Some years ago Stephen Stills wrote a hit song with the lyric, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”
At the time, this struck me as incredibly shallow and self-serving. Almost the antithesis of what I thought a “spiritual” approach should be. But over time, I’ve come to see a deep inner meaning to this idea.
It came about owing to my difficulty in understanding Baba’s exhortation to serve Him in others. Well, perhaps understanding isn’t the right word. I could understand this as a theoretical construct, in much the same way that I could understand Jesus saying that to give food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, shelter to the homeless, and care for the sick was to do so for Him. I just could never get any satisfaction out of attempting to do it. It seemed like a nice metaphor to make service more palatable but it didn’t make me feel Jesus’ presence in the downtrodden. Similarly, although I believe that Baba is the innermost core of everyone, I had trouble experiencing this. Too often, in trying to serve Him in others, I was much more aware of the others than I was of Him. I guess I was looking for a more immediate sense of not only serving Baba but feeling His love in return.
But I did feel something of Baba’s love around the mandali. The love they expressed towards those who came to visit them awakened many feelings in me, not all of them noble. It made me jealous to receive more, made me want to call attention to myself, to show off, to make the mandali adore me, but it also made me, at times, want to be able to reciprocate in some way.
The difficulty for me, being unused to and untutored in the nature of love, was that I didn’t know how to do this. I was used to expressing love through some physical gesture–a gift, a helping hand, a favor bestowed. But there was little the mandali seemed to need that I could provide. I would daydream about one of them coming, not just to the States, but more specifically, to my home, where I would be able to show them the hospitality I could not show them in India.
I knew, on some level, that the only thing I really could do to please the mandali was to love Baba more completely, but this seemed beyond my reach. And it was too amorphous; I wanted the immediate concrete experience of directly doing something for the mandali. (And possibly I wanted the mandali to know that I was doing something so they could appreciate it. If I tried to become a “better” Baba lover, how would I know if I were succeeding or, perhaps more to the point, how would they know?)
I could try to serve Baba in others but I’ve already explained my difficulty with that approach. But then, one day while thinking about one of the mandali, I had the opportunity to do a “good deed” for a stranger and it suddenly occurred to me to pretend that this person was the mandali member I had been thinking about. When I did this, I found to my surprise, that I received the pleasure I would have experienced had I actually been serving the mandali directly.
This unexpected occurrence was a minor revelation for me. It enabled me to see that Baba’s exhortation to serve Him in others is not a moral precept but a practical guideline to experience an interplay of love which, otherwise, might remain out of reach. The trick of it, at least for me, is not to serve others with the idea that this service will somehow reach Baba, or to try to serve Baba “in others,” but to accept another as a substitute for Baba–a kind of personal Eucharist. Or to put it in more easily grasped terms, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.”