an alien observer of our species, as we evolved up through nature and this ruthless efficiency is the way nature works: in nature, the end always justifies the means. Nothing in nature would even consider the means and the ends to be separate things, and so neither did we until relatively recently.
Most people, when pressed, now will concede that there are some areas in which the end does not justify the means: the end of gaining food, would not justify the means of stealing it.
The radical position I have come to over many years and as the result of having my nose bloodied many times by life is this: that not only does the end sometimes not justify the means, but that the end never justifies the means. And what the Universe is trying to teach us throughout history over and over again until we get it, is that there are no caveats to this, no end-runs, no short-cuts. It’s a spiritual law that is as hard and fast as any physical law.
Here’s a framework for understanding this idea. Think of all of our actions as the product of both ideas and processes, each of those falling into good or bad categories, like this:
Bad idea + wrong process = bad outcome
Good idea + wrong process = bad outcome
Good idea + right process = good outcome
And finally — and this is the kicker:
Bad idea + right process = good outcome
In other words, process is king. Process is all.
But if process is all, then we’d better have a good way of discerning what constitutes right process. How do we know when we’re adhering to right process and when we’re not? Because in this scheme, that’s the key to everything, the key, as it were, to the kingdom.
After many years of thinking about this (and many failed attempts to be happy using other more popular ideas) it seems irrefutable to me that the Universe rewards humans for only one thing in the long run: acting in the spirit of unity. This is the grand unifying theory (not coincidentally) of spirituality and therefore of ultimate success. And of course, it is the central theme and whole purpose of the Baha’i Faith.
This might all sound reasonable enough, as we all project our own thoughts and preferences on what it means to strive for this all-important “unity.” But before we nod in agreement and wave this off as just garden-variety common sense, let’s run the idea through a few case studies.
We can begin with the most blatant example of ends used to justify means: war. In war we seek the destruction of an enemy for some supposed greater good. But there is inevitably a problem, and Gandhi put his finger on it when he famously said, “I object to violence because when it appears to do good, the good is only temporary; the evil it does is permanent.” Understanding both our human myopia and amnesia is key to getting this. In the short run, war can appear to fix all sorts of things. But in the long run it inevitably either creates more problems than solves, or delays the solving of the real problem. At the other end, we tend quickly to forget the horrors of war, while we glorify its trappings in parades, ceremonies, air shows, and reenactments. (The Baha’i Faith is not a pacifist religion; the Founders do prescribe military action in the interest of collective security. But the world political unity under which such action would be desirable is so distant that the Faith’s teachings do not support waging war under any current scenario.)
But war is only the most extreme example. Politics as currently practiced is war less the physical violence (usually). So while vastly preferable to war, it is hardly the best we can do. Politics offers a vivid example of the end-justifies-means mindset. Again and again we see the pattern: a young, idealistic person enters the world of political involvement to “make a difference,” a praiseworthy and virtuous motive. She ran for office in her high school and was elected. In college she got involved by volunteering in a presidential campaign, and now that she’s out of law school, has a fire in her belly to run for office and right wrongs she sees all around her.
To the immense pride of her parents and former teachers, she gets elected. Now, at last, she is in a position to start making those changes for which her soul has longed. But first, she quickly comes to the realization that she cannot change the world if she doesn’t stay in office. So if Day One was a celebration of her first election, Day Two begins her next campaign. Unless she possesses superhuman virtues, the pressures of office and frustration with process lead her inexorably toward cutting corners. Moreover, to get reelected, she must fight, and fighting involves bragging about her own accomplishments and belittling the views and accomplishments of her competitors — hardly spiritually uplifting activity. In some cases, slowly, almost imperceptibly, corruption follows.
Multinational corporate practice or any practice that subjugates one people in the world to another falls under the heading of marginalization, which is against the spirit of unity. Lavish spending on luxury items when millions go without essentials shows in yet another way how far we are from unity. The Baha’i fix to these gross inequalities and the pooling of wealth is meaningful profit-sharing for every worker in the hierarchy.
So right out of the gate we have three topics — war, politics, and greed — that dominate our news cycle, and all, as practiced today, are rigorously working against the idea of unity.
But we also see the process play out in less obvious ways. Take the idea of transcendence. Transcendence is good idea, but when we try a shortcut to attain the sensation of transcendence, like drugs, we’ve selected the wrong process, and that yields a bad outcome. Good idea + wrong process = bad outcome. On the other hand: Transcendence (good idea) + prayer and meditation (right process) = good outcome.
Sex, most would concede, seems like a pretty good idea on any given day. But process matters. When we follow right process — getting married first — we run a better chance of getting the ideal outcome: children raised in a well-supported home, as well as the sex (although, granted, the presence of the former is not always conducive to the latter). When we dismiss that process, we usually get bad outcomes: disease, abortion, dysfunctional relationships, greater poverty, greater stress, disjointed society.
