Obligation in Modernity

Obligation in Modernity

Freemasonry is built on the idea of obligating yourself to perform certain tasks, with a specific set of goals in mind. The word “obligation” comes from the roots of Middle English, from the verb “oblige,” which means to formally legally or morally bind someone to a promise. North Americans are used to hearing the phrase “much obliged,” in a sort of archaic sense, which means “to be indebted or grateful.” This is a derivation of the word; the more archaic form, from where the word “obligation” comes from is “to bind (someone) by an oath, promise, or contract.” The current 21st century definition is “an act or course of action to which a person is morally or legally bound; a duty or commitment.”

The most common obligation people run into is that of marriage. Divorce rates in the United States are down, possibly because marriage rates are also down. A shift? What about other obligations we make during our lives, especially the ones to ourselves? Upwards of 25% of current high school Freshmen will never complete high school. College drop out rates are the highest they have ever been, even with the highest enrollments ever. Even fraternal and social groups suffer from those who start and, for whatever reason, drop out.

To be fair, there are many reasons for giving up the path; financial, health, and family issues may cause problems for the student or spouse. Yet, we find little effort being made to surmount those challenges; we see the heroes as ones who complete school against all odds – but those odds are sometimes no greater than odds we all face. Everyone has challenges in their life. Completing or dedicating yourself to an endeavor takes will and strength, a desire to go against the easy life and really work hard to achieve your own success, whatever that might be. In an age of “Alexa” and “Siri,” doing things for yourself is seen as too much effort.

Molecular Thoughts

People who choose an esoteric path have put themselves on an extremely hard working journey. It’s not easy. As Buddha said, “life is suffering.” Enlightenment is not found in simple meditation. Physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual work are all necessary. Freemasonry, an esoteric and mystery path built on the foundations of “operative masonry,” is perhaps the epitome of working esoterically and externally.

An excellent article on the “Obligations of a Freemason” can be found on Pietre-Stones. In this article, the author expounds on the obligations of the individual as well as the collective. As Freemasonry is an “individual path worked in a group/collective,” it’s very right that we also look at not only what our obligations to ourselves but also to the group. In fact, from the very onset, in our application, we are promising certain actions that are considered obligatory.

Why all this emphasis on obligation, promises, and commitment? Is there some deeply esoteric meaning in obligating yourself to someone or something? Perhaps.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” ~ (John 1:1)

Much has been said about the divine logos, or, according to the Greeks, “The One Great Reason.” It’s representative of the unseen force of the universe that links us all together, whether we call it God, Love, the Divine, the Force, or whatever. Our ideas about “the Word,” and I suspect John’s as well, came from the Greek philosophers – Heraclitus, Plato, and Epictetus. Where Plato defined logos as an archetype, an idea representation of the divine in an independent-of-physical world, the Stoics refined the idea of logos to impart to it an active principle, and one which incorporated “the Reason” for all being into the function of “The Word.” It’s clear that The writer of the Gospel of John, as well as Buddhists, Jews, Taoists and others have also integrated this idea of the logos into the active Divine in the function of speaking the Word.

The divine Logos is the divine purpose, plan, or word that is the ultimate reason for the cosmos, which orders the universe and gives it meaning. That is, the sound or word has meaning, weight, in creation. As noted above, the Stoics defined logos as the law of generation in the Universe, which was the principle of the active reason working in inanimate matter. Humans, too, each possess a portion of the divine logos. That is, we humans, through our actions and words have generative power. The act of committing ourselves, or creating a binding agreement to complete work has power over us, either consciously or subconsciously. It also has the power to affect other individuals and other groups. This is a ripple effect; what we achieve has a lasting effect on the world around us, and flows out from us in a physical and metaphysical wave.

LOGOS-GreekThus, in giving our “word” or “bond,” we are creating. We create not only the superficial matter – such as our place in a Lodge or our status as spouse in a marriage, but we are creating an unseen, immaterial ripple that will create an effect throughout time. We create – it’s what humans do – and through our words, we create more than just simple relationships. Each word is a spoken manifestation of divinity.

