Duty and danger are words whose stark significance is nowadays obscured by misuse. Yes and no, however, are the only words in any language that are more exactly definite or which, if used with true intention, are the keys to more perplexing riddles. One of our many modern troubles, that should be one of the easiest to overcome, is that we use words much too vaguely and divorce them from their real meaning by admitting reservations and equivocations that lead off into endless byways of perplexity.
Duty is that which is due, and there is no escape from it, although the ways are limitless by which we may deceive ourselves, and others, with a temporary, false sensation of escape. But that is because we are all too prone to overlook the fact that all life is eternal, and that death provides no 'alibi' or refuge from the inexorable law, that as we sow, we reap. The Higher Law, that actually governs us, is neither limited nor qualified by time; its range is the eternal Now, and though each succeeding minute may provide new opportunities for progress, neither minutes nor aeons affect the Law, which is, and was, and forever will be the sole arbiter of individual and of collective destiny.
When a bill is due, we have to pay it; the alternatives are an appeal to the more or less elastic patience of the creditor, or bankruptcy. The first postpones the day of reckoning but is often costly in accruing interest; the other compels us to relinquish all our assets, and to begin again from the beginning, without credit and without the benefit of such momentum as a business-in-being normally provides. In either event, there is nothing gained beyond a breathing-spell; and the only sure way in which a bankrupt can regain his credit is by making use of opportunity to settle with his creditors to their satisfaction.
That is no more than a simple illustration of the occult law, that what is due eventually must be paid; with interest, if we delay the payment; with increased difficulty and without the assistance of reserved resources, if we delay too long, or if we are caught deliberately trying to evade a settlement.
A very common cause of bankruptcy is signing other people's notes: that is, guaranteeing that another individual shall pay his debts. That individual defaults -- and does so the more readily because his sense of responsibility has been weakened by what may have been intended by the guarantor simply as an act of friendship -- the guarantor is called on to fulfill his guarantee; he finds it impossible, fails, and the law takes its course. He then joins the host of hurt and disappointed good-intention-mongers, who chant the dirge the ages have all listened to (so often that the 'recording angel' must have more than plenty of that gramophonic bleat in store) -- "Never, no never again!"
But he will do it again. He will do it, in some form or other, the first moment that the risk looks profitable. Nothing less than wisdom, that has so grown from within that it has become identified with the individual, will save him from forever trying the impossible; and, in the end, he is better off should his attempts to avoid the law of individual responsibility meet disaster at the outset; because 'nothing succeeds like success' in convincing a man that his mistakes are wise, and the longer he seems able to avoid the law without distress to himself, the harder it will be for him to learn when the inevitable consequence begins to function, and the greater the distress will be. Failure in the early stages of an error is good fortune in disguise.
That is only an example on the most objective plane, where it is easiest to understand it. The Law, that as we sow we reap, is universal; it is everywhere, and it applies to everything and to everybody. It governs all the consequences of the most elusive and abstract thinking, as well as the effect of a blow struck in anger and the mixing of selected chemicals. Cause and effect are one, and they cannot be separated, although time, which is the mother of delusions, frequently persuades us that they can be.
Every individual is finally and unavoidably responsible for his own acts. Being causes, they set up consequences, that in turn become causes and bring endless chains of consequences in their wake; and for every one of those the originator must inevitably answer, at some time, in some place. It becomes easy to realize that the conditions we must meet in future lives depend entirely on performances in this life and the lives behind us, although no human brain can understand more than a fraction of the intricacies and adjustments of the Law of Karma.
A little thinking -- a little facing of the facts without seeking to force them to fit time-rooted prejudices -- brings to the surface the delightfully contenting knowledge that our problems are our own; that we have nobody to blame except ourselves, and no acts but our own to answer for, in the ultimate analysis. Hundreds of thousands -- millions -- of people have dimly realized that fact, and have sought to apply it; but, because they have only dimly realized one aspect of it, they have fallen headlong into selfishness, assuring themselves that the Law reads 'I come first.'
But whoever adopts that policy of selfishness will find himself degraded to a plane of consciousness on which, in self-defense, all others will be quite as selfish as himself; just as he who adopts a policy of unselfish usefulness will eventually find himself promoted to a plane on which his fellow-men will act unselfishly toward him. Nor are these far-away planes, to be reached in future incarnations or avoided by some superstitious supplications to an 'unknown God.' They are nearer than breathing; they are closer than hands and feet. They are here, immediately ready, and as easy to attain to, or to tumble down into, as a cold bath or the measles.
