I’ve always been “the nice guy.” I hold doors for people, I return shopping carts to where they need to go, I return money when I’m given too much change, I point out if I’m not charged enough for what I’m buying, I don’t curse, and whenever possible/reasonable, I’ll try to sacrifice my comfort for the sake of someone else’s. I’ve even literally helped an old lady cross a street, as seen in this real-life footage of the event:
I say all this not to gloat or brag, but because of a voice in my head that’s been trying to make itself heard for a while, and I think I finally get what it’s trying to say: I’m angry. I’ve been angry for a while now, if I’m being honest. But I didn’t know what to call the feeling, or know why it was there, or whether or not I should be allowed to feel it. Would I even know howto feel it? Anger has no place in “the nice guy,” but the other thing that’s been gnawing at me is that being a “nice guy” just doesn’t cut it anymore. Men need to do so much more.
DISCLAIMER: this post is a bit more self-exploratory than previous ones, and includes my own personal understanding of the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith at this point in time and should in no way be considered an authoritative take on these incredible writings.
I’ve chosen to live my life a certain way, according to my constantly-evolving understanding of Bahá’í Faith. The standards can feel sometimes feel impossibly high, and I am dedicated to spending my life getting as close as I can to them. One of the things I find so beautiful and refreshing about the Bahá’í teachings is how it refuses to accept extreme stances for the sake of convenience. It’s all about moderation, which can lead to some interesting insights. Peppered throughout the writings are pieces of guidance that may – at first glance – appear to be contradictory to other admonitions, but are in fact complementary. And this is the space I want to actually spend some time in for this post: that liminal space where we acknowledge the existence of some gray areas, the need for personal initiative and discomfort in finding an appropriate balance, as well as the call for a leap of faith in growing and learning as we take concerted action.
Running through almost the entirety of the teachings of the Bahá’í Faith is the need to be kind, loving, generous:
- “To be a Bahá’í simply means to love all the world, to love humanity and try to serve it, to work for universal peace and universal brotherhood.”
- “The betterment of the world can be accomplished through pure and goodly deeds, through commendable and seemly conduct.”
- “Do not be content with showing friendship in words alone, let your heart burn with loving-kindness for all who may cross your path.”
Likewise, numerous passages speak to the importance of living an exemplary and coherent life, one where your words, actions, and professed beliefs are in alignment:
- “The essence of faith is fewness of words and abundance of deeds; he whose words exceed his deeds, know verily his death is better than his life.”
- “Be generous in prosperity, and thankful in adversity. Be worthy of the trust of thy neighbor, and look upon him with a bright and friendly face. Be a treasure to the poor, an admonisher to the rich, an answerer of the cry of the needy, a preserver of the sanctity of thy pledge. Be fair in thy judgment, and guarded in thy speech. Be unjust to no man, and show all meekness to all men. Be as a lamp unto them that walk in darkness, a joy to the sorrowful, a sea for the thirsty, a haven for the distressed, an upholder and defender of the victim of oppression. Let integrity and uprightness distinguish all thine acts. Be a home for the stranger, a balm to the suffering, a tower of strength for the fugitive. Be eyes to the blind, and a guiding light unto the feet of the erring. Be an ornament to the countenance of truth, a crown to the brow of fidelity, a pillar of the temple of righteousness, a breath of life to the body of mankind, an ensign of the hosts of justice, a luminary above the horizon of virtue, a dew to the soil of the human heart, an ark on the ocean of knowledge, a sun in the heaven of bounty, a gem on the diadem of wisdom, a shining light in the firmament of thy generation, a fruit upon the tree of humility.”
With me so far? Be good, be kind, be humble, be generous, be loving, be a lamp, be a treasure, be fair, be kind, be loving, be humble, be generous, all the time, with everyone. That’s the goal. Really beautiful stuff. Really high bar.
Here’s another one. In this passage, ’Abdu’l-Bahá describes how we should strive to conduct ourselves in the face of ignorance:
- “We should not belittle anyone and call him ignorant, saying: ‘You know not, but I know’. Rather, we should look upon others with respect, and when attempting to explain and demonstrate, we should speak as if we are investigating the truth, saying: ‘Here these things are before us. Let us investigate to determine where and in what form the truth can be found.’ The teacher should not consider himself as learned and others ignorant. Such a thought breedeth pride, and pride is not conducive to influence. The teacher should not see in himself any superiority; he should speak with the utmost kindliness, lowliness and humility, for such speech exerteth influence and educateth the souls.”
Beautiful, right? No matter the level of the other person’s ignorance, we should have patience, lay out the facts, help them see the light as long as they’re willing, and avoid any sense of superiority. Truly put their needs and our love for their wellbeing over our own self-love for being right. Trust that love will overcome. But even these apparently extreme stances on kindness have exceptions…
How do we reconcile the passages above with the following words of caution:
- “Strive ye then with all your heart to treat compassionately all humankind–except for those who have some selfish, private motive, or some disease of the soul. Kindness cannot be shown the tyrant, the deceiver, or the thief, because, far from awakening them to the error of their ways, it maketh them to continue in their perversity as before. No matter how much kindliness ye may expend upon the liar, he will but lie the more, for he believeth you to be deceived, while ye understand him but too well, and only remain silent out of your extreme compassion.“
- “O FRIEND! In the garden of thy heart plant naught but the rose of love, and from the nightingale of affection and desire loosen not thy hold. Treasure the companionship of the righteous and eschew all fellowship with the ungodly.”
How do we balance letting “our hearts burn with loving kindness” for every single person we see, and still account for the implications of “…except for those who…?” Does this mean we get a free pass to be jerks to whomever we deem to be selfish or a liar? I don’t think so. But I’ve always struggled with knowing how to manage that line. More often than not, I’ve probably chosen to not even approach it for fear of crossing it. And I have a feeling I’m not alone.
I think this balancing act is partly why, in my experience, so many people mistakenly judge Bahá’ís – or really, anyone who prioritizes kindness and positivity – for being passive. They see a desire to be kind as a willingness to be mistreated, to be lied to, to be taken advantage of without pushback. They assume that kindness does not allow for pushback in the face of injustice and inequity. But that’s where I think many people – including myself – are wrong.
While I’ve always been clear in saying that people too often mistake my desire for positivity with a lack of conviction, I also have to be honest in admitting that there have been many times that I probably have been taken advantage of. But, I always thought, that’s on them. My goal is to strive to be genuinely caring of others. And I think I’ve done a pretty good job, all things considered. But how many of those times was I guilty of extreme compassion. Bahá’u’lláh writes “[i]n all matters moderation is desirable. If a thing is carried to excess, it will prove a source of evil”. Though I’ve read these passages many times, I had not fully thought about the evils that could come about from extreme levels of generally positive attributes. But that’s the word ’Abdu’l-Bahá uses. EXTREME compassion.
But, as I mentioned, lately I’ve been feeling angry. And I’ve been trying to figure out where that feeling fits into all of the expectations that I have for myself. Because my first instinct is that anger has no place in these ideals, doesn’t belong in the quest for love and unity, needs to be pushed down, hidden away, squashed, ignored, and cast aside as much as possible. How could you possibly burn with loving-kindness if you’re feeling angry?
But then I remembered something ’Abdu’l-Bahá said and recently reread it. It’s a bit lengthy but, I think, full of incredible implications:
“In the innate nature of things there is no evil—all is good. This applies even to certain apparently blameworthy attributes and dispositions which seem inherent in some people, but which are not in reality reprehensible. For example, you can see in a nursing child, from the beginning of its life, the signs of greed, of anger, and of ill temper; and so it might be argued that good and evil are innate in the reality of man, and that this is contrary to the pure goodness of the innate nature and of creation. The answer is that greed, which is to demand ever more, is a praiseworthy quality provided that it is displayed under the right circumstances. Thus, should a person show greed in acquiring science and knowledge, or in the exercise of compassion, high-mindedness, and justice, this would be most praiseworthy. And should he direct his anger and wrath against the bloodthirsty tyrants who are like ferocious beasts, this too would be most praiseworthy. But should he display these qualities under other conditions, this would be deserving of blame. It follows therefore that in existence and creation there is no evil at all, but that when man’s innate qualities are used in an unlawful way, they become blameworthy.”
For me, re-reading this passage now, it says that it’s ok to feel anger, it’s ok to feel greed, it’s ok to feel wrath. Those feelings are not reprehensible in and of themselves. There is no shame in feeling these feelings. They are not innately wrong or evil. What matters is how they’re used, where they’re directed, to what ends they are harnessed and utilized. Turns out Gordon Gekko was right after all! Greed is good. Or, rather, can be used for good.
Reframing my thoughts with this perspective, I’m wondering if achieving love and unity is even possible without anger. Anger at the injustices before us; wrath towards inequitable systems and those who continue to benefit from them; greed for more knowledge and greater understanding about the creation of inherently broken systems; frustration at the slowness with which change seems to take root; greed for equity; all of it fuel for the continued fight for justice.
It all makes me think of that James Baldwin quote: “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” When I’ve come across this quote in the past, I’d think of it as little more than, yeah, if I was black and aware of the injustices being regularly thrown my way, I’d be angry too. Reading it now, I see what escaped me before: the drive for social justice that potentially lives in that rage.
That, I believe, is the anger that I’m feeling. That, I believe, is the rage that grows inside me. The wrath that is trying to find release. And I am ready to “direct it at the bloodthirsty tyrants who are like ferocious beasts” as well as the systems that help them maintain their evil thirst and ferocity.
So what am I angry about?
I’m angry about the acceptable levels of ignorance that men are allowed to have about the injustices against women.
I’m angry about the ways young boys are taught to repress most of their beautifully complex emotions to the point that all they allow themselves to feel is anger.
I’m angry about the informal social systems that protect sexual predators from ever facing any kind of accountability.
I’m angry that so many men choose to prioritize their social safety with their male friends over the physical and emotional safety of girls and women around them.
I’m angry that even though I’m aware of all the ways I’ve been socialized into a particular expression of masculinity, I still struggle with letting myself cry, even when everything inside me is telling me that’s exactly what needs to happen.
I’m angry that expressing my anger about these gendered inequities so often results in polar opposite responses from women (“hell yes!”) and men (“meh, what are you gonna do, amirite?”).
I’m angry that so many men refuse to listen to the voices and experiences of the women around them.
I’m angry that I have not used the privileges that come with being a man to the benefit of the women around me as much as I could have.
I’m angry that my white-passing sons will be given more chances and opportunities than my black niece and nephew.
I’m angry that so many male-created systems continue to oppress, stifle, and silence the incredible inherent talents and capacities of women and people of color.
I’m angry that our justice system is so inherently unjust, particularly when it comes to matters of race and sexual assault.
I’m angry that it’s so popular to perform pessimism, cynicism, and negativity.
I’m angry that I haven’t done more.
I’m angry that it’s taken me this long to feel this angry.
I’m angry that so many people continue to not feel angry.
I’m angry that I’m still not 100% certain how to best make use of all this anger.
I’m angry that, even as I write this, millions of people are suffering at the hands of injustice.
And I’m angry that it’s all happening right under our noses.