A Moral Compass

In our society we have many scapegoats, but none more prominent than “the extremist”.  When I read the news, when I watch movies, even when I listen to people speak I hear a condemnation of the “extremes.”  I find it a fascinating notion.  Look around you and see if you agree with me- especially in politics.  Most of the world’s problems seem to be due to “extremists.”  The implication seems to be that if everyone was more moderate in their beliefs and feelings the world would be a better place.  Many, many people that I know believe something akin to what I have just described.  In fact, I imagine that you as the reader do not yet take issue with the idea either.  I find this general societal condemnation of extremes intriguing, and I wish to delve into it further.

Aristotle had an interesting theory called the golden mean.  When we apply it to philosophy, what it basically means is that virtues exist in the middle of two opposing vices.  For example: we would place cowardice on one end of the “moral spectrum” and recklessness on the other.  In between these two, according to Aristotle, would be courage.  In the center we find virtue, and on the extremes we find vice.

This is a tempting philosophy, for on the surface it seems quite rational and self-apparent, but when one digs deeper, problems begin to arise.  Models of the universe are wonderful and useful tools, but sometimes it is helpful to bring the issue back into a less abstract form.  Imagine a cowardly soldier.  This man, fearing for his own life, will not charge when the orders are given.  The lives of others mean less to him than his own as he clutches his knees and trembles, refusing to leave.  Imagine now the “opposite” vice.  Think of a rash and a reckless soldier.  The company has been stalking through the jungle in enemy territory.  They are all bunched together and not yet ready to attack, but our reckless soldier becomes impatient and points his gun in the air and fires of several rounds, lustily yelling for war.  The enemy is now aware of our troop’s location and trouble is sure to follow.  The rash soldier cares more for his own glory and for carrying out his own whims more than he cares for the lives of his compatriots.

Our society seems to preach that we need a balance between the two extremes.  If cowardice is on the far left of the “morality spectrum” and recklessness is on the other, the coward would be told to move more to the right and the rash man would be told to move left.  Still, this seems mostly reasonable, but here is where it breaks down.

A coward does not need to be more reckless.  Neither does a reckless man need to be more cowardly.  Both men require courage.

To take another example, imagine we have a spendthrift on one side and a miser on the other.  The spendthrift spends his money wildly, throwing it at whoever asks it of him and buying all that he desires for himself.  The miser, on the other hand, squeezes every penny as if the world depended on it.  If someone in need were to ask him for aid he would clench his fists tightly and refuse.  He buys himself only what he needs to barely survive, never spending for joy, never being generous to others.  Both these men have serious problems.  However, the solution does not lie in compromise.  The spendthrift does not need to be more miserly, he needs to appropriate his funds more wisely.  Likewise the miser needs not to spend like there’s no tomorrow; he needs to appropriate his funds more wisely.

When we speak of romance we talk of completing one another.  If we apply our theory of the golden mean to a husband and a wife, we begin to see its absurdity.  For, if we wanted to be the best couple possible, we would have to find a partner who had exactly the opposite vices as us.  Can you imagine the fights that would occur between the spendthrift and the miser?  Between the coward and the reckless one?  As a couple they would certainly not balance out.  The miser and the spendthrift would be both in debt and ungenerous to those who are in need.  The coward and the reckless one, well, they would not be in a relationship very long, honestly, each caring for themself more than the other.

Vices do not balance out.  Extremism is not the issue.

We have learned to perceive morality as a spectrum, but the spectrum we have been given is incorrect.  You may have heard of the “moral compass.”  We tend to visualize this as an explorer’s tool, but what if it was the compass of an architect instead?  We have a center point, the focus, if you will, and we have the pencil on the outside.  By holding the focus in place the pencil can draw a perfect circle around it.  Every point on the line is the same distance from the center.  We can rotate the pencil around and around and around, but it will never “balance out” to the mean.  We can only arrive nearer to the center by closing the compass and bringing the pencil nearer to the focus.  We are either closer to morality or we are farther from it.  The spectrum goes in one direction only, and virtue lies on one end of it, vice on the other.

I have long held Epicureanism and Stoicism as equivalent evils.  In both cases life is being lived in a way it was not intended to be lived.  Both philosophies have selfishness at their core, ways of self-fulfillment.

I have a sinking suspicion that selfishness lies at the heart of all vice.  We are told to love ourselves above all else in this society, but is that the best thing?  Let us take the matter to its extreme.  What do we call those who love themselves more than any other thing?  Sociopaths.  Narcissists.  But then, I digress.