So a selfish policy is not the remedy for any process of unwisdom. Like creating like, and action bringing its exactly measured consequences to the doer, it is clear, when we have once been bold enough to face facts, that we cannot help anyone by trying to help him to do the impossible: that is to say, by trying to help him to succeed in error or to avoid the consequences to himself of his own unwisdom. In that respect we have enough to do to keep our own course straight amid the massed perplexities our own unwisdom has produced. If we associate ourselves with his unwisdom we become identified with it and, however self-righteously contenting the emotion that impels us, all that we succeed in doing is to add to the amount of trouble in the world, of which there is already quite enough without our interference.
Our business is to reduce the amount of trouble; and there is one royal way, but only one, in which that possibly may be accomplished. All other ways are vanity and a delusion.
A simple illustration will suggest the real process and convey a hint of its infallibility: suppose a fleet of ships to be sailing toward one destination. Some of them are keeping a correct course; others are diverging toward rocks and shoals, with which the course is limited on both sides. There is an adverse current, but each ship has sufficient power, and a little over, to force itself against the wind and tide; each is supplied with charts and is in charge of a navigator, whose duty is to bring his ship to port.
What would happen if the ships that are on the proper course should diverge from it in order to head the others in the right direction? Or if they should stop their engines and lose headway in order that their captains might argue the point with the other captains who were heading for the shoals? The probability of disaster, of course, would simply be increased, and nobody would be the gainer by it.
On the other hand, suppose that the captains who were on the proper course, and who knew they were, having taken all the seamanlike precautions, should call attention to the direction they were taking and should 'carry on,' they would be doing their full duty, by giving clear warning of the danger to the others, and by showing the course where safety lay.
Life is not so different from that, that we cannot profit by the illustration. There are, of course, and for instance, schoolmasters whose duty is to go long ways, and drastically now and then, in interference with the navigation of the frail barks with which the young begin life's journey; but even they find that example is the most efficient remedy for error, and that constant fault-finding not only deadens the beginner's alertness but deprives him of capacity for self-direction. They do not find it profitable to do a pupil's duty for him.
And there are extremes to which unselfishness may rightly go in rescuing those who have met disaster, provided that it truly is unselfishness and not self-righteousness, or a craving for self-advertisement, or the prospect of possible reward that gives the impulse. There are men and women whose very presence in the world uplifts it, so endowed by Nature with compassion for all suffering and all hopelessness that it becomes their duty to plunge into the stream of events and make other people's business theirs. Such was H. P. Blavatsky. But then that quality of true compassion that possessed her, had its natural corollary of wisdom, so that she could do the right thing, at the right time, in the right place. Wisdom provided foresight, and she knew full well what consequences her brave altruism would inevitably bring down on herself; and, aware in advance of the slander and the persecution that would be her lot, she took her course deliberately, gallantly, surrendering her own peace for a lifetime solely that the coming generations might be benefited.
Privileges such as hers were must be earned; and they cannot be earned by talking, or by meddling with other people's duty. No man knows how many lives were spent by H. P. Blavatsky in mastering the measureless experience that made her fit to undertake the work she did. And no man knows the tenth of what she suffered in one lifetime, which she might have lived at ease, in enjoyment of wealth and an unchallenged reputation. Neither is it possible for anyone to measure her reward, because those who are incapable of doing what she did are equally incapable of guessing at the heights she climbed by the unsparing use of all her spiritual gifts. Those who work for reward are not those who receive it, because its nature is beyond their comprehension; all the higher spheres of influence are kept for those who do not seek them, but who strive to serve in order that they may learn to serve more usefully.
Service does not consist in doing other people's duty for them, but in so well finishing one's own that there is nothing of it left to burden others; in such painstaking exercise of self-control that not a creature can be injured by our lapses; in such alert and patient progress on the narrow way that leads between ambition and neglect, that we may lead no fellow-pilgrim off the Path. For it is very much less harmful in the long run to ourselves, to bring disaster on ourselves, than to imperil others.
