Nonexistent Lines

“We operate under the illusion that we are separate – individuals proudly defined by flesh and values and our differences from one another. And I think that’s how we got to this point.” Her words – her reaction to the collection of words I had shared with her the day before – suddenly injected new meaning into my own. What I had initially written as a direct expression of my physical surroundings at the time became, through her reframing, a larger commentary on the underlying essence of something at play in the turbulent social context in which we now find ourselves. It also reminded me of the beauty of art as something inherently relational, something that acquires endless variations of meaning in its capacity to be shared. Through this act of sharing, the creator in a way relinquishes ownership over the art and the meaning attached to it, whether or not intended, and therein creates the space for new dialogues to emerge not only between artist and audience but between artist and his or her own art.

I don’t write poetry. I am not a poet by any measure. But there are some experiences that feel only appropriate to express in an abstracted form. And as poets like Rilke have counseled to aspiring young writers, poetry should in fact be reserved for those things that you need to say, that you feel you would die if you were forbidden to say. If something “spread its roots into the very depth of your heart” and “commands you to write,” then you should write it. That is probably the best way to describe the sensation I felt when I had the privilege a few weeks ago to be standing in the most hauntingly beautiful landscape in Ireland. There was a point where I literally felt as though my own being was indistinguishable from my surroundings – a sense that I was seeing the reflection of my own soul in the things around me. The earth felt like a living being in every respect, one with a message that drew you in and made you listen with all of your faculties. It was a message I felt compelled to try to capture however feeble my attempt…

When I exhaled I felt the strong breeze let out its own breath
Melding with mine and carrying it across the soft copper horizon
Slanting the blades of green yellow purple red gold into a gentle curve
A suggestion of a question mark in their ever present slant.
The mist covers the horizon
Pleading with you to stop searching for edges and endings
Rendering everything into one endless expanse
Grass and boulders, heather and wildflowers, fern and moss, mountain and sky.
The sharpness of the individual parts fade into one soft blur of copper and grey strokes
Extending beyond the exterior
Denying you even those fleshy boundaries you take to be concrete
Blurring the lines between skin and air, the inhales of the earth from the exhale of your lungs.
The lines of the hills, the curve of the grass, the roughness of the stones
They define the contours of your soul.
The gurgling undercurrent of the streams that run beneath the ground
Invisible beneath the thick yellow cover but constantly carrying forth secrets
Working in unison with the wind
Leaving its trace in the tilt of the trees and the slant of the hills, the endless bow of the grass.
Concealing a desperate yearning to be heard
But reserving its utterance only for those who seek it
Letting out only whispers
Except
For those dark tangled roots that emerge between the soft brush
Unable to contain their desire to be seen
Jutting out sharpness, demanding your attention
Adding depth and contrast to the expanse of soft copper
But at their tips, nothing more
than pale pink buds.
The land is content in its solitude
But reverberates with a silent outcry all the same
The restless winds that call out for more,
The rough silence soothed by the echoing of birds’ songs
of origins untraceable
And by a conviction
In its own expansiveness
Not allowing high peaks or horizon lines to feign separation
That does not exist.

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While my poem (if it can be considered that) was more reactionary than intentional in its message, it is interesting to place it in the context of the confusion of emotion resonating throughout the world at the moment, as my friend had done in her interpretation after the elections. As I look at my own words now again with new eyes, I want to draw from them the essence of what I felt not only in the raw material of the physical earth but in the social material that surrounds me now: evidence of our interconnectedness with each other and the earth at the deepest of levels.

And, just as I felt in the Irish landscape, the interconnectedness I see evidenced by the cries of the global community now is not one of an abstract idealism but one of a concrete reality. It is a thing at once so brazenly visible and yet at the same time, persistently suppressed into a false obscurity. Paradoxically, many even use the evidence of its existence as proof of the contrary. For this interconnectedness is perhaps most visible in the pain itself — even in the seemingly conflicting forms of pain that manifest in clashes between those who perceive themselves as existing on opposite sides of socially constructed divides. Underneath it all, the responses by all sides speak to the reality of our oneness as human creatures with the same fears and concerns, irrationalities and inner contradictions. It is a truth that, when ignored, allows for ‘othering’ based upon these self-created distinctions. It allows us to forget the humanity in those we feel most different from.

