Man can modify his future within certain limits. That is obvious to all. A simple, virtuous life ensures a hale and dignified old age: faithful discharge of duty wins esteem and confidence, while self-forgetting efforts for the public good bring their return of grateful recognition from the masses whom we serve.
Most people live for sensation and oscillate unceasingly between the two opposing poles of pleasure and of pain, and if our future were infallibly in our control, pleasure would be our constant guest while its unwelcome twin would find our door for ever closed. Fortunately for us such an arrangement is impossible. We sometimes plan a day of pure and unalloyed enjoyment consisting of a continuous succession of agreeable events; but the attempt is seldom very successful. All possible devices for producing and prolonging pleasure are exploited to the utmost; but the high tide of gaiety is bound to ebb before long; the capacity for enjoyment becomes jaded, overstimulation is followed by reaction, and the day after the picnic is one of dullness and depression.
Although man has it partly in his power to plan his future as he will, there is a seemingly relentless fate whose rulings he is powerless to resist. Man has a dual nature, and while one aspect seeks to follow its allotted destiny careless alike of pleasure and of pain, the lower or material self incessantly pursues enjoyment and endeavors to avoid all contact with its disagreeable opposite. But all such efforts are fore-doomed to failure, for moral growth is quite impossible so long as life is like a happy holiday; the will can never rise to its full power without the stimulus of opposition, while the rare flower of sympathy can only bloom under the leaden skies of suffering and of pain. The classic writers frequently refer to an inexorable fate which runs its course in spite of human tears and protestations, and that there is an unavoidable necessity in human life is very clear. However virtuous our lives may be, old age and death come creeping on with steady pace. Right living may postpone and mitigate the disabilities of age; but the slow waning of the faculties is just as much a part of Nature's plan as the expanding powers of youth. There is nothing hostile to our welfare in this over-ruling destiny, though to the pleasure-loving lower self its slow but unavoidable approach may be regarded with dismay. The ebbing of the flood of manly strength, and the relaxing of the grip of personal desire allows the more unhindered play of subtler, spiritual powers just as the sinking of the blazing sun reveals the milder radiance of the stars in the dark sky of night.
There is in man a natural tendency to shirk his proper contribution towards the turning of the wheel of social life. By methods often perfectly legitimate, a man may so possess himself of wealth and power as to command the services of others to an almost limitless degree; he thus avoids the dusty march of toilers and proceeds upon his way borne on the shoulders of the marching crowd. He cannot finally escape however the needful discipline of steady labor, nor deprive himself of that growth of character that comes from duty faithfully performed. "A shroud," they say, "has no pockets," and nothing of our present wealth can we carry over the gulf of death into our next rebirth. The Law of Compensation will not let us shirk our proper share of service to our fellow-men, and thus it happens that the leisured trifler of today becomes the humble laborer in a subsequent rebirth and will discover that his debt of service must be paid in full. Such purifying discipline is cheerfully accepted by the silent soul within, that part of us which is at one with destiny and has no other aim than to co-operate with universal law.
But let us consider in the light of reincarnation to what extent we can control our future course and reach our destination by our own persistent will. What can be more perplexing to the trustful optimist than the spectacle of a passionate lover of music, born in a family where there is no musical heredity and where he lacks the slightest opportunity of developing his latent musical talent? His life is passed in hopeless longing and he dies at last discouraged by the thought of being thwarted by unkindly Fate. But Theosophy, lifting the veil that shrouds futurity, reveals the picture of a newborn child which has just entered a family of musicians. "There is no new thing under the sun" and the baby is by no means new, but a very old ego in a new robe of flesh. What directed the ego to this particular family? The theologian might reply: "The inscrutable will of God who has graciously endowed the newly created soul with musical ability and likewise provided it with all the advantages of a musical environment." The theosophical answer would be that a love for music fostered in spite of great discouragements drew the soul by natural affinity to parents likeminded with himself. And now the tender, plastic mind is bathed in music all the day. The brain and nervous system are refined by their environment, so that both mind and body are combined to form an instrument for musical expression by the all-dominating will. With ample opportunities at his command, all the seeds of music so assiduously nursed under the cold, gray skies of long ago, now germinate and spring to vigorous life. In ignorance and sadness, often in despair, he persevered but as it seemed in vain. Dimly he must have felt that his superb reliance on the Law would open up a way at last, and so he gains his heart's desire because he boldly claimed his kinship with his great Original, that hidden source of all that lives, which dowers its offspring with the power to mould their future destiny according to their will.
