I think a lot about gratitude each November, of course. I’m also reflecting on the relationship between gratitude and generosity — between thanks and giving. Recent experience is suggesting to me that the more you consciously cultivate one, the more you automatically intensify the other.
Nowhere is this personified for me more thoroughly — and inspiringly — than in the life of someone who also comes to mind for me around the end of November. That’s because Nov. 26 and 28 are dates associated with events in the life of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, whose father, Bahá’u’lláh, was the prophet founder of the Bahá’í Faith.
Picture someone who consistently put others before himself and exuded remarkable happiness while doing so, and you have a rough idea of why so many loved ‘Abdu’l-Bahá so much. From 1853 until 1910, from the time he was 9 until his late 60s, he was more or less a prisoner, together with the rest of his family. That was because the things his father suggested about what would remedy humankind’s ills never found much favor among those who held positions of power and authority. As one source put it, “They didn’t find their personal interests advanced by his teachings.”
Stories about ‘Abdu’l-Bahá play a key part in the life of Bahá’í families because he exemplified precisely what a life would look like when guided entirely by spiritually motivated choices. His actions illustrate in a concrete way the very qualities that his father urged humanity to explore, develop and, perhaps most important of all, apply.
In raising our children, we found no better example to turn to when looking at questions of spiritual integrity. This was so much the case that the question we typically found ourselves asking in the face of many challenges was, “What would ‘Abdu’l-Bahá do?”
Once he was finally free in 1910, he began a three-year journey through Europe and the United States. His goal was to impart what his father had brought, a light that illuminated ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s own path so brightly that even those who had declared themselves his enemies eventually arose to love and protect him.
One story about him remains my favorite because it illustrates both literally and symbolically just what sort of person he was. It occurred when he was probably about 6, at a time when his family, who had descended from nobility, still had wealth. (A few years later, it would be seized by the government and they would all become exiles.)
On the day in question, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was sent out with an adult companion to inspect the work of the shepherds tending his father’s sheep. When the inspection was finished and he turned to leave, the man who had accompanied him said, “It is your father’s custom to leave a gift for each shepherd.”
‘Abdu’l-Bahá grew quiet for a while. He hadn’t known or expected this — and what would he give them?
Then an idea came to him that made him very happy. He would give them the sheep!
When his father heard about this, he was, rather than angry or displeased, absolutely delighted with this early evidence of truly spontaneous generosity. He humorously remarked that everyone had better take good care of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, because someday he would give himself away.
And that is exactly what history shows that he did, over and over, all while bringing joy everywhere he went.