Thus, promises, obligations, and commitments have weight – perhaps even more weight than we realize – when it comes to our overall spiritual life. It is important that we chose and use them carefully.

It’s funny that some individuals see their obligations as infringements on their time, or resources, or futures; funny because most, if not all commitments, promises, and obligations are solely made as the choice of the individual.  We think the promise we make to ourselves and others is somewhat disposable, minimal, with little effect on others and perhaps not even ourselves. Divorce and breakups, broken familial relationships and school dropouts – these are the failures of not understanding ourselves and our words. Failure is always an option and do-overs are necessary – but in order to achieve relief from the suffering, we have to be willing to be honest with ourselves. Pain is inevitable, and suffering doesn’t arise from pain but from our resistance to it – from our resistance to honesty and careful thought; it comes from our resistance to speak “the Word.”

I’ll leave you with a quote from a children’s fantasy book, one which understands and captures the essence of “the Word” in a very real sense – The Wizard of Earthsea.

“It is no secret. All power is one in source and end, I think. Years and distances, stars and candles, water and wind and wizardry, the craft in a man’s hand and the wisdom in a tree’s root: they all arise together. My name, and yours, and the true name of the sun, or a spring of water, or an unborn child, all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars. There is no other power. No other name.”
― Ursula K. Le GuinA Wizard of Earthsea

Brotherhood

Brotherhood

We are fast approaching the time when we share all those lovely good wishes for a happy holiday season. It seems that in general, people need the cold of winter and the idea of parties to bond together. In some ways, it is a sad affair – why do we wait until the end of the year to celebrate people with shallow displays? People in the U.S. have holidays galore, the UK has its bank holidays, and everywhere people get together in the summer for all kinds of recreation and relaxation. This, though, isn’t the same. We wait for Thanksgiving to ‘give thanks’ to our families and loved ones, then shower them with commercial ideas of a festive Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanza. It seems to me there has to be something more, something that we just can’t quite touch with commercialism. It makes me question if we truly value our fellow humans or merely follow the conventions of our day.

I’m not a cynic. Stoic, perhaps, but not a cynic. I know that many people feel this same way, and are not sure what to do with it. We want something more, we feel it, and can’t seem to find it.

You might remember a song in the early ’90’s called “What’s Up” by 4 Non Blonds. There’s a phrase in the song that has always stuck with me:

“I realized quickly when I knew I should
That the world was made up of this brotherhood of man
For whatever that means.”

For at least 25 years, I’ve been searching, like the author, for “whatever that means.” I think it about it more at the end of the year, in the winter, when we want to bond together more, when we’re a hoping to be a little more full of grace and forgiveness, when everything we hope for is looking for softness and warmth. (This leaves aside the one place where there is no grace or forgiveness: retail parking lots at Christmastime. No, I won’t digress…)  Most of human history is not filled with this alien, modern way of living, in asphalt-covered cities and in high-rises; we are ensconced in concrete structures and shopping malls, where our every-need-provided mentalities take away that sense of brotherhood and even community. No one in American cities truly lives or works together. We exist closer together and yet are farther apart emotionally, and certainly farther apart from nature. We have no idea how to debate, discuss, or theorize because we do not socialize. Facebook is a poor human community, and it certainly is no brotherhood.

Nature relies on a collective to get through the autumn and winter, to live until springtime, when everything is renewed. Birds and insects migrate to warmer climates, communitybanding together to achieve their goal for the good of the “group.” Some animals, mice and squirrels, huddle together in enclaves to stay warm and keep out of harm’s way. Humans sometimes migrate to warmer climates; some humans gather in houses, staying warm and sharing food. We humans have corrupted some of this to follow a prescribed dogma of festivities, duties, and “musts” during a time when we could be more selective, more mindful of our fellow species. Nature has no dogma.

