There are many different paths to greatness, not just the ones most commonly identified by conformist culture. As long as your basic needs are met, where you put your energy—how you pursue excellence—is completely your business. Realizing this can be difficult and gradual.
It seems true, even if we admit that discourses (value systems) will always compete with each other for dominance. And one of the most ruthless and rapacious, at least in the West, is that of “meritocracy.” A meritocracy is inherently based on an assumed set of cultural values. But you need to realize that you are free to opt out of those assumed values. What the masses consider to be good doesn’t have to define your life.
If you don’t accept meritocratic cultural values, merit-based judgments by those who do are irrelevant. In other words, it is a mistake to impose the rules of a game on someone who refuses to play; though, because discourses will compete with each other, people will usually try to impose their personal values-discourse on you. Often, they will do so because they’re not aware of alternatives. They may not even remember the moment they chose to buy in. And they may not understand that imposing values on someone else is an act of violence.
Remove the question of merit (and its various implications) and the locus of meaning in life shifts (possibly returns) from an external authority to the individual. One arrives squarely within Viktor Frankl’s “Will to Meaning“—not seeking meaning / value relative to others, but exploring what is already resonant / resident in the self. “Thy Will be Done” becomes “My Will be Done,” with all the freedoms and responsibilities arising from that shift.
It makes no difference if your private world is idiosyncratic to the point at which it would seem very strange to more common sensibilities. As long as you’re not behaving like a hypocrite by harming or otherwise curtailing the autonomy of others, your interiority (including the way you choose to perceive the world outside your self) is completely yours. And it doesn’t seem outrageous to conclude that this is how it should be. If you don’t own your thoughts, can you ever own anything else? In fact, it seems that the more you personalize your unique way of seeing and acting in the world, the stronger and more persuasive that uniqueness becomes.
Because discourse is grounded in conflict and competition, this self-originating, self-describing narrative you are spinning can have a destabilizing effect on others, who may accuse you of being a delusional, a dreamer, someone out of touch with (what the dominant culture considers) reality. But if it works for you, isn’t it the right thing? Isn’t that choosing inner freedom instead of pledging fealty to ideas and to a lifestyle that was designed (or emerged) without you particularly in mind?
Walking away from a meritocracy takes a lot of courage and effort. Because you are a social being, it can involve a certain amount of suffering, alienation, and lonesomeness. You risk being called a deviant, being labeled as a disaffected undesirable. Even if you don’t agree with those judgments, they will still hurt. Hopefully, your growing curiosity about your own sui generis greatness and freedom will mitigate that pain.
You might call this the “inward path,” the “artist’s way,” or “the path beyond the campfire” which leads into dark unmapped places, where all new things wait to be discovered.
When is it time to pay our debts?
Other ways of asking this question are: what do we live for? What is our highest value? What is the foremost goal of our lives? When will we know if we have reached it to satisfaction? When will we know that reaching it is no longer an option? And then what will we do?
Everyone has the power to choose the self-determined life because the choice is internal.
I believe that we all determine the objectives of our lives. We can make ourselves subservient to the values and definitions of others. Nevertheless, the root decision is always ours to make somewhere, sometime in life. It is an internal act. It takes place in the mind and in the heart.
Choosing to live according to someone else’s rules (if only by default) may allow us to avoid a degree of painful awareness (and perhaps continue on in a kind of bovine simplicity until old age or circumstances end us), but self-determination is a far more dynamic and dangerous prospect.
When we consciously and deliberately identify what we believe is our highest value—when we do so with a broad and deep understanding of the public and private forces that have shaped our worldview over time—we are able to make rational empowered decisions that may seem terrifying and even arbitrary to those still in the cattle car.
Self-responsibility necessitates self-atonement.
We become responsible for our decisions, for the immense degree of inner freedom that comes with self-determination. We are in charge. We are the author of our success or failure. And if the ship sinks because of our choices, we are obligated to make amends somehow. This is true atonement—not to an imaginary deity or to a social expectation, not to another person who has power over us, but to ourselves, to our personal ideals, to the values we have chosen, to the personal definitions we have written. We owe it to ourselves to atone because only we can pay for what we’ve done or failed to do.
Otherwise, we admit that we were never truly serious about mastering our lives. We accept that we are running away in shame; that we are untrue; that we have failed to grasp what is at stake. We embrace our essential weakness as a definitive attribute. We admit that external forces have dominated us after all. And we place ourselves below the aforesaid thoughtless cattle who voluntarily gave up control over their lives. We had the power, but we were not equal to it.
Atoning for failure affirms nobility and strength of character. The opposite is also true.
One option is noble (I will atone for my failure and thereby restore myself and the universe—I am what I say I am and the actions I took, even if they were misguided, still carry meaning). The other is ignoble (I refuse to accept responsibility when it is inconvenient or painful to do so—I am a hypocrite and therefore false).
Just as only we can make the necessary sacrifice, only we can determine the sort of sacrifice that should be made. However, I believe that we know in our hearts what form of atonement is needed. It doesn’t require much deliberation. For example, in the Hávámal, Odin speaks of the sacrifice of himself to himself in order to acquire the Runes (symbolizing true wisdom):
I trow I hung on that windy Tree
nine whole days and nights,
stabbed with a spear, offered to Odin,
myself to mine own self given,
high on that Tree of which none hath heard
from what roots it rises to heaven. (137)
He would rather be wise than comfortable. He voluntarily suffers in order to transcend the limitations imposed by circumstances. In this sense, self-sacrifice (especially in the sense of sacrificing to restore oneself, to make oneself whole again) is a heroic, godlike act. It is superhuman in that it upholds the primacy of one’s will / word. This is troth in the ancient sense.
In short: if I have determined the course of my life, I will accept the outcome. I will correct my failures just as I enjoy my successes. And I will do so honestly—with the wisdom (the realization of authentic experience) that comes from the troth of who I have decided to be. I am my own redeemer. I will act in accordance with my word and it is from this that I shall be known. It is with this that I shall transcend my own limitations and restore the world.
“Without noble purpose we are nothing.” – Frank Herbert