The visceral quality of the collective emotional response – the fear, the pain, the hopelessness, the desperation, the anger, and for some, the elation or new hope – emotions not just felt within the U.S. but in every corner of the globe, particularly underscores the recognition of the deep and complex ties that define our current world order. They reveal a comprehension of the stakes at hand for everyone, whether positive or harmful; of the way the outcome of one country’s election implicates each individual in one way or another, whose ripple effect goes far beyond the sphere of politics and national borders.

The reality of this fact is both beautiful and terrifying: terrifying in the implications of just how much our own actions affect the lives of everyone else on this planet, but beautiful in the implication of how much our actions have the power to affect the lives of everyone else on this planet.

In drawing light to this positive aspect, even opportunity, granted by the current moment, I do not want to minimize the validity of the pain and fear felt by anyone. At the same time, I do want to shift the focus of the conversation. I want people to engage with their pain and fear in recognizing the roots of the same emotions felt by the ‘other side’. I do not want people to condone behavior or views that are objectively racist, bigoted, or full of hate, but I do want them to recognize the beauty and hideousness we are all capable of and the very different contexts and realities that shape the lens through which each person comes to see the world. I do not want people to resign themselves to tolerance for the sake of some kind of utilitarian existence amidst insurmountable differences, but to strive for empathy and its inevitable aftermath – love.

Ultimately, I hope that amidst the hatefulness and destructive divisiveness, people come to recognize the reality of the interconnectedness behind it, and to translate this comprehension into something fruitful. While the conversations all come back to the politics or words and actions of one political candidate, it is equally evident that so much of the fear and pain surrounding it is not merely linked to this one public figure but of what the support for him implies of the values of the society more broadly; of the potential normalizing effect his position might have on racist or violent attitudes. This is also in a way empowering because it points to the fact that our fears are directed at things in our power to change, regardless of who is in power. And, whilst obvious in one sense, I also think it is critical to remind ourselves that such feelings don’t emerge overnight. Sometimes, certain events help symptoms of much larger issues rise to the surface and force everyone to confront them head on. Much of the shock surrounding the prevalence of these attitudes as embodied by the election result may also be said to speak to the suppression of critical voices among us – the voices of those who were not at all surprised by the results, of those who have long been the targets of these aggressions, of the voices listened to but never really fully heard.

Hopefully now we will actually start to hear each other. And hopefully our politically-charged dialogues can give way to greater recognition of the reason we care about politics at all: to collectively create a community that we all want to live in. No doubt, the actions of one person in power can have very real and direct effects on the society at large; policies can change and the institutions they shape can render the achievement of equality that much more challenging. But in the end, the underlying cries for change and reform are at their core cries for reforms of the heart, for empathy and understanding. And I wish there was a way to express this that didn’t come across so idealistic and light-hearted, because I think it is something that we all too often cast aside as less weighty than real ‘political’ issues and that so many still struggle to envisage in the same concrete, practical terms, and so I am saying it anyways, as deceptively simplistic and reductive as it may sound. Because really, how can we possibly hope for a better future, for any different outcome than what we are seeing now, if we aren’t engaging with the emotions and spirits of the individual humans that shape the institutions that represent them? And how can we claim to embrace diversity as a progressive society if we don’t humble ourselves to the fact that maybe the so-called diversity we claim to embrace is still primarily confined to those who hold the same values and world-views as ourselves?

I myself am still grappling with the dimensions of my own initial reaction of shock, of what it implies of my own ignorance and of the voices I am yet to fully hear out. All I know is that the strong ties that hold us all together, while painful at times, are more visible now than ever.

“Let this American democracy become glorious in spiritual degrees even as it has aspired to material degrees, and render this just government victorious.  Confirm this revered nation to upraise the standard of the oneness of humanity, to promulgate the Most Great Peace, to become thereby most glorious and praiseworthy among all the nations of the world.” – prayer excerpt from the Bahá’í writings

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The Danger of Mourning Greatness

It feels too soon to be writing about the death of another inspiring human being just after my last blog post, but I have been meaning to write something about Nelson Mandela for some time now, and now seems as pertinent a time as ever. In a minimal attempt to gain some background of South African history when I first arrived here, I decided to read Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom (since any account of historical and political events will inevitably contain the bias of whoever wrote it, I figured who better than Mandela to influence my view of the country I would be spending my year in). This was probably one of the best decisions I’ve made while being here.

While his story of course provided a wonderful summary of some South African history and the events of the fight against apartheid, its greatest effect on me was deepening my admiration for man, and by extension his country, not for his iconic status as a historic figure and symbol of greatness, but for simply being a human being – a man with a family, a unique cultural background, and a life full of personal challenges, who quite literally sacrificed his entire life to the singular cause of freedom. As President Zuma announced after Mandela’s death,

“What made him great is precisely what made him human.”

This point cannot be emphasized enough. So much becomes lost in the depth of what makes someone great and the significance of their life when they become pushed into an unattainable status of greatness. In reading about Mandela’s life, I was struck most by the brief accounts about his family and his feelings towards his friends and fellow fighters in the battle against injustice.

No one, I think, has had the power to evoke such deep sentiments of sadness in me with so few and simple words. In every short description of what his family had to go through as a result of the choices he made (which, as he also so powerfully conveyed, were hardly choices at all, as living a life without freedom and seeing the bondage of his brothers and sisters was never an option he could accept): “When your life is the struggle, as mine was, there is little room left for family. That has always been my greatest regret, and the most painful aspect of the choice I made.” Or, I will never forget the passage about the passing of his friend Oliver Tambo and the effect it had on him: “I felt, as I told one colleague, like the loneliest man in the world…it was as if a part of myself had died.”

More than anything, these moments instilled in me a sense of sympathy towards his personal struggles that brought me to the important realization that I can relate – not in the sense that I have been through anything relatable in my life or that I have done anything of equal measure, but simply in the sense that I can relate to him as another human being with normal human being emotions, fears, and concerns.

This statement seems so obvious and ridiculous, I know, and yet I think it is still something that the large majority of people mourning for the late hero of justice fail to truly grasp. For when you realize you can relate to someone so great, you realize that you are in fact capable of equal greatness. As Mandela had said of his life, “I was not a messiah, but an ordinary man who had become a leader because of extraordinary circumstances.” He was of course an extraordinary man in his conviction and firm sense of purpose that guided his every thought and action, but not to the extent that he was singular in his greatness.

So much of his autobiography, for instance, is a testament to the greatness of all of the individuals who were integral to the struggle for freedom. He talks about the “unintended effect” of oppression, and that is that it produced so many men of extraordinary courage and generousity: the “Oliver Tambos, the Walter Sisulus, the Chief Luthulis, the Yusuf Dadoos, the Bram Fischers, the Roburt Sobukwes of our time,” and that “perhaps it requires such depth of oppression to create such heights of character.” In all of the narratives of the extraordinary lengths and sacrifices that so many “ordinary people” went through to achieve the tremendous progress in ending apartheid, it reminds us how much incredible power is latent in each person. The long walk to freedom was tread by thousands of people all united in one common purpose and vision of freedom. That these people did not become icons, saints, or historical figures in the public eye should not diminish the ultimate fact that greatness, and even the kind of greatness embodied by Mandela himself, is not something beyond the reach of every individual. This was a point that Mandela seemed to stress so much in his autobiography in reminding us of the “extraordinary circumstances” that made him into the iconic symbol we now remember him as.

