My father-in-law had a great impact on my life. A father to four daughters, he always considered me the son he never had. In one of our farewell conversations before he died in 2005, I'll never forget a particular word he used, a noble four-letter word that epitomized his own life: duty.
When the Second World War began, my father-in-law dutifully enlisted to serve in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a navigator. He navigated brilliantly by the stars. He served his country and a cause for the world with duty and honor at a perilous time in history. As he faced death, duty came up again. He worried that he had not left his finances in better shape for his wife. The truth is he had provided for her, but with his sudden diagnosis, he suddenly felt uncertain. I said to him, "Please don't worry about it, Dad. We'll be there to take care of her." He paused, overwhelmed by the weight of his limited time, and said in somber tones, "But it was my duty to do so," and the tears ran down his face.
Again, there was that word: duty. I almost never heard him speak publicly without him somehow bringing it up. He would often quote Lord Nelson's famous call to his countrymen before the battle of Trafalgar: "England expects every man to do his duty." So prone was my father-in-law to quote that line that when he wrote his first book, I asked him with an amused expression, "Where in the book is Nelson's line?" I opened the book, and there it was: the opening line of the first chapter.
Society's two extremes toward the call of duty both miss the mark. Materially-minded people don't like the word because they think it somehow handcuffs us. Why place a burden of compliance ...1