Wednesday, August 27, 2014


"England expects every man will do his duty"
-Admiral Nelson

It is still a tradition in the military to view certain actions and behavior as one's duty.  In the rest of the western world, however, this has fallen out of common use and into strong disfavor.  Mention someone has a duty and they immediately rebel, crying freedom like at the end of Braveheart.
For an American, the word duty carries with it an awful burden of requirement, force, tyranny, and misery.  Jury duty is something "smart" people try to get out of.  Marital duty is mocked and attacked as oppression.  Civic duty is something only fascists believe in.
Duty is viewed as evil, as compulsion.  If you only do something out of duty, then you should stop, we're told.  Its no longer worth doing.  If your job has become only duty: show up to get paid, then its miserable and you need to find new work.  If you stay together only out of duty in a marriage, then its time to get to a lawyer and break it up.  You shouldn't ever do anything out of duty, that's like slavery, we're told.
But duty is one of the finest things in human existence.
All the great things are simple, and many can be expressed in a single word: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope.
-Winston Churchill
It might seem like I'm overstating things, but I'm not.  Duty is something higher that we're called to, not some horrific drudgery.  Yes, when you're a child having to do something seems horrible because you spend most of your life doing what you want, when you want, and how you want.  The few times when you're required to do something, its a horrible imposition on your self-serving existence.
But as we grow, we learn that life is about more than ourselves, that we are meant to be outward-facing, and are at our best when we focus on others, not ourselves.  Even the most secular, atheistic psychologist recognizes the benefits of looking outside yourself toward others when you're feeling miserable.
Duty is what compels us to keep doing things we don't care for, are distracted from, and tire of.  Duty is what keeps life going when we would rather not.  Its what makes the coward appear brave, the weak appear strong, and its what delivers the future to our children. 
One of the best signs of maturity is when someone does their duty when they do not want to.  Its why you go to work when you feel no motivation at all, its why you walk the dog on a rainy day when you'd rather be snuggling with your girl watching TV, its why you talk to your grandma on the phone when she's boring and repeats herself a lot.
This concept of duty as maturity is the central theme of To Kill A Mockingbird, when Scout is taught about courage by her father.  She sees him kill a rabid dog in the street and thinks he's the bravest man alive, but he sends her to spend time with a dying old lady to read to her and care for her all summer so she can learn what real courage is.  She faces what she does not wish to do, learning discipline, courage, and duty: to keep at something you must do and know you should do, even when you do not wish to.
Creative, artistic types have a particularly difficult time with this principle.  Duty seems horrible because its easy to fool ourselves that what makes us tick and gives us our creativity is impossible to harness, an ethereal muse that we cannot control and must wait for.  Its nonsense, a fiction we invented to justify our tendency toward sloth, irresponsibility, and selfishness.
Duty is the essence of manhood.
-George S. Patton
The problem is that duty is its own goal.  You don't get a pat on the head or an award for doing your duty, that's what you were supposed to do.  Its what you get punished for not doing.  And in a culture so self focused as our own, we think something is only worth doing if we get rewarded for doing so.
The concept that there are things we should do merely because we have a duty to do so, rather than what we get goodies for like a dog being trained is increasingly inconceivable to modern folks.  And yet that's how the world works; all of us doing what we should do, when we should do it.  Its everyone doing their duty, carrying out their jobs and responsibilities that results in a functioning society and gives us a world we can live in.
The more we require an "attaboy" for doing even the most basic, ordinary tasks, the worse the world becomes.  Stopping at a stop sign, paying for your meal, looking both ways at a cross walk, etc all are basic duties that we regularly fulfill in life but require no reward for.  Indeed, many carry punishment for not doing them - either by law or consequence.  Just showing up to work and feeding your children is duty that we do not for reward but because we should and must.
Should we ever reach a point where people consistently and regularly stopped doing their duty everywhere, society would utterly collapse.  And there are signs we're increasingly headed in that direction as more and more people presume basic things as their birthright; something they need not work to achieve, but should be handed simply by being alive.
I slept and dreamt that life was beauty; I woke and found that life was duty.
-Lord Byron
And a world where no one does their duty, only what they desire, is a world that is so corrupt and destructive we all end up like the hover chair jockeys in Wall-E: unable to do anything for ourselves, unable to survive.  A worthless, continual drain on the world around us.
The child in us desires that life.  The adult knows better.


JoelAT said...

Thank you for this Christopher. I needed to be reminded of this at this point in my life.

J Motes said...

An excellent post, Mr. Taylor. If I were still teaching school, I would give copies of this essay to every student in my classes.

Your thoughts about duty are so well explained that I hope you will write a series of posts that address each of Churchill's great things: freedom, justice, honor, duty, mercy, hope. (If you already have a series in progress, please provide links so we can find each entry.)

Thank you!