It also shocked me to realize that I don’t actually agree with every single viewpoint and decision that Mandela had made throughout his life, one in particular being the emphasis on armed struggle as the only means of fighting an oppressor on the same terms. Mandela himself even acknowledged the foolishness of some of his original approaches in the struggle, attributing them to the passion of youth and to some extent, naivety. In the realization that profound admiration for a person and his qualities as a man does not equate to unparalleled agreement with his every life decision, you also come to better appreciate that person for his individual beliefs and the complexity of the decisions he often faced. (There’s a lot of good articles out there that highlight all of the misconceptions that people commonly have about his life as a result of his symbolic status, which basically enables people to shape the public memory of his life and beliefs by distancing him from his humanness.)

With all this said about how important it is that we not remember Mandela as an abstract symbol of justice and greatness in a way that inevitably lessens our own potential for greatness, I still struggle to fully comprehend my own feelings now in mourning the death of Madiba. As a heavy air of sadness filled the office today at work, a common sentiment I sensed from those around me (as well as in many Facebook statuses the night before) was that the source of such sorrow for most was that they were mourning the loss of a great leader, whose greatness no one else can ever attain and the likes of which we will not see again. In a way, it was an underlying sense of fear and sadness that such an important agent of change, the kind of leader that is still needed in this world, is no longer with us.

This is all simply to say, I hope that in our mourning for this inspiring individual, we are not mourning for the loss of potential for future greatness in the world, but rather drawing inspiration and hope from the life of someone who reminds us what true sacrifice and love for our fellow human beings looks like. And in our mourning, I hope that we also all become closer to each other in our common respect for someone who fought for freedom …As I stood besides my colleagues at work today in our small auditorium, candles in hand as we sung the South African anthem in memory of the beloved Madiba, whose words “united we stand, divided we fall” captured the essence of the struggle, the sense of unity that filled the dark room was truly moving: black, white, and every shade in between, South African, international, some who had lived much of their lives in a divided South Africa, some too young to have seen the worst of it, all standing together in solidarity to honor the memory of one person who helped make our standing there together possible. At least in that moment, I took comfort and hope from the oneness around me, and felt confirmed of the kind of greatness and further potential for building a free and unified world ahead of us.

Youth Can Move the World (but like, actually)

Two weeks ago I spent three inspiring, exhausting, chilly Spring days in dust-filled tents cozily squeezed in beside  over 1,000 other youth between the ages of 15 and 30 who came from all over parts of South Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, and Seychelles for no other purpose than to discuss how to make the world a better place. Daunted by how to even describe the full power of such an event in a blog post afterwards (and further postponed by getting sick after the conference and having little desire to do anything but sit in my bed and watch Friends for a week), I’ve finally decided to at least attempt to convey a tiny glimpse into the amazingness that was the Johannesburg Baha’i Youth Conference. To keep it simple, I’ve decided to present the reasons for its amazingness in list form:

Reason #1: Unity

This one is probably the single most incredible underlying factor in everything we did at the conference, including the existence of the conference itself. As I think I mentioned in my previous post, this conference was one of 114 youth conferences that have happened/are happening all over the word all for the same exact purpose of figuring out how as youth we can best render service to mankind and learn how to better support each other in our community-building activities. It was a historic event in many ways, as it is the first time the Universal House of Justice, the governing body of the Baha’is that provides guidance to Baha’i communities globally, has called for such conferences to take place around the world specifically focusing on youth. Likewise, the immensely positive response to the Universal House of Justice, in which tens of thousands of youth, Baha’i and otherwise, have gathered together in their respective parts of the globe reveals the vast scope of the occasion. From big, well-known cities like Chicago and Paris to far-off, less well-known ones like Port Moresby,Papua New Guinea and Antananarivo, Madagascar, it is incredible to fathom that the youth in every single one of these places came together as a result of the same set of guidance from the Universal House of Justice in Israel, inspired by one common vision of service to humanity, all to discuss similar themes and help each other in going on to transform their words into actions. Sitting among the diverse group of youth at the Johannesburg conference, I couldn’t help but feel inspired not only by the energetic group of people around me, but also by the ever-present thought in the back of my mind of the even wider family of youth I knew were joining us in every other corner of the globe.

