A Clear Path

I slept and dreamt that life was joy.
I awoke and saw that life was duty.
I acted and behold duty was joy.
- Rabindranath Tagore

“Of course you know how to roller-skate. And you are graceful at it. But consider the consequences of a fall.” With these words, my wife refocused my attention on the big picture. And the view was so clear, I have not been on roller-skates in three years, and probably will not skate again.

The simple fact is that it would be irresponsible for me to expose myself to that kind of risk. I have a wife, six children, fourteen grandchildren, employees and clients who depend on me for one thing or another. If I were injured, their lives would suffer. So with some regret, but a strong sense of doing the right thing, I gave away my skates.

In the three years since I made that decision, I’ve been amazed at how many well-meaning and otherwise-responsible friends have tried to talk me into going skating. “Everything, even staying in bed, is risky,” said one. “Take the chance! Besides, nobody’s indispensable.” Another said, “I thought you had faith in God! Do you mean you don’t trust Him to take care of you on skates?”

What’s really at issue is duty—no longer a well-understood concept in America. “Duty” consists of the undifferentiated requirements of a position. I have a duty as a father, another as a grandfather, another as a son, another as a consultant to my clients, another as an employer—you get the idea. I believe duty should be our main directive in every situation. If you believe, as I do, that God speaks in everyone’s heart all the time, I think you will find that His voice rarely contradicts duty. And while I trust Him completely, I do not trust Him to take care of me if I go against my duty without a revelation to the contrary.

The duty of the engineer is often explicit, as in the case of professional engineers. But it is also comprehended more broadly. Members of the Society of the Engineer wear an iron pinky-ring, the first exemplars of which were ostensibly made from the ruins of a collapsed bridge in eastern Canada. This is to remind engineers of their duty to the safety of the public.

Sadly, duty is at odds with the main religion in America today: The Church of Instant Self-Gratification. The media pound home the message all day and all night: Don’t think—just do it! You need it now! You deserve it! You have a right to it!

Interestingly, however, the path of duty is usually the path of greatest personal fulfillment. When we discern and do those things that we should, we have a satisfaction that cannot be obtained in any other way. And we also find the Universe rising up to sustain and protect us in previously-unimaginable ways.

If jobs and workflow and organizations were designed in keeping with duty—the duty of the employee to the employer, the duty of the designer to the ultimate user of a product, the duty of an employer to the employee, and so on—there would be no need for the management fad du jour. Instead, many of us must daily face situations in which there is no clear path of duty, or where there seem to be conflicting duties. We need a way to resolve such difficulties.

How are we to resolve apparently conflicting duties? We must have a clear hierarchy, or we will always be running into trouble and frustration. Here’s mine: God, me, wife, kids, work/clients, other relatives, friends, neighbors, rest of world. You may think it unspiritual, or even selfish, to have myself second. Yet if I do not take care of myself, I will let down my wife, kids, clients, and everyone else.

My duty hierarchy gives me guidance in confronting apparently conflicting demands. But it doesn’t necessarily make it easy. Say a client needs me on a weekend that I have scheduled to spend with my kids (all of whom are grown). My duty hierarchy indicates I must turn the client down. But what if the client’s need is critical, and I just saw all the kids last weekend? I call the kids and explain, and make an exception.

The temptation is to see every situation as an exception, and to allow duty to be abrogated. That destroys the concept entirely. Better to err on the side of duty.

Duty is comforting. Knowing what you’re supposed to do in most situations is a great relief, especially when there is no one to tell you what to do.

As a Baby Boomer, I was raised to hold rebellion and revolution in high regard. This left me morally adrift, with no anchor. Duty, with God as its source, has transformed me. Try it—for at least three months. You will like it.