Arthur Lyon Dahl
International Environment Forum
Hope has become a rare commodity in today’s world. Everything seems to be going wrong, and the forces of disintegration are accelerating. We may wonder what will come first: a financial collapse, a climate catastrophe, a global pandemic, a third world war, or some equally disastrous outcome for a material civilisation out of control? The youth of the world in particular face dismal prospects. Yet there are also forces of integration at work; people making a difference and living lives of meaning. If there were more of them, that might help us to avoid the worst and turn the corner towards a brighter tomorrow.
In my professional work as an environmental scientist, I have spent over half a century researching and spreading depressing news about the environmental crises on the horizon or already happening. So I asked myself what could I do to compensate and give some hope for the future? Why did I succeed in staying hopeful and motivated despite so much evidence to the contrary? Surprising as it may seem for a natural scientist, especially one specialising in complex ecosystems like coral reefs now threatened with disappearance, the answer for me was my perspective as a member of the Bahá’í Faith, founded in the 19th century by the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, and anticipating the challenges we now face. I could see that science by itself did not have all the answers to the human condition, that ethical values and motivation had other roots, not contrary to science and reason, but complementary to them, creating a coherent whole. I then asked myself how could I capture my own journey to hope in a way that might make it accessible to others, particularly those of a rational, sceptical mindset? This book is the result. May it stimulate your thinking and open your heart to the better world that is possible and your own role in building it.
So you want to change the world?
Previous generations have made a mess of it. There is hypocrisy, injustice and corruption everywhere. Some people say that this is part of human nature and that it cannot be changed. Many are without hope and have given up. But you are not ready to abandon the world and withdraw into your shell. You want to make a difference. But how?
This is a do-it-yourself guide for the lost seeker, budding activist, or someone looking for greater meaning in life. It does not have all the answers; those, you will have to find for yourself. But it does try to assist you to ask the right questions and it has tools that might be helpful along your journey to finding those answers.
The journey will be hard. There are no quick fixes or easy solutions to the problems of the world or to the challenges of life. Changing the world into a better place will take centuries and you will not live to see the end of it. In any case, there is no ‘end’, only another starting point in the cycles that mark the ever-advancing journey of humanity. But, someone has to start; so why not you?
You are not alone. Thousands of others feel the same way as you and are starting along similar journeys. You will be sure to cross paths with some of them, and will maybe even join up to travel a part of the way together. And however long the duration, whatever you accomplish on this journey will not be lost, because others will come after you and pick up wherever you left off. This is a voyage of hope and your life can be part of it.
It does not matter where you start
You may be at the point in your life where you are studying to prepare for a career, but are realizing that the professional world today is competitive, highly pressured, materialistic and stressful. It would seem that you should be able to advance on merit and ability, but there is a general lack of morality, and so lying, cheating and corruption too often have the upper hand. Or you may be at a turning point, dissatisfied with the life you are living and looking for a new direction that has more meaning.
At the same time, you have a moral yearning and desire for social justice and long to be an activist with a life of purpose, bringing real change in the world and overcoming the forces of negativity that surround you. Yet, it is difficult to go beyond what can too easily become a sterile intellectual debate and really do something when the problems seem so overwhelming. The resulting spiritual vacuum and inner pain can make you deeply unhappy, despite the opportunities around you.
Or, you may be one of the ‘rejects’ of society – unemployed or unemployable – faced with a future worse than that of your parents. Perhaps war, violence, persecution or economic necessity have sent you on the road to exile, and you are a refugee or migrant, ready to risk anything to try to find a better future. Regardless of where you are in your life, it is not easy to be starting out in the world of today.
Life is a journey
Life is a voyage through time and space. You are born, grow up, and live and die in a linear progression of time, through various stages of growth and decline, of stability, and of rapid or even sudden change.
Few people today spend their whole life in the same place, so you may move around your country, or even the planet, experiencing different geographic and cultural environments.
We seldom take the time to stand back and reflect on this whole process in its entirety. If you are young, you just want to ‘get on with it’. You may not even ask how much control you have over your own life. But are you just being swept along with the current, doing what comes your way or the same as others are doing, or are you consciously choosing where you want to go and what you want to make of your life?
In a rapidly changing world, it may be impossible to know your ultimate destination and what the future will bring, but there is still a lot you can do to be able to say finally whether you wasted your time or had a life that was well-lived.
Life is a journey and, like any journey, there is a lot that you can do to prepare for it and to make the most of it. That is what this story is about. It is a user’s brief guide to life and what it takes to place the maximum chances on your side so that your life will meet your highest expectations. It builds on the knowledge of science and some of the latest thinking about complex systems, but also examines fundamental questions of ethics and values about why you are here and what your fundamental purpose is as a human being. It places these individual challenges in the larger framework of a globalizing world that is experiencing multiple crises. It looks for paths to sustainability and a better future, exploring what you can do to go in that direction. It is, in a sense, a guide to how to bring greater meaning into your life.