Reason #2: Diversity

obligatory spontaneous jam sesh

the [stereotypical but necessary] spontaneous jam sesh

I know I just kind of implied this one with the unity stuff, but I don’t just mean diversity in a geographical or cultural sense (although, making new friends from Saudi Arabia, Australia, Italy, South Africa, and Swaziland all in one weekend was pretty awesome), but also in terms of people’s lifestyles and even economic background.  People always talk about the evident segregation that often exists between racial groups whether in the U.S. or here in South Africa, but I feel like an equally common form of segregation that is less often discussed are those based on different economic circumstances. Especially in Joburg, where crime is a huge issue and the most dangerous areas also tend to be the least economically well-off ones, the divide becomes even deeper when people remain confined to their nice, gated communities. The thing I liked about the conference was that some youth had a lot of money, some had barely any, and none of this seemed to matter in any way. It was just another opportunity to learn from people’s experiences and gain a better awareness of the different kinds of struggles people have had to face in their lives.

Reason #3: Hope

This is a big one. I don’t know about you, but I can’t even describe the number of times I’ve had people say to me, “Why bother trying to make the world a better place. No matter how much you try to fix things, in the end, people just suck and nothing will really change. There will always be war. There will always be hatred. You can never have world peace and a unified world. All you can do is make the most of your own life and do what’s best for you.” (okay, this is a compilation of what people have said. No one has said all of this at once, but you get the point.) Not to mention the interesting reaction I often encounter when describing the Baha’i Faith to people and its central purpose of unifying mankind: “Is it a hippy religion?” ….What is it about the prospect of a unified world in the future that is so unimaginable to people? Okay, I mean I guess looking at the current state of things, I could understand people’s pessimism, but I think if people actually took a second to look at the seeds of unity and change that have taken root all over the world, and particularly in the mindsets and actions of today’s youth, it would be impossible to ignore the vast potential there. That is why an event like this conference is so important. I wish that every single person with an ounce of pessimism in their hearts and vision of doubt about the good in the world in their minds could have witnessed this incredible gathering of youth. I wish they could have seen all of the high-school aged youth, even the ones in their beanies and skinny jeans and ‘yeah, I’m cool cuz I rap and wear sunglasses at night’-facades (I particularly enjoyed the rapper kid who came up to me to complement me on my American accent and inquire into how he can get one), voluntarily spending their weekend studying passages about service and making plans to teach children and start groups for younger youth in their communities. These same youth, who much of our society still glances at and brushes off as materialistic, apathetic, and self-centered beings, are capable of initiating so much change in the world when simply given a bit of direction and encouragement.

And I wish everyone could have witnessed those beautiful moments in the tents when, filled to capacity with youth of all ages and colors, they would fill with the sound of a thousand voices in any number of accents proclaiming their joy for life through a Zulu or Portuguese or English song about the oneness of mankind against the backdrop of pounding drums and clapping hands, accompanied by swaying hips and a contagious energy that manifested itself in vibrant dancing.  If anyone with doubts about the possibility of a future global civilization characterized by love and unity felt the spirit in those tents at such moments and gazed upon the sea of youthful faces  expressing such joy, I guarantee, at least for that moment, that their doubts would be dispelled. And, in their place, a new sentiment would take hold – one powerful enough to inspire them to think beyond their own limitations and feel compelled to join in the efforts towards the creation of such a world civilization: hope.

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Reason #4: The Power of Youth

