Applied Virtue

Everything You Take, You Owe

Photo: Huaxtec female deity, Tlazolteotl. Ethno. Q 89 Am 3.1. British Museum. by Ophelia Summers. Tlazolteotl is the Aztec goddess of filth and purification.

The Aztecs in their theology believed that their gods sacrificed themselves to create the Earth, the heavens, and everything in them. Because of this, humans owed a debt to the gods. Everything they ate or drank, the air they breathed, the land; in their theology the gods provided this for them, and thus they owed their gods. They believed that their gods also depended upon them, and just as their gods fed them, they had to feed their gods.

They did this with gruesome human sacrifice.

Many people distant from Mexico don’t realize that not all Mexicans were Aztecs. The 15th century Aztec civilization was based in their capital of Tenochtitlán, in a lake that has since dried up and was where Mexico City now sits. The surrounding peoples were not Aztecs but other tribes and civilizations that were either subjugated by or enemies with the Aztecs. The Aztecs, to pay what they thought they owed to their gods, would sacrifice, in a bloody gruesome ritual, captives from the surrounding peoples. They sincerely believed that if they did not do this regularly, the world would end.

Not surprisingly these peoples, victims of the Aztecs were only too eager to team up with Hernan de Cortez and the Spanish conquistadores to battle and bring about the fall of the Aztecs and their then-ruler Moctezuma, but little did they know the Spaniards would unleash their own brand of horrors on the locals for the next 3 centuries.

The Aztecs show how a true principle, a good idea, corrupted by myth, superstition and theology can go horribly wrong.

Right principle, wrong interpretation.

Everything you take, you owe. Every breath of air, every bite of food, every sip of water, every ray of sunlight. We are too often oblivious of this basic principle. The better off we are, the more stable our environment, the less we need to think about it. Certain religions from the Indian subcontinent have the concept of Karma, which is a somewhat similar idea.

Some people take very little. They consume little energy, few resources, they “walk with a small footprint.” That’s not bad.

But it may surprise you that it is not, in itself, good either. Big fish in the sea eat more than little fish, but they have no more or no less virtue than little fish.

The question is: Are you giving as much as you are taking? Many people, maybe even most people in the modern world reach the end of their lives having taken more than they have given. This is not about money or economics or consumption, though all those are part of the grand equation. It’s not even about charity or penance or guilt. Are you making an impact? It’s not so much what you do, as what you do with what you do.

Are you the big man in the big hut in the little village? Are you using your power to bully and steal from your tribe, or are you protecting and providing for the weak and the old?

Are you the big shot in the private jet or the motor yacht? That’s great. There is not a thing wrong with that. Just make sure you are balancing the equation.

Relative to the resources you had, the opportunities you encountered, and what you took, when you are dead and gone, how much better off is this earth and all the life on it, on account of your existence?

If you are a parent or a teacher, what impact did you have on the children entrusted to your care? If you are a cook, do you take care to provide clean, safe nourishment to those you feed? If you are a rancher, do you care for your animals and provide for their happiness as well as their physical care?

Do you take care not to be wasteful? Everything you take, you owe. Keep that in mind, each and every day. Avoid selfishness. The principle is the same for everyone, rich or poor; famous or unknown. Whether you live in a mansion or a tree.

However you live your life, whatever your circumstances, are you keeping a tally? Everything you take, you owe. You have a lifetime to pay it back, just make sure you are doing so.

It isn’t as difficult to apply this principle as the Aztecs made it out to be, after all.


Photo: Huaxtec female deity, Tlazolteotl. Ethno. Q 89 Am 3.1. British Museum. by Ophelia Summers. Tlazolteotl is the Aztec goddess of filth and purification.

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