The voyage of life is not easy. From the pain your mother suffered as you were born into the world to the inevitable decline of old age, and ultimately death, the trek of your life will lead you through perilous valleys and up exalted mountains, with many opportunities to fall short or to lose your way. Some of the challenges are within you; others lie in wait along the way. At times, it may seem easiest to withdraw, to look for the easy way out, or to follow the crowd.
We are living in a challenging and, often, frustrating age, where hope is a rare commodity. Whether you are young and just beginning on this journey, or are already somewhere along the way, the obstacles may seem impossible to overcome. Yet, this universal quest for fulfillment, although arduous, can also be exhilarating, equipping you for the next challenges along the road and offering ever-growing vistas of new potentials as you forge ahead.
In telling this tale, the aim is not to lay out a wide highway for everyone to follow, like a herd of goats or a rush of commuters, but to provide some signposts to help you find your own unique path to your destiny. In particular, at a time when world crises seem to multiply, and catastrophes seem imminent and doom inevitable, it is essential to put all these problems into perspective and to recognize that they are the symptoms of a time of transition. Rather then deny their reality, you will seek to understand their role and purpose in cleansing a sick society of its ailments, and preparing for a new world civilization to emerge.
This is a story of courage, of the weapons of science and faith that are necessary to fight demons within and without, of environmental, social and economic valleys to cross and mountains to scale, and of the peace, wisdom, justice and love that are the fruits of a life well lived.
In keeping with past traditions, this traveller’s narrative will take you across seven valleys and up seven mountain ranges, each addressing one of the critical dimensions of a world in crisis.1
First you will cross the desert-valley of blind souls – where individuals are crawling over each other for power and wealth – before scaling the mountains of long-term vision, integrated knowledge and evolving systems. Here you will acquire the shield of ethics and the values necessary to defend yourself along this journey.
Then you will pass through the second valley, with the threatening jungle of environmental crises. You will edge along the precipices of planetary boundaries, catastrophe threatening at every turn, before hiking up towards the peaks of environmental sustainability.
Beyond is the third valley, a social wasteland of the wealthy who live in castles besieged by the masses of the poor and disempowered. Here you will pass a dangerous crossing which will conduct you to the foothills of community-building and up the path of social action to the mountains of justice and unity.
The strength acquired on this journey will equip you to face the fourth valley, which is filled with fire and smoke. Here the perilous quicksand of a materialist economy and a consumer society will threaten to suck you ever deeper into debt. But, beyond this valley rise the majestic peaks of the social economy, richly forested with work – work that is done in the spirit of service.
The experiences and trials of these valleys will help you to traverse the fifth valley, which is crisscrossed with canyons of self and ravines of corruption, so that you can begin to climb the cliffs of altruism and scale the heights of service.
As you continue in your search for greater reality, the sixth valley is filled with the mists of vain imaginings from which you must find your way towards the high plateau of inevitable human limitations. But it is here that you will glimpse a view of the unattainable universe of higher realities and infinite potentials.
From there you enter the seventh valley, wherein lie visions of the future that are within your reach, inspiring your steps ever upward on this earth while refining your character and contributing to an ever-advancing civilization. The higher you go, the greater the vistas of the emerging world civilization stretching out before you and beckoning to future generations.
While your individual journey will only contribute to a short span of social progress, along with billions of others, your fulfillment will come from the qualities you have acquired during your quest and the bricks you will lay in the edifice of the new civilization yet to come.
Preparing for your journey
You can use this guide to your Pursuit of Hope in many different ways. You can read it like a novel, stopping to reflect from time to time, but looking forward to what may come next. Or you can read just a little bit each day and think it over. The many sections make reading easier, even on a smartphone or tablet. Some sections are longer and may be all that you can manage at one sitting. Short sections could be read a few at a time. If you read two sections a day, you will complete your journey in about a month.
A word of warning is necessary. As with any voyage, you should not start out overburdened with excess baggage – which you will only have to abandon along the way. We all start out with inherited assumptions about the world and about ourselves, transmitted by our parents or unconsciously absorbed from our community and the media, perhaps also including a long-standing religious tradition or political perspective. In this journey, you need to be ready to question – not to reject everything in a violent gesture of liberation – but to bring to the surface and re-examine each assumption and preconception in an act of independent investigation of truth, so that what you keep is your own and forms a coherent whole, and which you can rely upon throughout your journey.
Equipped with a moral compass and signposts for this journey, you can set out with confidence and hope, undeterred by the pessimists and nay-sayers or the fearful and jealous, empowered with the strength to take responsibility for your own destiny.
1. The concept of Seven Valleys has origins in the 12th-century Sufi poet Farid al-Din Attar's Conference of the Birds. It was taken up by Bahá'u'lláh in his mystical work, The Seven Valleys, addressed to a Sufi Shaykh.
GO TO CHAPTER 1: THE VALLEY OF LOST SOULS AND THE QUEST FOR A UNIFYING VISION AND VALUES
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© Copyright Arthur Lyon Dahl 2019