To many work is not a gratifying opportunity to do good, but a necessary evil they would gladly forgo if they won or inherited a fortune. It is just a livelihood, a vital drudgery. Its meaning is the paycheck and the value it has in terms of service to their community is indifferent or very subordinate.
Their calculating and uncaring attitude is recognizable. Whereas people who heartily act in the interest of others are gracious, they are perfunctory. At best, in establishments that demand courtesy from employees, their behavior is irreproachable, albeit artificial. “Can I be of assistance? Here you are. Will there be anything else? You’re welcome” – no genuine attempt at pleasing, just a vapid exercise in politeness and efficiency that follows a procedure and arouses a feeling of satisfied indifference as would a serving of plain noodles. They do the minimum that is required of them, to maintain their employment, and gladly do nothing provided they get paid all the same. They never miss a break. Come the end of their working day, they rush out before the first second of the next hour has passed. They live for their time off and dream of a permanent vacation, as though leisure were the essence of happiness.
What about the dignity of making oneself useful, which is the antipode of this levity? What about love – I mean the desire to live usefully in the service of others? This desire builds on gratefulness, with a view to worthiness. I start from the assumption that love is a characteristic of people who appreciate living in society, thanks to a combination of positive attitude and relatively favorable social environment. To sum up, the more they love life, in company with others who take part in their life, the more they love others.
Now, feeling this love is one thing, acting upon it is quite another, which needs courage. Actually, a lack of courage would not only render this love inactive but also tend to destroy it in order to avoid shame. The mind is a double-edged thinking tool that can cut its way in and out of truth by means of veracious statements or specious arguments. Love may be denied despite every reason for loving. Therefore, courage is a rich trait of character without which love is unable to flourish, neither as an emotion nor as an action. Of course, where laziness and cowardliness have rotted or stunted love, dignity – which stems from the act of loving – is but a potential bloom. May courage be cultivated! I hate to think that the soul has such a capacity for beauty and yet can remain undeveloped, morally retarded, as ugly as a shriveled growth that an earnest gardener could have transformed into a heavenly rose.
On reflection, courage should be valued above all other virtues, since it constitutes the necessary condition for developing them. It is not a sufficient condition, however. It is capable of nothing by itself while everything depends on it. Courage is the force that can raise life to joy and joy to love and love to dignity, insofar as the human nature aspires to these difficult heights, though it is always tempted to go for the easy and low option. This nature is indeed dual. People are forever torn between their lofty aspirations and their base temptations. Their choice to honor these aspirations or surrender to these temptations determines their moral status, admirable or pitiable.
Admittedly, the more you are afflicted with misery, the harder it is for you to lead a courageous and honorable existence. It is not surprising that children who grow up in miserable circumstances sometimes display miserable attitudes and behaviors once they are adults: low self-esteem and under-achievement, resentment and aggressiveness, alcoholism and drug addiction, vagrancy and crime, among others. These attitudes and behaviors deplorably impact the other members of society who are worried, troubled, harmed, or perverted by them. The problem is clearly cancerous. I hope that the future will bring effective social measures to better assist these children in their pursuit of happiness and worthiness. Benefactions, family allowances, subsidized housing, free health care and school education, together with scholarships, are present solutions that rely on private charities or government policies and call for improvements through greater creativity and generosity.
Bearing in mind the deplorable impact that the children of misery can have on society, as they sometimes grow into failures, misfits, or outlaws, I feel compelled to underscore the utilitarianism behind this generosity. Just as these children arouse compassion, they are a cause for anxiety in everyone who is aware of this possible impact. Their welfare is actively sought, both for their sake and that of society at large whose interests are at stake. Likewise, employers who care about their employees, while caring about their business, always offer them the best possible working conditions. These employees are joyful and grateful as a rule, which ensures a superior efficiency and loyalty on their part. Good spirit is good profit.
Some dream of equal opportunities for everyone. Will this dream someday become a reality? Everywhere in the world, it meets with inequality – between those who are born lucky and those who are not, relatively speaking. Is it a lost cause? I believe so, though I am a firm believer in progress. Even a welfare state with the most extensive social assistance could only reduce this inequality, not eliminate it.
What if it resorted to communism to reduce this inequality further? History suggests that a communist regime would prove ruinous, economically and psychologically, in the long run. The equal sharing of resources between people, imposed on them by a centralized government regardless of their respective contributions to the common good, is an untenable and unviable totalitarian approach. In a word, it is an absurdity. Democratic societies, on the other hand, leave much to be desired, but are certainly the most satisfactory to date. They are based on freedom, talent, chance, and merit, while including a safety net for those who have fallen off the high wire of health and success. Things merely have to improve. The status quo is a steppingstone to brighter days.
Forget perfection, which is deadly and imperfect after all: an illusion. However bright the future may turn out, it will not be without shadows. Unhealthy, unwise, unsuccessful, unhappy, and unkind adults will keep bringing children into the world. Assuming these children will benefit from improved relief measures, they will nevertheless suffer from a difficult youth, lacking in the material and spiritual advantages luckier children enjoy. Like their previous counterparts, they will be confronted by the challenge of growing into the opposite of their parents – that is, into healthy, wise, successful, happy, and kind adults. None but the strong will overcome. Only they will appreciate the divine justice that counterbalances the problem of inequality: The less luck people have at the start, the more merit they have in the end if they make a success of their life. This principle is universal and timeless; it is applicable here and now. May the objects of our compassion fill us with admiration as they rise from their woes to become our heroes!
This victory against the odds is an extreme. I can think of a second extreme, as pathetic as the first is heroic. Contrary to expectations, some people born of goodhearted and well-to-do parents are miserable individuals. They are insatiably selfish and shockingly ungrateful, so infantile and spineless that play and rest are their sole ambitions. Did they have a weak character to start with? Did their parents kill them with kindness and spoil them rotten? Is that why they have no soul?