The process of growth takes place only with
constant struggle, from the
first kicking of the baby legs to the
last sigh of departure.
Looking back upon the great figures of history of every age we see that each one has had to overcome tremendous obstacles in the path of his progress. So consistent is this rule that it presents a real challenge. This does not mean that everyone is fit material for leadership, whatever the field of his endeavor. But there are greater victories even than these: victories for which you and I and everyone are eligible to try. The challenge is of Life. Your life and mine and all other lives around us.
In material life we have succeeded in simplifying our labors to the point where no real challenge is presented. The caveman who had to kill game or starve is gone. Our challenge is of a higher order; it has passed from the material to the psychological and mental planes of action, and this generation has the responsibility of preparing the next to accomplish great things. We may refuse to accept it and dully proceed along the bovine path of indifference, but in the long run it will be those who work in and with the stream of evolutionary development who will perpetuate the human race.
The difficulty lies in our unpreparedness. The transition has been so recent that we are caught still bending when we should be stretching. The challenge is there, but we must look up to see it. Our old-fashioned concepts of heaven and hell have left a vacuum in their wake and we must cultivate an awareness of the new realization that nature is just and demands that we be equally just. A boy no longer fears that he will go to hell for stealing an apple, but he has yet to learn the why of honor. The entire problem of juvenile delinquency stems from this, because elders are unable to explain the why of ethics, and in all sincerity cannot fall back upon the threat of hellfire.
Instead of the challenge of integrity and noble action, our young people are deluged with criminal heroes in spurious "comic" form. Where former generations identified themselves with Sir Lancelot and d'Artagnan, the modern youth feels no thrill of battling adversity in jousting matches or honorable duels that were alive and fascinating long ago — and as for rescuing maidens in distress, the damsel of today can take care of herself. The need for heroes brought up to date has created a supply of modern Robin Hoods of doubtful value.
In the grown-up field the same lack is felt on a more mature scale and it is a pity that the real challenge underlying the Sermon on the Mount has been given so little attention. It is taken more as a beautiful piece of literature than as a guide to living. Its keynote throughout is "Self-forgetfulness." Not just now and then, for in every action of our lives how many challenges do we not meet in the shape of various forms of self-advancement: self-pity, useless chattering for attention, vanity, even paradoxically the virtues we display in order to command admiration or affection? To subdue from moment to moment the adversaries that life presents, placing always true self-forgetfulness before any other consideration, accepting injustice, misunderstanding, and all the incidental wounds to our ego as of no consequence; this, coupled with the constant effort to understand others, presents a day-to-day challenge, which, if we could but recognize its caliber, would exalt our souls to stupendous fruitful effort.
If any feel this rather a high goal to set, we repeat the challenge of Jesus: "Be ye therefore perfect." That is the goal. Perhaps not for a long, long time, but ultimately we must become 'perfect,' or the challenge would never have been given. We know it can be done, for man has in him potentialities greater than he dreams. It takes a crisis to bring to the surface some of his hidden qualities, and how often under stress (I am thinking back to the war) do we not see unsuspected capacity for self-sacrifice, noble deeds performed, and by people who at other times struck one as rather insignificant.
Need we wait for the challenge to take the form of disaster? Why may we not utilize the little challenges of every day to cultivate those qualities of greatness that we all possess in unlimited degree. The sailor battling the high seas, the scholar making some invaluable find, the scientist successfully discovering a cure for a malignant disease — none of these knows a thrill to compare to that of the man who has conquered himself.
(From Sunrise magazine, June 1954; copyright © 1954 Theosophical University Press)