The Duty That Lies Next
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
The regular work of one's life career has a vast deal of drudgery connected with it, and it more often than otherwise happens that, when a man chooses a vocation, he does not do what he wishes to do. When a man chooses a vocation, he very often does not see that it is to be a life of drudgery, and that its rewards and emoluments lie far in the future after years of hard work and hard application. It comes to pass, therefore, that many men, after entering upon their vocation, are not content with its burden and its toil, but waste much time in visions of what might have been or what might be ; meanwhile the duty which lies next waits to be done, and it is often neglected and waits in vain, and the man's life turns out a failure because the duties of the hour accumulate and are not done. More often than otherwise, in the real work of life, we have no choice of duties. We find ourselves confronted with certain specific tasks, and are compelled to perform them. We may call this work one of routine, or what we will, it makes up the major part of every man's life-work. There is no help for it, he must do the work of drudgery or he cannot succeed. That duty which lies next to his hand, that is the one which cries for attention. If it be a disagreeable duty, still it must be done; it is part of the price of success.
The truth of this may be well illustrated by the life of two young women of whom we have read. One was especially accomplished and capable. She was an active Christian, and her whole mind was occupied with the duties and work of the church to which she belonged. She married a minister, in the hope of being able to devote her time exclusively to the assistance of her husband in church-work. But the work of her church was of short duration. A large family of children made their appearance as the years passed by. The time, effort, and thought of the mother were completely absorbed in her family. Indeed, her children occupied her mind to the exclusion of everything else. This was most surely not what she had chosen, but it was duty, and perform it she did without mur-muring or repining.
The other young woman married a farmer, with the expectation of living out her days as a farmer's wife. But there came a voice to the husbandman, as he thought, bidding him preach the gospel. He left his farm-life, entered the pulpit, and became a useful, worthy preacher, but the wife hung like a dead weight upon the wheels ,of progress. She did not marry a preacher. She had not chosen to be a preacher's wife, and she would not face the new duties, and did not. She spent her life in hopeless sighing and great unhappiness. She made her own life and that of her husband wretched beyond degree. She did not perform "the duty that lies next."
All of us are nearly in the position of these two women. We are either doing the drudgeries of a Work that we did not choose, or else we are repining for the glorious career that we did choose.. Many of us are virtually chained to the oar ; our duties are distasteful, and the burdens of life rest heavily upon us. But the chain holds us to duty, and we cannot leave the post where providence has placed us. It is of little avail to be solemn, unwilling, and rebellious. It is only a waste of effort and force. The true need of the case is to do with our might what our hands, find to do ; to do it cheerfully and without sorrow. It is here that the argument for the preparation for useful living rests with force. If a man has schooled his powers to the endurance of work, if he has made them strong and capable, then, surely, he can meet the drudgeries of professional life whenever they come to him.
Sometimes our duties are not active, only passive. We are sometimes to simply sit down and wait for the hour of active triumph. The flax as it grows in the field is doing active duty, but as it lies cut and rotting upon the ground, wet by the storm and bleached by the sun ; while it is being broken and spun and woven it is doing only passive duty. Just so it is in a thous-and instances in the lives of men. They are obliged to do only passive duty. They must wait as the fine linen waits, which lies upon the ground in heat and cold and storm, until at last it is thought fit for the robes of a queen. That spirit which enables us to do active drudgery or endure hours of passive waiting is what must be developed in the life of every successful man.
" I hold it truth with him who sings, On one clear harp with divers strains, That we may rise on stepping-stones Of our dead selves to higher things."
But that dying ! The death-throes of that waiting are not easy to bear. And in youth time, when the future seems to us like a fairy land, and the golden gates of promise are thrown open for our entrance, Providence has wisely hidden from our view " the duty that lies next" along that shining way. Is life then a cheat, a disappointment, a vanity? Not unless we make it so. Is the golden hope of youth nothing? Are the glorious triumphs and the consciousness of duty done nothing? Shall there be no hope in the heart because life is full of labor ? Shall we consume ourselves in useless repining and rebellious opposition to the drudgeries that lie in the way of our success? To do that is to fail. To meet them with heroic spirit is success.
"This is an epoch of elevators. We do not climb to our rooms in the hotel ; we ride. W e do not reach the upper stories of Stewart's by slow and patient steps ; we are lifted there. The Simplon is crossed by a railroad, and steam has usurped the place of the alpen-stock on the Righi. The climb which used to give us health on Mount Holyoke, and a beautiful prospect, with the reward of rest, is now purchased for twenty-five cents of a stationary engine.
If our efforts to get our bodies into the air by machinery were not imitated in our efforts to get our lives up in the same way, we might not find much fault with them ; but, in truth, the tendency everywhere is to get up in the world without climbing. Yearnings after the Infinite are in fashion. Aspirations for eminence—even ambitions for usefulness—are altogether in advance of the willingness for the necessary preliminary discipline and work. The amount of vaporing among young men and women, who desire to do something which somebody else is doing—something far in advance of their present powers—is fearful and most lamentable. They are not willing to climb the stairway ; they must go up in an elevator. They are not willing to scale the rocks in a walk of weary hours, under a broiling sun ; they would go up in a car with an umbrella over their heads. • They are unable or unwilling to recognize the fact that in order to do that very beautiful thing which some other man is doing, they must go slowly through the discipline, through the maturing processes of time, through the patient work, which have made him what he is, and fitted him for his sphere of life and labor. In short they are not willing to do their next duty, and take what comes of it.
What, exactly, is the secret of true seecess in life ? It is to do, without flinching, and with utter faithfulness, the duty that stands next to one. When a man has mastered the duties around him, he is ready for those of a higher grade, and he takes naturally one step upward. When he has mastered the duties of the new grade, he goes on climbing. There are no surprises to the man who arrives at eminence legitimately. It is entirely natural that he should be there, and he is as much at home there and as little elated as when he was working patiently at the foot of the stairs. There are heights above him and he remains humble and simple."