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 that is self-made and mere convention?, they insinuate. The spiritually-minded don't like the word very much either. They think it diminishes a greater demand, the demand of love. In his conclusion to the Book of Ecclesiastes, Solomon said that "the whole duty of man is to fear God and to keep his commandments." Jesus positioned two commandments as the greatest: to love God and to love our fellow human beings. Making the love of God and of man our duty is surely not making them opposite sentiments.
Whatever the reasons, we are discomfited by people around us who fail to fulfill their duties, from political leadership to academic responsibility, and so often in the place of the arts. Offices of responsibility are more often sought for the power they bring, rather than for love of duty. In the home, the situation is dire. I know of those who have walked away from wives and children, even grandchildren, to pursue selfish ambition. I find that heart-wrenching. Those who walk away with such callousness see duty and love as at odds, because they often subsume love under their own personal need, ignoring the greater commitment of duty. That misreading has cost our society, and others', so much.
Even to address the need for a father is to run the risk of being accused of making a veiled attack on the culture of progressive thinking. That is not my point. Many men over the years have opted for selfishness over duty, for professional accolades over nurture, for image rather than substance, for temporal gain over an eternally defined profit, for sitting in the board room rather than standing by a crib. There is the old saying that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. Now, that the cradle is ruling the world as we rock ourselves into the arrogant belief that not only is an earthly father unnecessary, there is no need for a heavenly Father, either.