The One You Feed

To live is to struggle, in both personal life and in our professional one. At times, this strain turns one cynical, even to the point of becoming comfortable with being a conduit for negative thoughts, feelings, and actions. This pessimistic outlook is all too often exploited by some in society in order to rationalize the demonization of segments of the community as the source of the factors responsible for why we struggle. The value of selfishness is introduced as a natural and needed remedy to the unjust difficulties of life.

The idea of selfishness is very different from that of self-interest. Selfishness involves a reckless and willful disregard for others, while self-interest is merely meeting ones’ individual needs while not perpetrating harm on others. Today, it is common to hold selfishness as a major component to professional ambition.

Thinkers like economists F.A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, and philosophers Robert Nozick (before his renouncement) and, of course, Ayn Rand have provided contemporary politicians like Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, and Ron Paul with reason to champion selfishness as a virtue. These influential people support the cause that the pursuit of money is the greatest virtue, for it brings the greatest benefit to humanity. Just as importantly, they claim, the desire to be compassionate and supportive towards others in the community, altruism, is not just bad, but, in the words of Ayn Rand, “evil.”

selfishness-1

This way of thinking requires humans to be supremely individualistic; civilization is simply a byproduct of the greed of the individual. Libertarianism rejects what I would argue is a fundamental aspect of being human: that we are social beings. Humans don’t come together purely because our selfish goals bring us into conflict with others on the path to ambition. Humans are social creatures, self-interested and inherently communal, and yes, altruistic. To deny this is to reject our humanity, or at the very least, to absolutely fail to properly understand it.

I like to think of this analogy when a co-worker or someone in my personal life displays a negative personality.

An old Cherokee told his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all.

One is Evil. It is anger, jealously, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies and ego. The other is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.”

The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?”

The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

wolf_howl

Imagine Sisyphus as Happy

This is an op-ed from journalist and Albert Camus fan Roger Cohen titled “Active Fatalism,” and I find it terribly insightful. It is certainly something I can relate to, and I imagine most human beings would feel the same. The primary point of his opinion is the inherent nobility and virtue of being a good human being, irregardless of title, rank, or ambition. It invokes thoughts of how grand it is to be a dutiful citizen, friend, father, and mother.

sisyphus-cartoon

Cohen begins by challenging the contemporary definition of heroism, “I am less interested in the firefighter-hero and soldier hero than I am in the myriad doers of everyday good who would shun the description heroic.” It is far too common, he argues, for society to “rush to elevate the authors of exceptional acts,” resulting in forgetting “the ordinary man and woman doing their often menial jobs day after day.”

For Cohen, reflection of this subject was born from a talk he attended by the German finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble. As Cohen recounts,

“He brought up Sisyphus, the Greek mythological figure whose devious attempt to defy the gods and even death itself was punished with his condemnation to the task of pushing a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll down again and oblige him to renew the effort through all eternity. No task, it would appear, better captures the meaningless futility of existence. But Schäuble suggested that Sisyphus is a happy man for “he has a task and it is his own.” ‘

The phrase was arresting because the culture of today holds repetitive actions — like working on a production line in a factory — in such contempt. Hundreds of millions may do it, and take care of their families with what they earn, but they are mere specks of dust compared to the Silicon Valley inventor of the killer app or the lean global financiers adept in making money with money. Routine equals drudgery; the worker is a demeaned figure; youths are exhorted to live their dreams rather than make a living wage. Dreams are all very well but are not known to pay the mortgage.

sisyphus-300x200

Schäuble was echoing the French writer and philosopher, Albert Camus, who in his book “The Myth of Sisyphus” noted that “there is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.” In besieged Sarajevo during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 the freest people in the encircled city were those who, every day, dressed impeccably, went to work and did their jobs, thereby demonstrating “inat,” or scorn, for the barbaric gunners in the hills. It was absurd to work, just as the existence of a European city cut off and surrounded by a dirt trench was absurd, but in the everyday duty fulfilled lay liberation of sorts. Similarly, the labor of Sisyphus may be the embodiment of the absurd, which is the human condition, but he is freed by his lucid knowledge and acceptance of his task. He keeps pushing even if the pushing appears to lead nowhere. Camus’ conclusion is that, “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

In Camus’ book, “The Plague,” one of the most powerful moments comes in an exchange between the doctor at the center of the novel, Bernard Rieux, and a journalist named Raymond Rambert. Rieux has been battling the pestilence day after day, more often defeated than not. Rambert has been dreaming of, and plotting, escape from the city to be reunited with his loved one. Rieux suddenly speaks his mind:

“I have to tell you this: this whole thing is not about heroism. It’s about decency. It may seem a ridiculous idea, but the only way to fight the plague is with decency.”

“What is decency?” Rambert asked, suddenly serious.

“In general, I can’t say, but in my case I know that it consists of doing my job.”

The next day, Rambert calls the doctor and says he wants to work with him in the emergency teams battling the plague. Later in the novel, Rieux says, “I feel more solidarity with the defeated than with saints. I don’t think I have any taste for heroism and sainthood. What interests me is to be a man.”

These are almost forgotten ideas in an age much taken, on the one hand, with a kind of sentimental or gimmicky “heroism,” and, on the other, with the revealed truth of religion that is held to resolve the absurdity of life, subsuming the individual into some greater pattern of meaning that brings salvation. I prefer the approach to life summed up by Camus as active fatalism. The true hero is the unsung one who does his or her daily shift, puts food on the table for the children, gives them an education and a roof over their heads. I am with Rieux when he says, “Salvation is too big a word for me. I don’t go that far. What interests me is man’s health, his health first of all.”

I have my heroes. We all do. They are the nameless ones.

 

No one in my house likes banana pudding

It really makes no sense, like, zero. There are four human beings living in my house: my wonderfully talented, fantastically intelligent, and stunningly beautiful wife, who is, for the most part, totally not crazy. And of course my two kick-ass elementary school-aged girls who, without hesitations, go bananas (see what I did there?) at the mere thought of having pudding. That is, of course, until any one of them are confronted with banana pudding. It is like pudding is vanilla or chocolate or some combination but nothing else. And then, when banana pudding is offered they react as if they’ve been offered sewage. It’s not just a “no,” but a hostile rejection; they’re offended. It makes no sense.

It’s not even my favorite pudding (tapioca, duh) but I feel as though banana pudding requires justice, a champion to point out banana pudding is stuffed with vanilla wafers, made soft, irresistible, and perhaps more than mildly addicting when ensconced in yellow-cream. I mean, who is crazy enough to deny the absurdly delicious state of vanilla wafers slowly decomposing in unctuous, cool silkiness? No one, that’s who. But nope, there they are, my family. Not a one will touch it.

Perhaps it is the banana that is the source of their collective hatred? It is true that my wife dislikes them tremendously. But both my children like them, my youngest especially as she eats several a week.

And yet I’ve born witness to all three eat banana as part of a banana split. Hypocrisy!

Hell yes.
Hell. Yes.

If it was easy, everyone would do it. The Hard is what makes it great.