Howard Colby Ives was a Unitarian Minister in New York who became a Bahá’í after encounters with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. Howard was also a smoker.
When ‘Abdu’l-Bahá visited New York, Howard was not in the best of health, having some lung difficulties. He was considering quitting smoking, yet again – in fact, he wrote “I had always prided myself on the ability to break the habit at any time.” And yet, it was always a momentary lapse in the habit, nothing lasting. And that summer, because of life circumstances, he was too nervous to not smoke. With his pride, though, he also had a shame about the habit. Though he wanted to, he didn’t bring it up to ‘Abdu’l-Bahá the first or so time they had met. Finally, he got over his guilt and decided to ask ‘Abdu’l-Bahá advice on how to quit smoking.
When they next met, he very shyly began to tell ‘Abdu’l-Bahá about his habit. He wrote, it “was like a child confessing to His mother, and my voice trailed away to embarrassed silence after only the fewest of words.” Yet ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was the embodiment of loving-kindness and understanding, and never perpetuated the embarrassment that Howard felt about his habit. After Howard was done speaking, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá quietly asked how much he smoked.
Howard told him, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, with a gentle smile and a twinkle in His eyes, responded that He didn’t think it was harmful, that the men in Persia smoke to the point where their beards are filled with smoke, and that he shouldn’t be troubled by it at all.
Howard, at first, was a bit perplexed, and he did not understand. He wrote, “not a dissertation on the evils of habit; not an explanation of the bad effects on health; not a summoning of my will power to overcome desire”. Rather, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá freed him. Howard then felt the burden of shame lifted from his shoulders, and he felt a relief. During the next few days, Howard wrote, his “inner conflict was stilled”, and he was, at last, able to enjoy his smoke “with no smitings of conscience.”
A few days after this conversation, his desire for smoking was gone, and he quit.
From this encounter, Howard concluded the power of love to bring true freedom – freedom from desires of self, from the habits of lower nature, from the fetters of this world. Through an all-embracing love that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá evinced, He freed Howard from a focus on self. And through showering each other with loving-kindness, we can accompany each other to free ourselves from the bondage of the animal promptings that weigh us down. Our first duty to each other is to let our hearts burn with loving-kindness; from this we can think about building upon justice, unity, capacity, etc.
We can draw out two more elements within Howard’s encounter with ‘Abdu’l-Bahá. The first, is that through this love, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not allow any feelings of guilt or self-righteousness to enter into the conversation. Howard came to him with guilt about a habit, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said it wasn’t a big deal. Howard came to him with a pride on being able to quit, and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá didn’t appeal to any will to power. Guilt and self-righteousness are both manifestations of ego, on two extremes, that our self-focused society often evokes to motivate behavior. However, the most powerful motivator of human action is an understanding of true self that comes from selflessness – freeing oneself from ego. Often times in health care, patients come with various forms of ego, like guilt, which society has attributed to their health concern. Physicians perpetuate this spotlight on the ego by a focus on the individual. Yet, clearly, an inner conflict through pointing out “evils of habit” is futile; the most powerful way to transform self is a focus away from it, on selflessness.
This leads to the second point – a true understanding of human nature. If someone considers their identity as a smoker, how is a physician going to say “don’t smoke”. And continue by saying “here are all the reasons why you shouldn’t”. This is telling them not to be who they think they are. Quite a dehumanizing experience. And yet, the health care system has gotten into this habit itself. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not attack Howard’s sense of identity; instead, He helped Howard consider another perspective – that he is a spiritual, noble, human being, with a soul, and his true identity is not any category that society assigns, like “smoker”, “black”, “woman”, “liberal”, “academic”, “gay”, “banker”, “diabetic”, “depressed”, etc. In the end, all these categories are, at best, secondary aspects of a human being; and, at worst, distortions of true human identity. To detach from a habit or desire, one has to understand that this habit or desire is not one’s true nature. One’s true nature is that of the soul.
Once Howard’s guilt over smoking was lifted, his identity as a smoker was shown erroneous, and his true identity as a noble spiritual being was affirmed, he was able to place this minor habit in its proper place – as just that, something that provides momentary enjoyment to the lower self; of tangential significance. And then, quite naturally, as his higher nature assumed its rightful place, he no longer felt like smoking.