We’ve been in our new home for four months. As we sat at our too-big-for-the-space table and had dinner last week, I noticed the white banker’s box. It had been in the room so long I had stopped seeing it, but I realized something rather monumental: “That’s our last box.”
Our home is far from being put together, but I was struck by the profoundness of the last box. I noticed on its side were the words “Basic Duty.” The words made me consider, “What is our basic duty?”
It’s a question to be interpreted many ways. Starting broadly, the big question is, “What is our basic duty as a human?”
I decided to pose the last box’s question to wise and thoughtful people I know. Their answers offered me hope and comfort.
“I’ll tell you what comes to me first, and then I’ll question my first reaction – it’s the philosopher in me,” said Amos P. Davis, an attorney in Baton Rouge. “I believe the basic duty is to leave the place better than you found it. …Since I was a child, I’ve thought that regardless of whatever professional success I’ve had, the way I would measure the value of my life is basically if I’m a good father. Whether I’m able to help my children grow up to lead purposeful and meaningful lives.”
I realized I had a lot of lawyers on my list and decided to mix things up and call Clare Cook, creative director of Basin Arts in Lafayette.
“Our basic duty as humans? To remain curious,” she said. “Curious and kind, if we’re getting to the most basic essentials, that would be the thing, right?”
I agreed that it would.
Next, I called young Ian Faul in New Orleans. At 18, he’s an old soul in a young body.
“Funny that you bring this up, I just finished Lolita last night and there was a quote about that, but that’s not my thinking,” he said.
There was a long pause.
“I’m trying to think about if this means to other people or ourselves. Or if that’s binary? I feel like something that distinguishes humans from other animals is this idea of having a sense of self and identity,” he said. “Cultivating your individuality and sense of purpose is one of the most fundamental things. … Cultivating that and figuring out what makes you unique is the greatest gift you can give yourself and simultaneously to other people.”
Next, I called Matt Jones, an attorney in Baton Rouge.
“At a minimum, everybody can agree, on the Latin phrase, ‘primum non nocere’ — do no harm,” Jones said. “That’s just an introverted sort of duty. That’s not fully actualizing yourself as a moral actor. The second part is to love and give to others.”
He explained that when you show up to someone’s life that they should feel a little better, which doesn’t mean you have to be an extravert.
“You can give to people just by being present,” he said.
Jones then quoted from Matthew 25: “.. inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these My brethren, ye have done it unto Me.”
“Basically, give more than you take — if we all did that, the world we be such a better place — and not just giving to your family,” Jones said. “Beyond that, don’t be a jerk. It’s so easy just to be nice to people. Smile at people. Say, ‘Good morning.’”
Father Michael Bordelon, a priest at St. Barnabas in Lafayette, texted me his answer. He explained that the truest Christian answer is to live into the image of God — and to remember that God became human.
“Notice the point is not to escape this world but to transform this world into heaven,” he wrote. “Close to 70% of what Jesus said had to do with forgiveness — makes you wonder.”
Next I called Cathy Pratt Curtis, my college roommate and best friend, in Mississippi. She was a missionary in Africa for 12 years and happens to be one of the wisest people around.
“That’s a good question,” she said. “I think our basic duty as a human is to love well and to help others on the journey. The loving well part is not always easy.”
Fran Phares, an attorney who lives in Covington, was next.
“My answer to that question is the Golden Rule,” she said. “Life is short and there is little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us — our basic duty is to gladden the hearts of those who travel with us.”