The passage of time can deceive us into thinking that good ideas alone equal progress. Something will be erected that is seemingly indestructible, but there is a bug in its operating system, there is a corruption hidden deep inside it that dooms it from the start.
An ancient Egyptian would have gazed on the pyramids and reasonably assumed that their civilization would stand just as long as these magnificent structures. The machine ran for centuries, but was doomed to conk because something in it did not honor unity (much to the contrary, it relied on slavery).
The Roman Empire outwardly was majestic in every way, but the process was corrupt: slavery, blood games, hedonism, corruption, oppression. The machine ran, but was doomed to conk.
For its part, the lasting success of the United States, I believe, has been achieved in direct proportion to its unity and its unifying work in the world. I do not mean this in the way the world currently measures power and success, but in the legacy it will leave to the world. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, it has achieved an astonishing pluralism and, as the oldest republic in the world, has been a critical crucible of democracy and rule of law in the modern world. The United Nations, likewise, will be only as successful as is its members’ authentic commitment to unity.
As mentioned, many people smarter than me came to this conclusion long ago, and I will now put a name to this idea. It is called deontological ethics, and it stands in opposition to consequentialism. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the main purveyor of this idea in modern times, though, of course, the ancient Greeks got to it first as they did almost everything else.
If there is a poster boy for the other side, it is Machiavelli, who gave us: “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both,” and, “Men should be either treated generously or destroyed, because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot,” as well as “It is much more secure to be feared than to be loved.”
The poet Paulo Coelho wrote “…the ends do not justify the means. Because there are no ends, there are only means…” He goes beyond Kant’s simple dichotomy and recognizes the timelessness of existence. If you consider your existence as eternal, then process becomes all. If there is truly no end to the life of the human soul – something every great faith tells us – then the concept of “ends” becomes somewhat meaningless.
When we think of the equation “bad idea + right process = good outcome,” we can think of Abdu’l-Baha’s guidance for governance: “…I swear by the one true God, it is better that all should agree on a wrong decision, than for one right vote to be singled out, inasmuch as single votes can be sources of dissension, which lead to ruin. Whereas, if in one case they take a wrong decision, in a hundred other cases they will adopt right decisions, and concord and unity are preserved. This will offset any deficiency, and will eventually lead to the righting of the wrong.”
So in addition to unity attracting divine confirmations, there also is a sort of divinely protected numbers game in which by casting our lot with unity, we will come out way ahead purely in terms of the massive increase in productivity that unified action results in.
We get another glimpse of the phenomenon of mistakes being righted in a letter written on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an aggrieved community member having a dispute with his Local Spiritual Assembly: “As you know, you are free to request the Assembly to reconsider its decision. However, you may wish to weigh this course of action against the reaction it could produce, and which may cause you further stress. In some cases, it is preferable if one accepts humbly the view of the Assembly in a spirit of sacrifice, and without further dispute. Then, any wrong decision will eventually be set right. When the believers act submissively and in a spirit of self-effacement it attracts the good pleasure of God, which in itself serves as a consolation to their hearts.” (From a letter dated 12 September 1988)
Understanding the primacy of unity is the key to understanding Baha’i teachings on every topic. The Faith can hold that a certain practice is wrong, but how that wrong is righted is just as important as the wrong itself. For example, the Baha’i Faith teaches that the soul associates with the body at conception, and therefore it follows that abortion is wrong. But we are told, almost in the same breath, that we should not make this subject the cause of divisiveness and that we should scrupulously avoid becoming entangled in the political controversy.
This aversion to divisiveness extends across all matters. If we seek to fix a problem through any sort of divisive action, we’ve created a situation in which the “cure is worse than the disease.” Accordingly Baha’is might march in a demonstration “for race unity” but would not be tempted to participate in a “protest against racism.” Mother Teresa captured this idea. When once she was asked if she would participate in a Vietnam War protest, she said, “No, but if you hold a march for peace, I will be there.”
Baha’u’llah wrote, “Beware lest ye contend with any one, nay strive to make him aware of the truth with kindly manner and most convincing exhortations.” And again, “Whatsoever passeth beyond the limits of moderation will cease to exert a beneficial influence.” (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 279, p. 216)
Being “for race unity and peace” instead of “against racism and war” might seem like simply playing games with words, but it is not. The difference is profound. If we are to change the world in a lasting way, we must change it through the power of attraction. The planet will be saved by a great joining, an ingathering, by, in modern parlance, a glorious “opt in” — and not by the means that fill our history books — the overpowering of one group by another.