On the day we are born, we start off our helpless first steps being in debt to others. We chalk up massive loans of goodwill and accrue various deficits of gratitude that seem all but impossible to repay.
Our debts are many. A rational analysis would suggest that we owe our parents something, and let’s not forget our generations of ancestors whose efforts at keeping the family line going is the key reason why any of us even exist. If we owe our entire ancestry something, how far back do we go? All the way to ancient evolutionary times when we began as a single cell?
And it would appear we owe our country and society something too. The existence of these superstructures have allowed us to benefit greatly in shape and form. There’s also our schools and teachers to be thankful for, and also the occasional stranger whose unexpected act of kindness changed our perspectives.
Additionally, if you are religious, you would owe a spiritual debt to a ‘benevolent’ God who lovingly handcrafted a world with enough toxic elements, poisonous plants and dangerous animals so that your first and foremost lesson in life is to not eat or touch anything brightly coloured.
Even if you wanted to forget it all, we are always reminded to pay back what’s due. Every school we go to, from kindergarten, primary, secondary to tertiary institutes, or even the companies and clubs we find ourselves in, they have all invented their own songs, pledges and vain principles to enforce in us a subtle loyalty to give back, preferably for the rest of our lives. It’s cunning but effective.
And countries have always encouraged as much blind patriotism as possible, often with the media in their pocket to remind us of ‘true’ people who gave everything they have for their beloved nation. Those less willing will ‘discover’ their love for their country through compulsory national service where the nation has limitless opportunities to forcefully drill anthems and pledges into young, unthinking heads.
But are we obligated to pay anything back? The problem comes first with identifying to whom or what you owe the larger debt too. That seems impossible to rationally determine, and even if you gave your entire adult life away, you would never be able to pay it back fully. So we must instead decide on who or what we want to focus on giving back.
Also, whether we have any obligation to pay back our debts depends on whether you believe life goes on after you die. It is possible that all of reality and consciousness – the entirety of the universe as we know it – ends after our demise. If so, there is no merit to repayment when we should be maximising our own time and pleasure in this limited existence.
Even without subscribing to such a view, are all our debts equal and worth paying in full? Not really. A country, society and company, are ultimately faceless entities, and at best creatures we will only superficially know, so what’s wrong with paying the most minimal of obligations? After all, when they make decisions, we are not thought of as unique individuals but are necessarily seen as numerals waiting to be crunched and bell curved efficiently, so why should we be expected to do more? Being employed is already compulsory and sufficient payback – it’s either that or to live out on the streets.
On the other hand, those who are repeatedly the most visible in our lives, the most likely to be appreciative and receptive, are perhaps those we should focus on returning favors to. Our ever watchful parents, our romantic partners (if we are lucky enough to find someone who can complete us fully), and even giving ourselves a treat every now and then, are all perfectly valid areas of focus that we should be able to over-indulge to the exclusion of other debts without judgement.
While the great philosopher Socrates would argue that we ought to honor certain debts more than others (particularly the privileged relationship we have with society), his is an extreme example that led to him accepting his state’s death sentence as a necessary debt of life he owed to Athens. While it is true that we owe our existence to many things, isn’t it also true that many things also owe their existence to us?
Have you thought about (HYTA) who or what we owe a debt to?