The coward is as selfish as the reckless man; both disregard the lives of their friends.  I don’t have time to delve into my thoughts on selfishness in this post, but suffice it to say, this is my point: virtue lies at one extreme, and vice lies at the other.

Opposite vices miss the mark of virtue equally.  Two wrongs can never make a right.

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Ambition

There is an item not much debated in our culture that I would like to examine.  It is ambition.  This seems an easy topic at first glance, after all, we are told all of our lives to be ambitious.  “Shoot for the moon and even if you fall short you will land among the stars”, they say.  (An ironic statement, for as we all know, the stars are farther away than the moon, but I digress).  My question is: do we value ambition too much?  Do we value it too little?  Why do we value it?

I believe our culture is very interested in “how?”, but not as interested in “why?”.  It is very apparent that ambitious people seem to do things that they are remembered for, and largely being a race that is scared to death of dying, we seem to find comfort in the idea that we will be remembered on earth.

When I think of an ambitious person, I immediately think of Napoleon Bonaparte.  It is hard to find a more ambitious man than he.  From the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s he went from being a nobody in the French Army to becoming the grand emperor of the French Empire.  He essentially conquered all of Europe and other territories as well.  At one point he fought against the Ottomans, the British, the Russians, and others all at the same time!  He is to this day considered to be one of the greatest commanders of all time as well as a father of modern military strategy.  The man was ambitious.

However, it was quite a shocking revelation to me, when I was studying Napoleon a few years ago, that he was not a hero.  Napoleon is a villain of history- one of the scourges of Europe.  He was an extremely ambitious man, but not a positive mark on the timeline.  Let us review.

Between five and seven million people died in the Napoleonic Wars (and that includes many civilians).  The democracy of France was overthrown by Napoleon, the economy was ruined, and Western civilization was kept in a state of perpetual war for a quarter of a century.  But why?  What was the cause for all of this war and destruction?

Simple ambition.  Napoleon wanted to do something great, and to him that meant ruling the world for France.  It was ambition for ambition’s sake.

There is a danger, I believe, in arriving at another destructive conclusion: that one should do nothing but scrape by and spend all of one’s free waking hours in front of the television, never accomplishing anything.  We all know that this is not the best way of living.  When we have a friend who has fallen into a pattern of laziness we tell him to get some ambition.  He needs some drive to go out and accomplish something.  So we are then left with the question: which is it?  Is ambition bad or is it good?

The answer lies in purpose.  We are told that life has no purpose, that there is no great purpose in much, if not all, of what we do.  This is a dangerous philosophy, and one that leads to a road stained red with consequences.  For if nothing has a purpose, we begin to ignore consequences.  We become selfish.  Selfish, ambitious men are very dangerous, as history has shown time and time again.

One can have great ambition to build orphanages in Africa.  One can want to provide clean water to every neighborhood in the country, or in the world.  One can be ambitious to find the cure for cancer and save millions of lives!

Are these not good things?

The things themselves are.  But I assure you, even Napoleon thought that he was doing good.

The conclusion I arrive at is this: selfish ambition is incredibly destructive, leads to harming others, and creates a dissatisfied individual.  Napoleon’s life was filled with frustration, pain, and disappointment, despite his great accomplishments.  Do you want to be the first to find a widespread cure for cancer?  Excellent, but why do you want that?  Do you want to save the sick and the hurting?  Do you enjoy a challenge, and you want to see if the enigma has a solution?  Or do you merely want to be seen?  If you could find the cure, but your name would never appear on it, never be published, would you still do it?

Our knee-jerk reaction is “Of course!”, but would you?

Ambition is a volatile chemical.  Accomplishing great things is all well and good, and if you have a positive, constructive desire, I encourage you to work hard at achieving it- but not for yourself.  People who have great ambition for themselves lose sight of what is important, and tragedy always seems to follow.  Everything has a purpose, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Consideration of “why?” should precede any great undertaking.

Breathe Into Me

Breathe into me.

For there is a longing inside that remains unexpressed

A true current of meaning, but second-guessed.

It lies just beyond my reach

Because we have forgotten the subtler things.

Pour into me.

For there is a light I feel but cannot yet see.

Even such stunted prescience has vanished for many.

The world grows not dimmer, but rather our eyes darker

Because we have forgotten the softer things.

Re-instruct me.

