Do the Right Thing
Stormy days are upon us. These are volatile frightening times. We find ourselves in a global crisis that also hits close to home. Though the proverbial “the world is going to hell in a handbasket,” rings true, we can’t sidle over to the dark side or wring our hands. We have work to do, commitments to keep, conflicts to resolve, relationships to manage and grow, social expectations to satisfy, care, compassion and concern to give, and hope to herald. Each of these requires substance — of heart and mind. The call for innovation, flexibility and adaptation never ends.
So, we put our attention on this substance, its wisdom, its practices and its restraints. And on its call for responsibility, for obligation, for us to be leaders in our relationships, homes and communities. Because it’s obvious to all of us that overcoming today’s crises and achieving a quality, fully human, personally rewarding life depends on having the substance to do the right thing.
Yes, it is complicated. Complex. Never ending. But we can’t quit on it. Every day we must “ask” ourselves to rise to the occasion, to choose, to act, to give hope and meaning to the struggle and to solve the problems that occur in the process. This is how we make it matter that we lived at all.
It’s a fierce challenge because there is nothing inside of us perfectly capable of doing the right thing if we simply make up our minds to do so. Wisdom is hard to find. Harder to acquire. And hardest to stick to because it requires so much nerve and courage. Yet it is to extending the frontiers of our own self-possession that we must obligate ourselves.
It is difficult to get, I think, that doing the right thing is nothing more intrinsically true than a point of view about what’s important. Doing the right thing is not foundational to who we are, unless we make it so. Yes, it’s a potential, one of the choices made possible by human brainpower. But this excellent dimension must be given substance — breadth and depth, then watched closely and protected. This is because it competes with many other options that seem important from the point of view of the ego and the Scoreboard.
Back in the day when the seductions of the Scoreboard were not the only options ostentatiously displayed, it was also challenging to do the right thing — dark and selfish impulses are compelling! However, in those days, the reward of heaven was on the horizon. In hope of eternal salvation, history tells us, some people were able to transcend some of their less civilized, less decent drives.
In today’s secular world such a metaphysical horizon is considered by many to be more the stuff of poetry than of reason. As such, it’s not necessarily an omnipresent motivator of doing the right thing. This means that when we obligate ourselves to acquire and enact substance, it is likely to be a conscientious promissory consent made possible by an informed heart and the transcendent practices that give it life.
In today’s material world how we go about organizing and living our lives is, in many ways, up for grabs. Even what constitutes a moral, civil and rational identity, or the need for it, can be bitterly contested. Yes, we are educated to know about traditional imperatives regarding prudence or care, justice, fortitude or courage and moderation or self-discipline. But how they should play out is often a matter of special, sometimes polarizing, interests. Moreover, the self-possession needed to embrace and enact these imperatives is not routinely taught nor does it emerge naturally as a by-product of adulthood.
In addition, there is little obvious incentive and reinforcement for doing the right thing, though it may showcase our disgrace if we fail to do so. And of course, there is a difference between knowing what is right and actually doing the right thing.
But when we are committed to re-enchant our world, we take an originative look at the challenges and our options in the face of it. We want to create an irrepressible sense of life’s value and majesty, an affinity for the love and pursuit of substance, and a talent for acquiring its wisdom. Through these dedicated efforts we create a subjective and transcendent authority born of expansiveness, responsibility and creativity — each an authentic mark of manner and expression distinguishing our substance and our practice.
This commitment requires constant creative effort — effort to bring forth the substantive dimension of who we are in timely fashion as the moments of each day call for it.
It begins with:
- The intent not to demean others by word or deed, by attitude or intonation, by arrogance or by a willed ignorance.
- By knowing that the fate of each one of us is inextricably linked to the fate of all us.
- By recognizing that our words and civil behavior can inspire and expand not only our own possibilities but also those who depend on us.
This commitment also recognizes that words and uncivil behavior are the stuff of inquisitions, hatred and violence. It’s a responsibility and skill that each one of us needs to learn. This is our means to the next level of authority over ourselves and to the word and deed by which we communicate this substance when other forces are arguing for our attention.
Being committed to doing the right thing also demands that we be respectful, courteous, receptive and thoughtful. These are not submissive practices that reduce our ability to express ourselves. We employ them purposefully to temper the human capacity for cruelty and indifference so that we don’t regret the mean and small life we may have begotten ourselves, or inflicted on others by such merciless practices.
The call on us for integrity, leadership and toleration requires self-possession, as does the call for courage and creative resourcefulness. We live in an endlessly competitive and often harsh social environment. It takes energy and resolve to stand tall, to pull our weight, to hold ourselves responsible for our behavior and accountable for its consequences. (Interestingly, when we conduct ourselves well, we serve not only the social good but also our own self-interest.)
Subject to the responsibility for living an autonomous life, one of a kind and yet, as one of us, we find that “stormy weather” need not bring us to an impasse. As always, the demand is for innovation, adaptation, generosity, flexibility and accommodation, as well as for effectiveness and productivity.
To take up this challenge is to engage in endless days, endless processing, testing the frontiers of the possible. Charged with the timely command of ourselves over our immediate experience and over the manner in which we conduct ourselves, we invigorate life and inspire hope for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow.
I’ve been teaching classes on autonomy and life for over 30 years. This coursework offers a philosophic perspective, vocabulary and strategies for acquiring a life of our own design. As an American Philosopher, this work stands firmly on America’s promise of freedom, justice and equality and the opportunity for not just living our life but for owning our life. More information is available on my website: autonomyandlife.com.