Danger is a grim word, fraught with meaning. The danger in another's duty is as grim and sure as that which we know we run if we neglect our own. The fact is, that we cannot do another's duty and our own as well, and the attempt to prove the contrary entails neglect and oversight, which are the source of half our difficulties and of most of our delay along the Path of Evolution. The desire to do another's duty very often is a masked form of intolerance or pride; as often, it conceals a mean scorn for another's weakness; sometimes, it is tyranny, grimacing in the cloak of kindness. It is never quite unselfish for at best it robs another of an opportunity.
The weird, illogical, and blind belief that one short life is all there is of us, is a delusion, under which in one form or another all the nations of the world succumb to hopelessness, or struggle onward in a false hope that some whim of an incomprehensible Destiny may show them a life better worth the living after death shall have imposed the final irony on this one.
Stultified by this delusion and obsessed by the impossible ambition to compress Eternity's whole panorama into one short earth-life, men grow mad, ascribing all their own discomfort to their fellow-men's iniquity. They seek to make themselves more comfortable by controlling and compelling others. They quote what have been said to be the words of Jesus -- "Do unto others as ye would that others should do unto you "; but they neglect to bear in mind that other equally profound and simple caution -- "Let your light so shine that they may see your good works." Duty, in this age and generation, has become a synonym for making other men do what we ignorantly think is theirs, in order that we may feel self-righteous, or may live more lazily, or possibly that we may get to heaven on the wings of other men's behavior.
It is impossible for anyone to understand another's duty, let alone to do it. Before we can qualify to sit in judgment of a fellow-man's neglect, or of his ignorance, or of his ill-will, we must first attain to the ability to see the whole of the procession of preceding lives that he has lived, and then so wisely weigh the interlacing causes and effects of myriads of years that not a single one escapes us.
A sneer at that statement is about the only recourse left to those who cling to the delusion named above that has brought the world to its present pass. But the sneer will not answer the charge that whoever sits in judgment on a fellow-man, or dares to try to do another's duty, or who makes claim to be better than his fellow, mocks himself and makes himself ridiculous; for either he asserts impossible ability to see the whole procession of past lives, and boasts of sufficient wisdom to review and weigh them all, or else he impudently claims to judge without the facts which hardly the most arbitrary God invented by the stupidest of men would think of doing!
Let him who knows exactly whence he came, and whither he is going, and can prove it, pass such judgments as he sees fit; let him do another's duty if he has the time. For the rest of us, who recognise this life as but an interlude between eternities, in which an endless chain of lives supplies us with the changing circumstance and the environment we need in which to work out our own spiritual progress, there is only just exactly time enough to attain our own self-mastery, and no time at all to spare for criticizing others.
To attempt to do another's duty is an act of criticism. It implies an assertion of omniscience. It is an arrogant and ignorant concession to the self-esteem that flatters us that we are better than our neighbor, and more wise. Carried to its ultimate, it leads to a confusion of responsibility. The seeds of war are sown when any nation starts to interfere with the duty or the privileges of another; none will gainsay that. But we are prone to overlook the fact that nations are but congeries of individuals, and that the same eternal Laws apply to all of us.
In one sense, and in only one, are we responsible for our neighbor's duty. He has his rights, and they are neither more nor less than ours. It follows that our duty toward him includes our giving him full room and opportunity to attend to his own affairs, while we attend to our own so thoroughly as not to interfere with him and not to leave neglected details for him to clean up after us.
There is an everyday expression which betrays the common attitude toward life and its problems and lays bare the roots of the ridiculous philosophy with which the greater part of what we call the civilized world today endeavors to console itself. "Life is too short for that!" We have all heard it. Most of us have used the phrase at one time or another. But the truth is, Life is too long for anything but strict attention to our duty and a generous permission to the other man to do his.
If all we had to live was one life -- three score years and ten -- there might be something in the theory that life is much too short for anything except enjoyment; and that if another does not do his duty, then we may do it for him in order to enjoy immediate comfort of mind or body. But even the Psalmist, who sang of three score years and ten, sang also that "a thousand years are but a moment." Life is so long -- so eternally, incalculably long -- that there is time for every act, however apparently insignificant, to reach its full fruition; and there is time for us to meet -- to be compelled to meet and be compelled to deal with -- all the consequences of the acts that we ourselves commit.
