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.
Caleb was a smart, funny, middle-aged real estate salesman who dressed well and seemed amused by the world. He sat apart in my Shakespeare seminar, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, shrouded in the kind of invisibility that accompanies older, returning, so-called “non-traditional” college students. The rest of the class, early 20-something undergraduates, were only interested in each other and passing the 3 credits of Shakespeare required for their various humanities degrees. But I paid attention to Caleb and listened to him when he occasionally spoke up.
Maybe this was because I spent my childhood and early adult years in search of male role models, my father having been emotionally absent for most of my life. Whatever the reason, while the other students were busy trying to get together with each other and / or ridicule each other’s ideas—oblivious to everyone and everything (often including the professor and the work) that stood outside the narrow purview of their post-adolescent obsessions—I was taking it all in, especially the things Caleb said.
I remember thinking that he seemed to have everything a man could want: intelligence, style, money, wit, and enough virtue to believe that he could better himself by getting a second bachelor’s degree. In my own very naïve and superficial way, I thought he was teaching me something by example. I paid attention because I believed there were life secrets in plain view that could be discovered as long as I showed up, closed my mouth, and opened my mind. But the lesson I was destined to learn from Caleb would not be taught until I got to know him better.
Toward the end of the course, we had to find a partner and prepare a presentation on one of Shakespeare’s history plays. I was a hard worker. So the presentation was relatively easy. And since, like Caleb, I was a social outsider in the class, it seemed natural that we would be partners. In this way, I got to know him a lot better. We met a few times at the country club, of which he was part owner, and he taught me the basics of golf—which I found interesting but which I have not played since then.
We did the work, but I also got drawn temporarily into his social sphere. Caleb had a magnetic personality and was constantly surrounded by money, activity, assistants, and stunning women, most of whom were professionals in commercial real estate or finance. His lifestyle was impressive and a bit overwhelming to me. Still, working with him over the course of a month gave me an insight I hadn’t had, a vision of what life could be like after college. But it all fell away one afternoon over lunch when Caleb gave me some frank advice.
We’d just finished eating with a woman named Eva, who was about 5 years older than me and already a heavyweight in east coast corporate real estate. She could have easily been a girl in one of my classes, but she’d graduated a year before from Princeton. She was also one of the most physically beautiful people I had ever looked at. When she said her good-byes and went off towards the tennis courts, Caleb and I watched her go. I felt like I’d been struck by a bolt of lightning—that curious blend of admiration and despair that started wars in the ancient world, made poets fill their heads with absinthe and jump off bridges, and makes everyday people like you and me weep in the dark.
Caleb noticed the look on my face and said, “Don’t be a walking wallet in your life, Michael.”
I said I didn’t understand and he just looked at me with a faint smile as if to say, yes, you damn well do.
“This is no life to fall in love with,” he said. “Study hard. Do what you’re good at. This—” he frowned and waved his hand to take in the people sitting around us, Eva (now a tiny figure in a white skirt among other tiny white-skirted figures on the tennis courts), the rolling golf course, the perfect blue sky—“is artificial.”
Over the years, it has occurred to me more than once that I could have sincerely responded with: “Most things we want are.” But I wasn’t that glib at age 21. Instead, I must have nodded or changed the subject because I don’t remember the rest of the conversation. I do remember how Caleb pronounced artificial, like it was covered in some kind of excrement. And I clearly recall how my sense of Eva immediately changed from infatuation to a kind of dread.
If Caleb, a man who seemed to have everything, could feel bitter about his choices, then what lay in store for Eva? For me? How long would it take for the acids of commercial real estate to etch lines of acrimony and despair into her beautiful face? And to what lengths would she go to cover all that up and approximate her former smile? To what lengths had Caleb gone? And how unsophisticated and superficial was I that I couldn’t see this while he could read my deepest longings and insecurities over a Caesar salad at the club?
I suppose he’d taken his own advice in spite of his regrets. Caleb was doing what he was good at: reading me, helping me understand how to find satisfaction. A gifted salesman knows your likes and dislikes, knows how to help you get what you want. At the deepest purest level, a salesman is your best friend. No one cares more deeply about fulfilling your needs, about why and how you’re hungry and how to feed you. It has occurred to me that a true salesman—someone following his inner gift such that a writer like Cormac McCarthy might say he carried the secret fire—is as much an artist as any painter or poet. He merely works in a cruder medium: human desire.
Caleb was one of the few people I’ve met in my life who carried that fire alongside his pain. The possibility that one could actually do this was the lesson he taught me in a single conversation on a beautiful California afternoon sometime in 1993. It opened my mind, not to becoming a real estate salesman like him, but to the reality that I had the secret fire, too; that somewhere it was already burning; and that discovering it was more important than all the dreams of avarice.
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