For I long to know the art of what most say is dead

Purported reason and meaning overtly insipid.

Treasures misplaced only the past have cherished

Because we have forgotten the slower things

Haunted

Icy wind whipped through Donovan’s hair as he held on in the near darkness.  Below him were the lights and sounds of a typical American metropolis, unaware of the small man hanging off a ledge hundreds of feet above.  Donovan was dangling by his fingertips, clinging to his ledge in desperation, having had nowhere else to hide.

He would be there soon- the man who had been hunting Donovan down and making his life a living Hell for the past week.  Donovan had been left no recourse when he stumbled out of the rusty, metal door and onto the gravel-covered rooftop.  There was nowhere else to hide, and there certainly wasn’t anywhere to run.  His only hope was that the powerful man who chased him wouldn’t see his fingers clinging to the building’s edge.  The moon was his enemy, and he prayed for the clouds to cover him.

The night air was pierced by a jolting screech as the rusty, metal door opened, then closed.  Soft footsteps crunched on the gravel beneath unseen feet, pausing as if the man was looking around.  The crunching sound of gravel picked up again after a few moments and Donovan held his breath.  His fingers were beginning to cramp in the cold.

It was certainly the man who was hunting him.  He had been close behind Donovan as he had dashed through the rooms of the skyscraper, and Donovan could think of no other reason for an individual to be on the roof at this time of the night.  Pain was gathering in Donovan’s hands.  He wasn’t sure how much longer he would be able to hold on.

Donovan wasn’t certain why the man had been tracking him, but he had a few ideas.  A few grudges from the past would explain it… Maybe it was that brother of his ex.  Donovan had gotten more than friendly with a woman he worked with and his fiancée had found out.  Donovan’s phone had received several messages from her brother explaining all the ways he was going to kill him.  That was one possibility.

The sounds of crunching gravel stopped again, nearer to Donovan this time.  Sweat trickled down the dangling man’s hair as he tried to keep it together.  The tendons in his arms were beginning to burn.  His fingers were numb.  He held his breath and tried desperately to think of who this man might be- he had been stalking Donovan for days.

It could have been Roger, Donovan’s old roommate that he had ripped off a few years back- before Donovan had landed his high-paying job in the city.  Rent had been sneaking up and Donovan found himself without options, so he had hacked into his friend’s bank account and removed what he needed.  It was so easy that it became something of a habit.  One day Donovan had drained the account and ran off before his friend could put it all together.  Maybe he had caught up to him after all this time.

Fear gripped Donovan’s racing heart.  He worried that the muscular stranger might be able to hear its beating and find him.  His arms were on fire.  He tried bracing his feet on the structure, but it was sheer and he was able to find no relief.  It wouldn’t be long now.  Donovan only hoped that the man would leave in time so he could pull himself back up.  For if he was discovered now, falling off of a skyscraper would seem like a Vegas vacation.  He knew being caught would be much worse than slipping, so he held on, breathing heavily but as silently as he could.  His joints cried out in pain.

Footsteps neared the spot where he was dangling and Donovan could hear breathing now.  Why had this killer come?  There were too many possibilities to count.  It could have been a disgruntled investor from the time Donovan had been put in charge of submitting the bid on a once in a lifetime investment.  Donovan had gotten so caught up in the excitement that he had gone out drinking the night prior to his deadline and he slept right through the meeting.  Some very powerful people had been left holding the bag.  Or maybe it was one of his old assistants he used to treat so badly.  Perhaps it was one of the homeless men who watched him eat his large, expensive lunches in the park every day, always begging, but Donovan was not the kind of man to share.  No, that couldn’t be it… the man chasing him was well-muscled, healthy.  He definitely wasn’t a homeless person.

Blood began to rush to Donovan’s head as he panicked, readjusting his tenuous grip on the cold, hard ledge.  Fright leapt though him with the realization that his adjustment may have alerted the man on the roof as to his position.  Donovan clung desperately to the building, sweating from the sides of his face.

Maybe Donovan’s neighbor had seen him smash in the windows of the new Porsche he had recently bought that Donovan was so jealous of.  Donovan’s blood went cold and his hairs stood up on end.

Maybe it was the ghost of the man he had killed all those years ago in a fit of passion.  Donovan had found out his girlfriend was cheating on him, so he went and found the other man to push him around a bit.  Donovan broke a vase over his head.  The man had been dead before he hit the ground.  And now that man’s ghost had come back to him to haunt him, to wait for him outside his home, to appear in the midst of crowds, to show up even when Donovan had booked a hotel to try and hide away.  That was it, and Donovan’s blood ran cold.  The ghost of his darkest hour had arrived to torment him.