We see around us all the evidence of rebirth, ceaselessly progressing. There are sermons in the stones, and running brooks, and trees. The very nestling, newly hatched, knows whence to expect its food. The tree knows how to grow as soon as it bursts forth in darkness from the seed. Who taught it? Where did it learn the trick of thrusting upward to the light, and how does it know the light is there? Ourselves, possessed of habits that were never taught us since we came adventuring into this short span of years between a cradle and the grave, live, move, and have our being amid circumstances and conditions that we know intuitively how to deal with. Is it possible, or by any thinking mind conceivable, that we could conduct ourselves as men and women without accumulated stores of past experience on which to base our judgment of events as they arise? It is insanity to base our estimate of life and its recurrent problems on the proofless, blind assumption that we have but one short earth-life in which to make our whole experience.
What then is the danger in another's duty? This: that every injustice brings its retribution on the perpetrator. It is not just to deprive another of the opportunity to work out his experience. And it is unjust to ourselves to rob ourselves by interfering with another, thus misusing time and opportunity that might have been applied to our own problem. So to do another's duty entails two injustices, and we will have to meet the consequence of both, at some time or another, in this earth-life or another, and then we will have to devote both time and energy to the solution of a difficulty that would certainly have been avoided had we sooner learned the art and the necessity of minding our own business.
Minding our own business is the all-important principle of living. We are what we are -- a nuisance to our neighbors very often, and a danger and obstruction to ourselves. It is becoming what we can become that is our duty to our fellow-man; and by becoming better than we are, and better able, from constant practice, to mind our own business wisely, we can become of increasing benefit to ourselves, our neighbor, our nation, the world, and the universe. By trying to do others' duty, we can only go from bad to worse.
Duty is that which is due -- not that which we think, perhaps, may possibly be due before long. Duty, like ourselves, exists in the eternal Now. It is at hand, immediate, in front of us, invariably simple; and it sometimes takes the form of opportunity to learn a little self-control by refraining in thought or word or deed from interference with another.
It must be clear to the most immature human intelligence that no man can be helpful, or anything except a burden to his fellows, until he has acquired the art of orderly self-government. It follows, that our first duty at all times and in any set of circumstances is to control ourselves and so make sure that, whatever else, at all events we do not add to the inharmony around us. It sometimes happens then, although not nearly so often as our vanity would like to persuade us, that after we have exercised our utmost self-control, so giving wisdom opportunity to function, there is just a little surplus left that we may safely offer to the other fellow; but even so, the wisdom born of self-control, will oblige us to make the offer very diffidently. Wisdom will remind us that we are ignorant of many of the facts, and possibly of nearly all of them.
Briefly, our whole duty to our neighbor may be summed up in one sentence of four words: "Mind your own business." Business is that which ought to keep us busy, even if it does not. If it does not, then our duty is to find out why, and to remedy the failure by giving business more strict attention. That which ought to keep us busy is the instant and unceasing task of learning how to regulate and improve our own character, forever watchful of results as evidenced by deeds, and to the one end that we may become more useful by becoming more spiritual.
The only influence that we should dare to exercise is that which comes from spiritual progress. And that is automatic. It requires no exercise of brain, and no self-assertion to exert the uplifting beneficence of spirituality. In fact, on the contrary, self-assertion is a gross impediment that not only makes us stumble in our effort but assumes far greater proportions, in the eyes of the beholder, than those spiritual qualities that we propose to advertise. There is nothing more insulting to one's neighbor or more stultifying to oneself than conduct based on a self-flattering claim of spiritual superiority. The moment that we feel ourselves superior to others is the time, of all others, when we most need self-control -- and then self-criticism -- and then drastic self-direction, bearing well in mind that there are countless future lives in which to meet in full the consequences of the positive and negative commissions and omissions made in this one.
The conclusion of it all is this: that we are here to learn, not how to do our neighbor's duty, but to do our own -- not for our own advantage, but for that of others. The only real blessing we can offer to our fellow-men is self-improvement, to the end that we may not increase inharmony but may exercise an honest, pure, uplifting influence. The basis of all spiritual progress is in self-examination and self-watchfulness. The proof of it consists in deeds that do no injury, depriving no man of his right to equal room and unhampered liberty along the Path of Progress.