Am I my brother's keeper? "What an extraordinary question!" someone will say. "How can I be, seeing that I am myself kept? — kept by my body inasmuch as it is constantly out of order and my brain hardly ever as clear as I want; kept by my moods, despondent, irritable, blue, green, and gray, whereas I want to be happy and content; kept by my mind, which will always be thinking of things I want to forget and refusing to stay upon things I want it to stay upon; kept by my desires, which for ever rush me into deeds that I know are wrong and that I really wish I did not do; a thrice locked-in jail-bird, and you ask me if I am not somebody else's keeper!"
That's one side of the case. But the fact is that in the beginning we were fitted out very well and we let all that riot of mood and passion develop about us and still allow it to go on. The body would usually get health if it were properly treated. And there is an inner place we could quickly learn to live in, from which desires and moods would be easily controlled. Again then: Am I my brother's keeper?
Let us for a moment get any possible traces of egotism out of that. If you are asking the question concerning him, the "brother," "am I his keeper?" he is asking it concerning you. "Am I," he wonders, looking at you, "his keeper?" Are we, in fact, all "kept" by the others?
To take a possible instance: You come down to breakfast in a very irritable mood, and snap out at your boy when he asks you a question. That irritates or depresses him, and in such a mood he goes to school. He has now a little devil to contend with which he does not know is not himself. He infects the school to some extent and the teacher has a bad day of it.
But your mood perhaps lasts all day. How many evil currents of consequences for other people may you not start running? In a day or two, each current generating others, the whole town may be a little the worse because you lived in and acted from that mood that day. Am I my brother's keeper? looks like a question worth thinking about.
We cannot drive a normal man to theft, murder, or suicide; we perhaps cannot save a man from one of these acts who has fully determined upon it. But there are men neither normal nor fully determined, men on the border, men nearly in desperation from poverty, men smarting from injustice to the very limit of endurance, men so nearly overwhelmed with misfortune that they are contemplating self-destruction as the only path left open to them. These men need but a touch to press them across the line. And some of them get that touch every day. Could it not sometimes be traced back to the effects of a mood of yours or mine, a harsh word to some one who passes it on — on — on, till at last it hits one of these "borderlines" and determines his act?
That mood of ours — maybe we ourselves got it from somebody else. Some one upset us last night and the upset lasted to the breakfast table this morning. If, then, we are one brother's keeper, we are another brother's kept! Yes — except that every man has free will. You will admit that we had an opportunity — and lost it. We had an opportunity to let a current of evil in the universe strike us and then drop through into the void, cease to be at all anywhere. We could have wiped out the upsetting word or deed, refused to let it color the mood of the following morning. By not doing so we entered the ranks of the kept.
There are some extremely profound methods of strengthening the will and developing the character. The most profound and secret of them all we have just hit upon. It is the power to forgive and to forget, the power to hold the mood of kindly cheerfulness against all assaults. Nothing strengthens the soul like this. And as you walk about the streets, there will be something in your eyes that may save some poor oppressed fellow from crossing the fatal line. You are his keeper — from harm.
You can neutralize evil by just letting it drop through you; you can make it a means of nourishing your own will by that same process, turning it altogether into good. But good you cannot neutralize. It gets into the evilest man, whatever struggle he makes against it. Sometime, when the evil is for the time weakened, the good that was planted in him will have its chance to show that it was there all the time. The soul of each of us is a part of the soul of the world, that which upholds all things behind their appearances. We do not know where our moods come from. Who shall say that that divine mood under whose influence a man suddenly stands up in his manhood and shakes from him forever some evil that has dogged him for lifetimes, is not the flower of some seed sown in his heart by somebody who once compassionated him and worked for him if only by a wish?
What is it that you might call the philosophy of the human family, the philosophy underlying the fact that we are all keepers of each other? It is human unity, a much more intimate unity than we usually suppose.
We are of one matter, at any rate; that, no one fails to see. We are always interchanging and sharing each other's bodies. The breath we alike expire and actually interchange, passes into the air and becomes the food of the plants which in turn are our food. We contribute our bodies to nature and from nature take them back as new ones. This goes on from minute to minute, from day to day; and birth and death only mark larger steps of the same process.
May it not be that we have here one of the secret why's of human life? May not an atom which has once lived in and been a part of a human body, have become a little changed by that association? May it not be a little higher in the scale of being, although chemistry would not detect the change?