Donovan slowly raised his eyes upward to see a darkened face appear, shadowed by a tipped fedora.  The man froze a moment and Donovan finally couldn’t take it any longer.  He desperately tried to maintain his grip despite fears of what faced him, but he was unable.  Donovan’s burning arms and torn shoulders windmilled through space just after his numb fingertips slid across the edge of the concrete, peeling the skin from them and condemning him to a long, cold, and brutal fall.  He screamed as he plummeted into the void, the dark monster of fear wrapping around his soul as the inevitability of his demise made itself clear.  The city lights and the sounds of traffic became much more apparent just before he struck the ground.

~.~

A man in a trench coat sat on the curb outside of a high rise hotel, clutching his head with one hand and hanging onto his fedora with the other.  The policewoman who had taken him aside was standing nearby.

“Do you think you’re ready to tell me about it now, sir?”

The man in the trench coat swallowed hard and nodded.

“I just don’t get it…”

“Don’t get what, sir?”

He looked up at the female officer with despondent, tear-swelled eyes.

“I’ve been trying to hunt this guy down for weeks.  I’d show up near his house and he’d bolt.  I asked around and tracked him to his office and he’d bolt.  I talked to his friends and found out his walking routes, but he’d always run off too quick for me to catch up to him.  This isn’t how these things are supposed to go…”

“Sir, are you aware that stalking is a crime?  Anything you say to me now goes on the record.”

The man in the trench coat shook his head again.

“It’s not like that.  I work for a sweepstakes company.  This guy Donovan submitted an entry to our business six months ago and he won.  I’ve been trying to track him down and film his reaction.”  The man handed his fedora hat to the officer.  “There’s a hidden camera in the front that we use for these kind of things.”

The policewoman inspected the hat as the man continued.

“I finally cornered him tonight- his neighbor told me he was going to stay in this hotel tonight, but when he saw me he bolted.  By the time I caught up to him he was hanging off of the building.”

The man in the trench coat sighed heavily as the policewoman stopped writing suddenly to listen.  The man cleared his throat and spoke again.

“The guy won a million bucks.”

Auld Lang Syne

2012 is over, the world didn’t end, and here we are.  I find that in my own life, and most likely in just about everyone else’s as well, there is a lack of reflection.  Life certainly is not meant to be lived in the past, but from time to time I think there is occasion to review what has happened, what sorts of decisions have been made, and how it affects where the present stands.  New Years Day is one such occasion, and if you will permit me, in lieu of what I had planned to post this week (a quick short story called Haunted.  I’ll post it soon) I’ll share a few of my New Year’s reflections with you.

2012 was an eventful year, to say the least.  I completed a degree at the University of Southern California, I travelled across Europe and saw incredible things, I ran with the bulls in Pamplona, I wrote a novel, I wrote all sorts of other material, I started serving at my church, and I ran a marathon under trying circumstances.  I went broke twice, a hope I held onto for the last 14 years fell through utterly, and on too many occasions to count I found myself wondering what I should do.  I lost two grandpas and an aunt.  I met some incredible people.  I realized a lot about myself, how the world works, and God.  I’ve seen some friends engaged and others split up.  I’ve picked up a few new skills and realized how many more there are to master.

I could go on, but suffice it to say- I lived this year.  I made good choices and I made mistakes; I was ecstatic and I was crushed.  What occurs to me in looking back at it all, good and bad, is that it was all worth it.  I’ve gotten to do and see a lot of incredible things this year, but even if I set aside all of the great experiences I know that the hard things were worth it too.  The times I’ve been confused, let down, or in error will all add to my experiences and God-willing will they will make me a better human being.  I certainly wish I could have skipped the bad, but that’s not how life works.  At least there are reasons for it all.

Reflecting back causes me to realize several things, but perhaps the most important is this: everything can change in a moment, and beginnings and endings are continuously happening all around. 2012 was a year of foolish end of the world predictions, yet the world went on.  It’s so easy to look around inside a situation and think that nothing will ever change, that we’re trapped, that it’s the end of the world.  This rock will certainly come to its doom one day, but until it does it’s worth it to keep hoping and keep trying.

 

Here’s to 2013- may we live it the best way we know how.