“ARE YOU HAPPY?” he asked.
‘Abdu’l-Bahá was known to spring this disarming question on unsuspecting Americans. They had agreed to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” when declaring their independence from rainy England. Happiness, it seemed, was an important instrument in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s repertoire.
On June 19, 1912, he tried it out again in New York. Mrs. Hinkle Smith came from a well-off family in Philadelphia. Her husband, William Hinkle Smith, was the director of a large copper mining outfit. When she first met ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, she had asked him to give her a Persian name. He called her Tábandih, which means “Light-Giver.”
But today she had a headache.
After suggesting a particular type of medicine, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá offered an additional remedy. “You must always be happy,” he said. “Happiness has a direct influence in preserving our health, while being upset causes illness.” Further, he noted, “You must associate with joyous and happy people.”
But ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s philosophy on happiness ran much deeper than platitudes and sentimentality. “The basis of eternal happiness,” he noted, “ is spirituality and divine virtue, which is not followed by sorrow.” Then he added: “physical happiness is subject to a thousand changes and vicissitudes.”
By the time ‘Abdu’l-Bahá arrived in America in 1912, his body had been worn down by a lifetime of oppression. “He is sixty-eight but looks ninety,” one reporter observed. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had been in a constant state of exile, imprisonment, and house arrest from the time he was eight years old. Yet, as much as he was known for his grace and fortitude during those years, he was also known for his positive outlook.
“Anybody can be happy in the state of comfort, ease, health, success, pleasure and joy,” he said in New York, “but if one will be happy and contented in the time of trouble, hardship and prevailing disease, it is the proof of nobility.”
On April 12, 1912, the Reverend Howard Colby Ives sat opposite ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, next to the bay window in his suite at the Hotel Ansonia in New York. They sat in silence a long while, then Ives broke down. Ives later commented: “He wiped the tears from my face; admonishing me not to cry, that one must always be happy.” Then came the disarming part. “He laughed,” Ives said, “such a ringing, boyish laugh. It was as though He had discovered the most delightful joke imaginable: a divine joke which only He could appreciate.”
Another American, Stanwood Cobb, wrote: “This philosophy of joy was the keynote of all of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s teaching.” But, Cobb added, “Those who were unhappy (and who of us are not at times!) would weep at this. And ‘Abdu’l-Bahá would smile as if to say, ‘Yes, weep on. Beyond the tears is sunshine.’”
Such was the divine philosophy of happiness of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá.