In today’s America, there are few topics that are taboo. Yet the people who are comfortable discussing the most intimate details of their lives — and those of others — become red-faced and start stammering when the subject of debt comes up.

Most Americans have some kind of financial debt — mortgages, car loans, credit cards, and so on. In fact, this kind of debt is not at all unusual and is certainly not considered reprehensible. Debts are, in fact, bonds. They bind us to our creditors; their strength is our honor — our commitment to do what we promised. In the film Rob Roy, the lead character says, “Honor is a gift a man gives to himself.”

The bonds of shared faith are another kind of debt. They derive from the assurance of common values and common motives. Some bonds are explicit, for example, marriage vows. We state explicitly our intention to be bound together in a union that will survive any kind of hardship.

Others are implicit: Parents’ love and care for their children are seldom expressed in written documents but are, nonetheless, understood in almost all cultures. They are expected and respected.

Some debts are acquired. We borrow money or request a favor of someone. In so doing, we incur a debt by choice. Other debts are a function of our role in life, either the role we have chosen, or into which circumstances have thrust us. The debts pertaining to a role are generally termed “duty.”

Engineering professionals are generally good at recognizing their duty to the people they serve — their families, employers, customers, and the public. But sometimes it helps to make these things explicit. I suggest making a list of your duties, keeping it handy, and perhaps updating the list frequently.

“I slept and dreamed that life was joy. I awoke and saw that life was duty. I acted, and behold, duty was joy,” said Rabindranath Tagore, one of India’s past Hindu spiritual leaders. He captured a profound truth in this memorable quotation. If we are to realize its full value, there are two requirements.

First, we must accept the notion of duty. We must embrace, explore, and comprehend the duty in each of our roles as engineer, employee, parent, child, citizen, neighbor, and so on. We must ask and answer questions: What is required of an engineer? A parent? A sister? A citizen? What must I do to fulfill each of these obligations, to pay these debts?

The second requirement is that we must act. Having grasped the nature of our obligations, we must now move to meet them. This is not a single action; rather, it requires a change in attitude and a shift in the way we see ourselves and others. If we are honest, we will find many debts that we have failed to discharge.

Do not be overwhelmed by the apparent magnitude of the task. Remember what Scottish mountaineer W. H. Murray says (in “The Scottish Himalaya Expedition,” 1951): “Concerning all acts of initiative, there is one elementary truth … that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too…. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way.”

I have found this to be true. When I commit myself to the right path, the entire universe supports me.

Unlike a loan, the debt of duty cannot be repaid with a single payment. It is an ongoing obligation to be met throughout the time in which you are in the role. And Tagore was right: Through acting, duty becomes joy. But travel slowly through this new territory, or you might miss many hidden treasures.

Joel Orr

Joel Orr is Chief Visionary Emeritus of Cyon Research Corp.
The views he expresses here are his own, not those of Cyon. Reach him at joel@joelorrcoaching.com.

Edited by Leslie Gordon