How Will You Repay Your Debt To Humanity?

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What legacy will you leave to mankind? Your answer may very well depend on how one asks the question. Be warned. The particular framing of the query I just posed can lead you mistakenly astray.

What’s the difference between the lead question and the question in the title?

Take a look at them both. How do the specific words used make you feel when you read them? What does “leaving a legacy” conjure up in your mind versus “repaying a debt”? And how does your picture of “mankind” contrast to what your mind sees when reading the term “humanity?”

It’s all about connotation, not denotation. Denotation means the raw dispassionate facts. Connotation favors the emotion. And, being a human, emotion rules. (Sorry to all you Spock wannabes out there in TV Land.)

To “leave a legacy” raises the image of you having built a fabulous estate that becomes a part of your last will and testament. It entails doing something great and significant during your lifetime that will forever change the world.

Sounds pretty cool, right?

On the other hand, to “repay a debt” implies you owe something. The debt obligates you to repay it. You’ve spent your life using someone else’s asset for your own benefit. Eventually, the piper comes calling. You must give back what you borrowed. With interest, of course, it you want to be thought of as honorable.

Now consider the word “mankind.” That’s a big word. It suggests big things. Things etched in the annals of history. The kinds of things you would read in encyclopedias if such expansive tomes still existed. It’s the stuff of headlines.

Mankind is why Neil Armstrong stepped foot on the moon. It’s the soldiers who braved the beaches of Normandy because they fought to preserve a greater good. It’s the scientists working hard to find cures for deadly diseases.

What about “humanity”? It’s a much softer word than “mankind.” “Humanity” at first connotes acts of selfless humanitarian aid. But if you dig deeper, “humanity” becomes more personal, reflecting the humanist within us all. It’s the stuff of heartfelt hand-written notes.

Humanity is the calming bedside manner of the old-fashioned country doctor. It’s the kind nature of the elderly neighbor who pays your child to help with yard work or household chores. It’s the very soul of what a mother represents to every child.

You see how the question, “What legacy will you leave to mankind?” can mislead you? It has you thinking about becoming the first to conquer some formidable mountain. The trouble with that thinking is there can be only one Sir Edmund Hillary. What about the rest of us?

We should stop thinking first about changing the world and instead focus on more modest goals. Think instead about what you can do for the people you truly owe something to. You owe nothing to someone who lives half a world away, or even someone a thousand miles away. You do owe something to your community, your neighbors, and your family.

You can’t honestly just sit back and do nothing. How will you repay your debt to them?

Aristotle wrote in Book I Chapter II of his Nicomachean Ethics, (F.H. Peters’ translation, published by Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner & Co., Ltd., London, 1916), “Temperance and courage are destroyed both by excess and defect, but preserved by moderation.”

This represents your blueprint. You may think you’re doing good by trying to change the world, but what you’re really doing is robbing from the people you actually owe your life to. They try to scam you by saying you need to change the world “for the children.” In reality, all your action will cause is leaving the debt you owe for your children to pay.

In Aristotle’s view, the middle ground between doing nothing (which many quietly do) and doing too much (which unscrupulous individuals trick many into doing). He calls this “moderation,” and it represents the kind of honest righteousness that best benefits humanity.

“Virtue, then, is a kind of moderation, inasmuch as it aims at the mean or moderate amount,” wrote Peters in his version of The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle.

Don’t take Peters’ adaptation as unique. R.W. Browne’s 1889 translation of the same book echoes this sentiment. Browne has Aristotle saying, “Excess and defect destroy virtue, but that being in the mean preserves it,” (The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle, Book II, Chapter II, published by George Bell and Sons, London).

Aristotle likens this to exercise and eating. Browne’s translation spells it out (in Book II Chapter III), “we must first observe, that things of this kind are naturally destroyed both by defect and excess… just as we see in the case of strength and health; for too much as well as too little exercise destroys strength. In like manner drink and food, whether there be too little or too much of them, destroy health, but moderation in quantity causes, increases, and preserves it. The same thing, therefore, holds good in the case of temperance, and courage, and the other virtues; for he who flies from and is afraid of everything, and stands up against nothing, becomes a coward; and he who fears nothing at all, but goes boldly at everything, becomes rash. In like manner, he who indulges in the enjoyment of every pleasure, and refrains from none, is intemperate; but he who shuns all, as clowns do, becomes a kind of insensible man. For temperance and courage are destroyed both by the excess and the defect, but are preserved by the mean.”

How will you repay your debt to humanity? It’s about building something that lasts, not merely cleaning up someone else’s mess. And you don’t have to do it alone.

What will you physically do to help improve your town, your neighborhood, or your family? Which civic organization will you join? How will you maintain your home so it improves the look of your street? What family tradition will you take charge of every year?

Remember, whatever you do, you don’t have to knock it out of the park. You’re not doing it for a page headline. Heck, you’re not even doing it for a paragraph on page 8. You’re doing it to nudge the needle of humanity around you slightly forward.

Just think how much farther ahead our community would be if every citizen in every generation repaid their debt in this small but reasonable manner.

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