And of course, as a final amazingness reason, I cannot fail to mention the one that was kind of the central theme of the entire conference: youth. So many people talk about how important “the youth” are and how they are “our future” and how it is so important to educate them and guide them on the right path and all that other good stuff, which is all completely good and true, but how often does society actually look to the youth themselves for guidance? (and I apologize for my use of the word ‘society’ btw…I realize it’s an awful vague and cliché term that doesn’t really mean anything in itself but I can’t think of a better one at the moment). Like really, think of all the obnoxious jokes that go around about the “millennials” for instance and how lazy and privileged they are. I know that most people don’t actually subscribe to such ridiculous generalizations that attempt to characterize and pass judgement on an entire generation of people, but nonetheless, such stereotypes about today’s youth still seem to influence a lot of the way we’re treated (in school, in the workplace, in general). One thing that is so inspiring to me as a Baha’i is the absolutely vital and central role that youth play in the progress of the Faith, and really, in the progress of mankind. One of the central figures of the Baha’i Faith, the Báb (who foretold the coming of the founder, Baha’u’llah) was in fact only twenty five when He delivered his message to the world. Countless other youth became some of the first Baha’is and even sacrificed their lives alongside the Báb all to spread His teachings. They were the ones who enabled the Baha’i Faith to become the amazing and ever-growing world religion that it is today, and it is their example of courage and certitude and sacrifice that lends inspiration to the role of youth in the Faith today.

a game that symbolized something about mutual support

a game that symbolized something about mutual support

A lot of the conference was spent talking about the fact that as youth, we have a special capacity to serve that we may not have at other points in life: we’re at a period where we aren’t necessarily tied down by family or work obligations and don’t have a specific path ahead of us, which in many ways gives us a lot of freedom to devote our thoughts and time towards serving mankind. Another point of discussion, though, was the caution we must take in not having a fragmented approach to life in which we create false choices between things like serving and studying or serving and working — rather, by viewing everything we do in life as an opportunity to provide service to someone, all of our actions naturally become part of our overall efforts towards building a better world. We also have great potential to influence younger youth simply by nature of being older youth. As such, it is imperative that we take hold of this opportunity to work with junior youth and children in our communities to prepare them for lives of service and assist them in their moral and spiritual development.

So, not to go on and on about everything we discussed at the conference, but basically, youth are powerful. Not just powerful in the sense that we can do good things in the world, but powerful in the sense that we are absolutely vital to its transformation. In a sense, it is absolutely terrifying how much power we have — for it implies a huge responsibility and sense of urgency to take action and make the most of this fleeting period of our lives. But, bearing in mind the collective action and unified vision that such a task requires, and realizing the mutual support that comes from the global community of youth working towards the same goals, it is mostly just inspiring.

Warm Fuzzy Feelings

So, many people have said to me, “Johannesburg is an amazing city. You’ll love it here.” And each time I ask them, “What is it that you like about this place?” Of course, I’ve been discovering this city little by little on my own terms and learning how best to love it through my own point of view, but there is also a lot of value in seeing a place through others’ eyes – through the people who have lived in it 3 months, 1 year, 10 years, or a whole lifetime more than you. Through these conversations, the responses that have struck me the most have been those related to the diversity of people here. Yes, it is a diversity that comes with a fair share of segregation and in some cases even racism, but nonetheless, one that seems to give its own unique vibrancy and color to the city. It has also become probably my single favorite thing here over the past few weeks.

It’s strange because, thinking back to my life in the U.S., I was never really lacking in diversity – from my own multi-cultural family to my friends groups reflecting Indian, Chinese, Korean, Jewish, African-American, Persian, and Hispanic backgrounds to my Baha’i communities with people from all over the world to simply living near a city like Chicago made up of neighborhoods that still reflect the cultural makeup of the immigrant communities that settled there years ago. But somehow, being in South Africa, I constantly find myself in awe at the diversity of people I am surrounded by each day. And, maybe it is the communication studies major in me, but something about hearing the mix of different languages and accents in particular resonates on an even deeper level, hitting me with unexpected feelings happiness. More than simply seeing the evident diversity of the people around me, the sound of the different accents coming together in one place is almost like listening to some kind of harmonious melody containing in it the essence of the beauty of mankind.

As music holds a potency to influence the soul and speak to all people in a way that words alone cannot, I can’t help but compare the intermingling of sounds that reflect the cultural background of each person to something as powerful as music. Accents just seem so beautiful to me in that they carry with them an always-present reminder of people’s cultures or places of origin. While molding one common medium of communication (in this case English) into different forms, they still allow the same message to come through — just seems like a good symbol for the oneness of humanity…how our differences are what add beauty and interest to our interactions and yet don’t prevent us from communicating and relating to each other.