Brotherhood is a relationship between brothers, comrades – those who have a common association. A brotherhood is this created group of people, who may or may not be your family, where common interests are discussed, shared, and respected. The word “brotherhood” has certain characteristics in its reference; it implies a close relationship but not intimate, it implies something that is almost a blood-bond, but greater because its idealized, and it implies intelligent selection rather than genealogy. It reflects common purposes and goals, where brothers are dedicated to each other more than the rest of the world, and more perhaps than to family.

The idea of brotherhood is crystallizing ideals into personal goals that we share with others, with the idea that together we can achieve more than we could apart. It is, perhaps, about the survival of those ideas and ideals, and  that the whole is far greater than the sum of its parts. We don’t expect those in the brotherhood to be perfect; we expect them to continue to work towards the prosperity of the all as best they can, with their own unique talents and skills. The human clans do not survive on only one type of labor, one type of mentality; human groups survive on the skills of the many flowing into the good of the whole. Uniqueness is valued as long as the purpose is shared.

Human beings need friendships (the tribe), community, and brotherhood. Friendships help us transcend loneliness and provide us greater insight into our personal nature. Friends help validate our thoughts and emotions and assist us to perfect our victor-hugo-author-the-human-soul-has-still-greater-need-of-the-ideal-than-of-therelationships with human beings in general. Community helps fulfill our very human need for connection without actually requiring a lot from us. It expects us to show up, be who we are, be present, and participate at the level at which we are able. Community attends to an almost physical, matter-related purpose; brotherhood is where we really shine.

As a community, we are able to meet a concrete need with action, and there’s little overlap into our lives. Brotherhood delves into the reasons we come together, the personal goals and aspirations of the individual, and binds us together in action for that purpose. The ideals of brotherhood, whatever brotherhood they may be, transcend both community and tribe. We need these latter two to take care of physical needs, protect us, perhaps provide us with a shared history with which to bond and form purpose.

Perhaps I’m an idealist, but I see brotherhood as something more, something chosen. We may not choose our tribe; we may not choose our communities, but we sure as heck choose brotherhood. And it must also choose us. We choose to be in these bonds of commitment, regardless of the diversity of our backgrounds. We choose, when entering a brotherhood, to focus on purpose rather than “who you are.” Brotherhood requires commitment; brotherhood has to be maintained. Constantly. For the rest of your life.  If you choose to stop adhering to the commitments you made, then you fall out of the idealism you value. Brotherhood is a privilege and a consciousness. Done right, brotherhood is extraordinary.

Brotherhood, to be clear, is not friendship, although brothers may be friends. Brotherhood transcends the personal affectations and affections. We may have many friends in our lives but we have few true brothers, few “comrades-in-arms,” if you will.

So, is “brotherhood of man” the entirety of the human race? What does that mean? Maybe it means that we’ve chosen to be part of the human condition, and we need to cloud-team-590x384start looking at each other, all of the people we encounter, as part of our ideal of a better condition in which to live. Taking from nature, we have to work together to survive the ugliness of the world, human-created and natural, in order to build a better place. I also think, though, that brotherhood of man is a consciousness of the human condition. The human brotherhood has chosen us, us, to fulfill the ideal of itself. It’s chosen every human to play their part; it’s up to us to choose to live in a way were our ideals are about the human condition, not simply our personal needs or desires. Being part of the brotherhood of man requires us to be constant in our consciousness. We want the human race to be better, no? Perhaps, that’s part of what Freemasonry also tries to achieve – this “brotherhood of man” that our 4 Non Blonds advocate.

As I write this, the outside world is filled with the gray of an early snowstorm; branches are laden with wet globs of icy powder, and the streets are soaked with the fast-melting flakes. Soon, the true winter will be on us, and we’ll be frantic yet again. Perhaps this year, we can be conscious of our human brothers and bond together, in some small way, that transcends the dogma of the season. Perhaps we can reach inside and chose to finally be part of that “brotherhood of man.”

[Note: I use the term brotherhood not to segregate or be divisive. I use it because in the English language, there is no gender-neutral better term. When I speak of the brotherhood of man, I mean all humans, regardless of race, creed, religion, or gender.] 

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