Never in remembered history has so large a proportion of the human race enjoyed the freedoms we do today; not least of these are the right of free speech, widespread suffrage, and religious and racial equality. Only a few centuries ago slavery was common practice, there were rigid class distinctions, and nations, isolated by fear of the unknown, lived confined behind their frontiers, as ignorant of their neighbors as though they were alone on the planet. Worst of all, to disagree with locally prevailing beliefs, religious or political, was to invite ignominy, torture, and death.
How well I remember as little as forty years ago seeing children, six years old and up, working in the ill-lit rooms at the back of the dressmakers' shops in the international settlement of Shanghai, each doing his or her one kind of stitch on innumerable garments, 12 to 16 hours a day. They were the lucky ones. Today, the grandchildren of those who lived to grow up are attending school — an unheard-of luxury in those earlier days. They are fed and housed, and warmly dressed in winter. Foreigners are, if not familiar, at least regarded with interest rather than fear.
All over the world we are in touch with more of our fellows, and use a vast array of different means of communication, with instant information and response being transmitted anywhere on earth, not to mention the ubiquitous TV which places us at the scene of every major disaster or sensational event.
This easy exchange is by slow degrees bringing the human family closer together. We can no longer ignore our shipmates on spaceship earth or insulate our feelings of concern for those who still labor under insupportable burdens. A new global solidarity imposes its obligation on every one of us — an obligation of which we are not sufficiently aware even now but, unless we use a silicon chip for a brain and a heart, we must begin to realize the immense weight of responsibility our privileges entail. That responsibility is very real and we all are accountable for the way we use, or misuse, our prerogatives.
Ours is above all an age of multiple choices: what we may not realize is that the more options we have, the more crucial are the consequences of our selections. Certainly in Europe and America we have many things to choose from. While the babu in Calcutta must decide whether to buy a book or a meal — food for the body or nourishment for the soul — the Western clerk has to select among a multitude of books and a host of menus as well. It is up to him whether he chooses the wholesome or the harmful. Our judgment is tested every day as we are challenged to scrutinize and assess our options. Now, if ever, do we need to examine our life as advocated by Socrates. This is never easy, and to make it harder we are exposed to every kind of clever enticements, calculated to arouse cupidity — in children no less than in adults — competitiveness, and self-indulgence.
Perhaps being born in an opulent society is not the advantage it seems. Assuming that life is ongoing and that we are souls in process of growth and evolution, forever becoming, gaining experience, how profitable is an incarnation of lax expediency? Does the materially favored stand to gain in the long run by opening his consciousness to undesirable impressions? And what of the children — those who have recently arrived in this environment, who avidly drink in every new experience, trusting their elders' guidance and example? How gainful is this incarnation to the soul?
Faced with an assortment of goods that appeal to our senses, or turning the dial on the television, even those of us in modest circumstances have choices to make every day among things which may or may not help us replenish our enduring self and enlarge our sphere of awareness. We are free to squander valuable time on trivia which clutter the mind; or we may seek vicarious thrills by watching adventures that produce stress, nightmares, and worse. We are at liberty to absorb impressions from entertainments that condone amoral and immoral attitudes, making them appear acceptable — or we can assert our independence by supporting what we feel to be worthy of support.
It has been repeatedly demonstrated that noxious fare in films and on television has a strong effect on sensitive people, and there is no doubt it can damage the delicately balanced psychological nature. Many crimes have been ascribed to the aftereffects of some spectacle intended for entertainment. This raises the bugaboo of censorship. There are those who advocate screening books and periodicals, movies, and music before releasing them to the public. This is, to put it bluntly, a cop-out. Even if enforceable, which it probably is not, it would leave us at the mercy of the censors, substituting one undesirable element for another. No, let us be thankful for the freedom we have to make mistakes, to be exposed to deleterious presentations, even to injure our own nature. But we should be aware that only by choosing with deliberation and good sense do we profit from the choices we have and gain improved judgment for the future.
Choice is our most precious possession. It is the means by which we grow. Where there can be no failure, there can be no success. Enforced virtue is no virtue, as was amply demonstrated in the Dark Ages of Europe. Human beings live, learn, and grow by choosing between worthy and unworthy motives and experience. When we choose wisely, gains are made which can never be lost. Making the best selection of which we are capable can appreciably accelerate our progress on the road of human evolution. When we choose wrong, we suffer the consequences and eventually learn to avoid the mistake that caused them. We may not always appreciate meeting the results of our mistakes, but we have earned them no less than our successes. They are our rightful and inescapable heritage.
Let us then glory in our freedom to choose, bearing in mind that together we hold the threads of human destiny in our hands. With every moment we sway the scales, be it ever so slightly, for or against the evolutionary progress of the human race.
(From Sunrise magazine, February/March 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Theosophical University Press)