At the same time, I am quite aware that the diversity I get to experience in my workplace – from the French speakers in the office across from me, to the lovely Irish (but sounds more like British) accent and sometimes even a “jolly good ol’ chap” from my one boss and the Italian accent of my half-Egyptian other boss to the always interesting South African accent of my sassy colleague in the cubicle next to me to the Japanese accent of the colleague diagonal from me – is a pretty exaggerated picture of the diversity of the city. Obviously, working in a UN office for an international aid organization comes with its fair share of expats and well-traveled, unique individuals. But still, even reflecting on who I’ve spent my weekends with – from Ethiopian dinner parties and trips to downtown areas where entire streets are full of Ethiopian-owned businesses (and several who gave me discounts just for being Ethiopian…despite my lack of Amharic-speaking skills or the fact that I don’t even look African) to native Joburg people my age (and my one friend who revealed to me that she refuses to speak the South African language she grew up with, Afrikaans, because it is a symbol of colonialism….something I found extremely interesting and a telling example of the power of language as more than simply a means of communication. especially after having read Mandela’s autobiography and all the times he mentioned how his white jailers would only speak Afrikaans and even refer to English as evidence of one’s inferiority) to Persians and Indians another weekend to Zimbabweans and Ghanaians the next. It’s hard not to feel some sense of joy from just simply having the opportunity to meet so many people from so many places in such a short period of time.

And, with all my talk of the oneness of humanity and the beauty of diversity, I realize this post has become rather cliché and cheesy, but sometimes you just have to step back and acknowledge all the warm fuzzy feelings from the good things around you. I could also talk about how it seems like with each new group of people I meet, we all at some point go around and exchange mugging or police corruption stories from our time in Joburg, in a manner always so casual and nonchalant as if a common icebreaker topic. Or about the rather unsettling realizations of how dramatically the racial demographics change depending on the wealth of the neighborhood you’re in. But, every city has its problems, and these still do not overshadow the beauty of the diversity here in my eyes.

All my oneness-of-humanity talk might also be attributed to the upcoming Baha’i youth conference this weekend and the pre-conference meeting I attended this past weekend. For those who don’t know, the Baha’i Faith is a world religion whose central aim is prettymuch to unify mankind and which teaches that all religions come from the same God. (I realize this is an extremely short summary of a religion but in the interest of not making this post a novel, you can also see the basics here: http://www.bahai.org/ or ask me more about it…plus I’m sure I’ll talk about it more in my next post). The upcoming youth conference is nothing short of incredible. One of 114 conferences happening all over the world (literally. all over the world….there was even one in Antananarivo! 😀 ) around this time, the point of the conferences is essentially to mobilize the Baha’i youth and initiate change by having youth (Baha’i or otherwise) plan more ways to serve the communities where they live. As such, all Baha’i youth were asked by the Universal House of Justice (the elected governing body of the Baha’is which is in Haifa, Israel) to only attend the conference where they live…and, seeing as I now will be living in Joburg for another 11 months, I decided not to go to the Chicago conference in August and will instead be going to this one.

And I cannot even express how excited I am. There is nothing I love more than being surrounded by a bunch of people my age with a similar life purpose and vision of the world. Not as in people of the same religion or people who think the same way, but just people who care about the world, love everyone, and want to make a difference. It is that common goal and purpose in life that leads to instant bonds between strangers and ties of friendship that go far deeper than liking the same kind of music. It was the same thing I felt at the 3-day orientation with the other fellows from my program – that instant connection with so many people I’d just met due to a common love for learning about other cultures and wanting to do something good in the world. This conference will be all the more special because I not only will get to meet hundreds of Baha’i youth from all over South Africa, Mozambique, and Swaziland, but will also have in the back of my mind the whole time the knowledge that the same meetings are happening in every part of the globe, with thousands of other youth coming together with one common vision of serving mankind. It is the embodiment of unity in every sense — one that truly extends across the whole world.