What’s with the sour face? After all in the West we pride ourselves in our “high” standard of living. Clean running water, electricity, modern amenities, and a general semblance of order and cleanliness are comfortable indeed. But has it all come at the expense of smiles? The kinds that are radiant and innocent rather than pretentious and pasted on the face. In the case of Finland, my native land, it can be honestly said that historical “development” and “modernization” has resulted in a high-tech information and welfare society of which the Finns, including yours truly, are genuinely proud of. And the nature is stunning too. But have all of these great benefits overthrown, in their wake, the richness of healthy cultural ways and values which used to provide the lives of historical Finns with profound meaning, purpose and a palpable sense of happiness. No, I’m not on some sanctimonious mission to glorify the bliss of poverty or to awaken the world’s rich to the evils of wealth. Neither am I suggesting that a society where everyone isn’t happily grinning every minute is deprived of all mirth and gaiety. Things don’t have to look Disney to be alright. But if the final fruit of “development” is really a grandmother living all alone in a comfortable inner-city apartment without any visitors, or an IT consultant with children going through a difficult divorce, is it ultimately worth the loss of a large, loud and closely-knit family that leads — in spite of material and social problems of various sorts – an essentially happy little life in a shoebox?
“Anybody can be happy in the state of comfort, ease, health, success, pleasure and joy; but if one will be happy and contented in the time of trouble, hardship and prevailing disease, it is the proof of nobility.” – ‘Abdu’l-Bahá
Out of all the 30 “developing” countries I’ve visited and worked in, Afghanistan stirred me to my depths. Regardless of ethnic background, gender or age, most Afghans display amazing fortitude, friendliness, entrepeneurship and hopefulness. The initially grim countenances of bearded men often enshroud an exceedingly polite gentleman whose child-like curiosity knows no bounds. Yes, the Afghan women wear the infamous burqa more often than not, but quite regardless of their attire, they often prove chatty, loud and even bossy epitomes of human survival. Behind their submissive masks lie cheerfully chattering exemplars of grit and tenacity. Depressed and downhearted faces remain a rarity although by Western reckoning virtually every Afghan ought to suffer from some sort of dire privation, lack, exploitation or oppression.
Afghan hospitality is historic. Families are large and lively. Family relations are tight and caring. Every friday families retire to crowded green parks for picnic and fellowship. Kite-flying children and youngsters abound both in towns and villages. Not only women and girls but also men are visibly child-loving and playful. While many Afghans have witnessed unspeakable crimes against humanity from their earliest childhood, they have time and again proven surprisingly gentle in demeanour, soulful, sensible and sobre-minded. Large families, great communal bonds, a brutal sense of humour and a strong faith in humane religious values have provided a stronghold for many, shielding them from complete psychological breakdown. Lesser traumas in “more developed” countries have driven scores for life-confinement in a mental institution.
What’s with the polished faces, the bleeched teeth and the seductive poses, if they lack heart and soul? The most gnarled face of a one-toothed grandpa shines with the beauty of Paradise Itself.
Whenever it is wreathed with a sincere smile.
“The light of a good character surpasseth the light of the sun and the radiance thereof. Whoso attaineth it is accounted as a jewel among men.” (Tablets of Bahá’u’lláh, Tarázát, p. 36)