If we owe society anything, it is to become the greatest possible version of ourselves, or to get out of the way for those who shall. Whatever our interactions with society, whether we’re for or against various social issues, whether we choose to obey laws we disagree with or to oppose them, we have paid our societal debt as long as we are as well informed as we possibly can be. We ought strive to do nothing in ignorance. Neither action nor abstinence must be incorrect if well considered. But abstinence bred from cowardice, or action from rashness, these are the great sins of man against society.
Henry Miller wrote that “Every day we slaughter our finest impulses, that is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers.” What dreamer among us has not suffered those equal parts of envy and regret when we see someone doing something we truly admire? And have we not likewise all said, “I could have done that”? Those factors that prevent us— fear, circumstance, sense of obligation— are misguided, and likewise prevent us from fulfilling the role society longs for us to fill. A society can reach its zenith only when that society’s members first make the steep climb themselves, and then pull the society up after them. There is little hope for any significant otherwise. Injustice will remain injustice until the oppressed are provoked, and what is more provocative than potential reached and beauty realized? The very book in which that Henry Miller quote resides was outlawed in this country until 1964, when a changing tide of public opinion set the stage for the book’s publisher to successfully argue before our nation’s Supreme Court that literature is not obscene.
In an Athens jail awaiting death for a crime he was innocent of, Socrates refused to escape when the chance arose because he felt that the choosing to be a part of a society was a tacit agreement to abide that society’s laws and customs. I could not agree less with Socrates’ reasoning, and yet I take no umbrage with his choice, because he owned the choice. His choice to stay and die an innocent man, rather than to escape and be guilty of that which he had been accused and convicted (a last bit of Socratic subterfuge), is monumentally admirable. Likewise, in “Civil Disobedience,” after lamenting, “Can there not be a government in which majorities do not virtually decide right and wrong but conscience?” Thoreau proclaims, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right.” Whether you take this statement as maxim or not, Thoreau’s history has earned him the gravitas of not just stating, but of being heard. The weight with which a man speaks is amassed by lactic acid and a steadfast heart, by gusto and calloused hands.
E.E. Cummings examined this theme in his poem, “A Poet’s Advice to Students,” when he writes “To be nobody-but-yourself— in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else— means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.” This idea— that by understanding our identity, by strapping and struggling to keep it intact against the onslaught of distractions and easy-way-outs we are faced with every day, we somehow develop an authoritative voice that others are moved to listen to— this is our debt to society.
If we choose not to engage the structure of our society, and are content to distance ourselves from the seeking of wisdom and purpose, we have not fulfilled our obligation to society. But we do not damage society in this regard, only ourselves. Others will arise if we will not, it is the inevitability of the human spirit. Some men seem born for no other reason than to stand where they are, sturdy-legged, as those all around them are hewn down, and to persevere, as if to say, “By will alone I shall prevail.” It is he who does everything he can to move mountains whom the mountains will move for.
The Japanese have a proverb, mono no aware, which literally translates to “the pathos of things,” but which is much more eloquently stated as the understanding that “awareness of the transience of all things heightens appreciation of their beauty, and evokes a gentle sadness at their passing.” This concept, eminently relatable, is how we ought view ourselves and our society: with awe, joy, and melancholy. With these beautiful bodies and minds, we have the opportunity to build up our character however large we can. Even our limitations are wonderful, if only because their ambiguity often allows us to reach past what we assumed was the edge of our grasp.
“Would that you could know yourself for a time,” mused Rumi. “Know thyself,” the Greeks carved into the Temple of Delphi. It is a great burden saddled men, this responsibility to society, this debt of steadfastness owed to a personality that is constantly being discovered. But be steadfast we must, for humanity demands a response from us, an acknowledgment that deep down we are who we purport to be, that we’ve turned the ethical questions over in our minds, that the stands we choose to take— or walk away from— are deliberate.