As has already been explained, the lower or material self swayed by its personal preferences is fortunately powerless to avoid its self-made destiny. It frequently occurs that one particular individual arouses us to the most violent antipathy, and every meeting develops into an encounter resulting in exchanges of a mutual ill-will. In order to avoid such disagreeable incidents we contrive to meet him as little as possible. Perhaps we have done him an injury in some past life and instinctively dread reprisals on his part, or it may be that a strongly pronounced fault in his nature awakes a corresponding weakness in ourselves. But over-ruling destiny which always works for our advancement and indeed only carries out our instructions, will not excuse us from the duty of restoring the broken harmony. For bygone injury a compensation must be made, or if it is an uncorrected weakness in our nature, better far that we should be forced to face and conquer it at once than that it should retire into an ambush and attack us later on. And thus perhaps at some remote rebirth we find ourselves with brother, sister, parent or companion with whom we are perpetually at strife. This is an opportunity and not a misfortune, and if we rightly grasp and use it the ancient wrong may be atoned for, the weak place in our character strengthened, and one more jarring discord in the music of the spheres resolved into the primal harmony.
Christ must have had this idea in his mind when he commanded us to love our enemies. Aside from Karma and Reincarnation there is no obvious reason why we should love a person who calls up the strongest feelings of antipathy. But when we consider that the brother who offends us now may be our victim of a long forgotten past who still carries about with him the scars we have inflicted, is it not reasonable that we should go out of our way to serve him? Theosophists, always looking for causes when they see effects, account for such inborn antipathies by assuming wrongs done in past lives. They cannot believe that a loving Creator who is said to produce new souls for every birth, would deliberately implant a gratuitous hate in the mind of the newborn child. It may be objected that hate must always operate to keep us apart from the object of our aversion; but there is such a thing as "attraction by repulsion." We must all have noticed that if we have any particular dread or dislike, by a strange perversity of the mind that is the very subject most frequently dwelt upon. Theosophy teaches that if any nation, person, or environment is peculiarly distasteful to us, we shall sooner or later be drawn to it by the same law, and shall be unable to disengage ourselves until we are able to contemplate it with dispassion and equanimity.
Almost everybody would like to be the recipient of a stream of the good things of life and wishing to secure the certainty of future affluence we cling with desperation to whatever wealth we have and try to add to our accumulation. Such tactics may secure us the desired prosperity for this our present life; but their effect in later lives will have the very opposite result to that which was intended. Does it not seem reasonable that in a subsequent rebirth such a personality will manifest a miserly disposition from the very cradle, and the infection of his character will affect all with whom he comes in contact so that even the habitually generous will be frozen to unwonted parsimony in his company? But on the other hand, your royal giver is in a fair way of entering his next rebirth with a temperament which radiates generosity and almost compels tight-fisted avarice to liberality by his very presence. The grasping, greedy individual does control his future; but not at all in the way that he desired.
There are many whose occupation is a cause of constant complaint, and much they wish that they possessed the power to change their lot. Here again destiny is seen at work. The reluctant worker assuredly needs precisely the discipline he is groaning under. Let him cheerfully confront his daily duty and discharge it to the height of his ability. Striving for excellence, interest will spring up; efficiency will then develop, and after that follows success. The intelligent Law of Adjustment, satisfied that the lesson has been learned, proceeds to conduct him to another school to learn another lesson. So long as he rebelliously endeavored to control his destiny, he was powerless; but as soon as he submitted to the inevitable, and cooperated with the great law that governs all, then spiritual forces came into play and his entanglements were severed as if cut with a sharp sword.
Humanity as a whole determines its future as well as individual men, and the present social chaos is the direct result of the past mental chaos of mankind. What but mad chaos can be looked for while through the ages everyone has set his mind on selfish schemes which can only be realized by subjecting weaker wills to his own? If self-regarding, independent action unregulated by any reference to the welfare of the whole has produced the existing state of the world, what may we not expect when universal brotherhood is taken as the guide in life; when public service and not private gain is uppermost in every mind, and when men look with scorn on any use of talent or of power save such as is intended for the general elevation of the race?
A widely spread conviction that our future reaping will depend upon our present sowing; that men will live again in other lives on earth; that destiny is only stern and painful as we make it so; and that we can arrange our future as we choose within the limits of the Law of universal harmony, will bring about such betterment in human life that earth will be transformed to what men have imagined heaven.