Science knows that all the matter in this whole universe is bound in one, everywhere connected. Gravitation is a link between the smallest atom on earth and the farthest star. It is a fact of nature that you cannot move an eyelid without affecting Sirius, and Alcyone in the Pleiades. Some of the ways in which our bodies affect each other are but a case under that great law.
What would be the next thought which now perhaps would be called superstition, just as belief in these now scientific facts was called heresy?
If our bodies pass about, as it were, from one to another, minute by minute, what of our minds? What of our thinking material or essence? May not thought and feeling pass about amongst us? The prisoners in the jail say that they feel with the condemned man, though they cannot see him. You wake up on Christmas Day and you find Christmas Day already in the air. You did not, of your own self alone, make that general genial expectancy; you could not do it. The whole community makes it, because minds are of a common essence and share each other's waves of thought and feeling.
Let us remember that the majority of people remain throughout life negative, receptive. They take the color of the time they are born in, its habits, its beliefs, its scales of feeling. The color of our time is the worship of material success. Into that atmosphere comes the mind of the new-born child. That atmosphere it breathes till its death. We fear death so much because it so very evidently marks the collapse of the only kind of success we can understand. Some of the ancient peoples, on the contrary, had no fear of it because it brought the crown and culmination of their life's effort — to make themselves free from the domination of the body. Century after century, generation after generation, they handed on to each other, to each new-born child, and so deepened, the thought of death as freedom, as full vision. We hand on in its terrible weight the thought of death as collapse, finis, checkmate to all the thought-out play of our years. Into such an atmosphere the children are born. They are our brothers and we are their keepers, keeping them down to this level.
Our conception of death is the natural outcome of our conception of the value of life. If we start working for something else, find our ideal in some other direction, we shall learn to know death as a friend, opening a gate to real life and vision beyond — if we don't, it will be a black and forbidding wall which, as we approach it, falls on us and crushes us.
Life is our field of opportunity. In life, not after death, does this law hold — that one becomes according as one thinks. If a man thinks only of himself, what self is that of which he so thinks? Is it not, if you come down to the root of it, his bodily self? Truly he did right to view death as his worst and chief enemy.
But he who in his life went beyond himself to others, who in the best sense made himself his brother's keeper, what of him?
He worked with that conscious spirit of good which is in every heart and without whose constant pressure there, little as we may feel it, humanity would long ago have ceased to progress, and vanished in its own animalism. In his love for others he perhaps unwittingly loved this; got attuned with, and to his degree, at one with this; and remained and remains with humanity, an added protective and inspiring force. According to his degree he is an inseparate part of the light. Such must be the nature of the rest-time of those who have made themselves their brother's keeper.
"Charity begins at home" is a profound saying. For home here means the heart, and charity compassion.
Yet of course there is the home in the ordinary sense, and there are usually children in it. How are they trained? What sort of world are they taught to think of? You have there the next generation in the house with you, the humanity of tomorrow. Some sort of training the children get, of course; to make the best of themselves, perhaps — but to make it for themselves. It is on themselves that their attention is bent and kept and remains. And there is the root of all evil that weighs humanity.
But fortunately the divine nature in a child is easily awakened by parents who know something of their own divine nature. The first step is the idea of service. Service is the key-note of our question, Am I my brother's keeper? The idea of service calls the soul into action; it generates the sense of honor; it warms and enriches the whole nature; it is the real patriotism; and it ultimately leads to a victory over the lower nature. Yet this is the one thing the children are not taught: to think out towards others, feel with them and act accordingly — and this is the missing note in human life, for the want of which all is discord.
It is a simple beginning that is wanted of us all: just a little change of attitude, the daily attempt to hold a kindliness of mood, a patience, a readiness to overlook things, a going out in thought towards others. Then the dropping of the thought of death as finish. We can go on in perfect confidence. Life is for something and whoever answers to that for in any degree will not die.
There is the soul in us all, that luminous watcher of our lives and our efforts and our pains. It knows its business. It will not let any part of us die that was worthy to live.
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Every man takes care that his neighbor shall not cheat him. But a day comes when he begins to care that he do not cheat his neighbor. Then all goes well. He has changed his market-cart into a chariot of the sun. — Ralph Waldo Emerson