Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Love And Fear: A Contemplation

I was about to post something fundamentally silly about the tears and travails of longsuffering New York sports fans -- with emphasis on us NY Rangers devotees -- but as they've been doing ever more frequently in recent years, my thoughts jumped tracks, diverting me to consideration of some aspects of a story currently under construction, which caused me to ponder...well, us.

Yes, yes, I know you come here to get your boiler stoked. I know that without a political tirade to light that fire, your bile ducts can't get properly warmed up. But these things just happen now and then.

Each of us comes equipped with the capacities to embrace others and to fend them off. Those who are particularly good at the former become known as great philosophers, widely admired philanthropists, or popular prostitutes. Those who incline firmly toward the latter move into caves and grow really long beards. Obviously, there are shadings between those two poles that depend on individuals' circumstances and involvements. But the poles themselves are important markers for the emotional proclivities of Mankind.

If you need examples, consider Mother Teresa of Calcutta and Twentieth Century journalist and essayist Garet Garrett. The former was so filled with love of Mankind that she gave her life and all she possessed to caring for others. The latter, alarmed by the acceleration of the follies he'd chronicled, really did spend his final years in a cave. No doubt there are others, but those two are colorful enough to serve us for now.

Note that I've eschewed the customary opposition of love with hatred. Hatred is an inherently transient condition; O'Brien's fantasies notwithstanding, it's too exhausting to sustain for any great length of time. Alongside that, hatred has many commonalities with love; perhaps most notable is that both emotions are spurs to action. Fear is more plausible as love's polar opposite.

Moreover, the behavior of persons animated by love is more precisely the opposite of that which characterizes persons animated by fear. Which brings me to the meat of this essay, such as it is.

The great figures of human history populate the outer "tails" of the Love-Fear curve. For purposes of concision, let's call persons who fall at those extremes Lovers and Hermits.

Mind you, great does not mean good; it means highly consequential or influential. A great man is one whose existence has affected many others, perhaps one who has turned the courses of nations. For example, philosopher Eric Hoffer was the possessor of exceptional perception and intelligence, and by all available evidence was also a good (i.e., responsible and ethical) man; However, if we judge by the affected-others metric, he cannot (yet) be said to have been a great man.

Among us lesser ones, who seek only to sit under our own vines and fig trees, our positions on the Love-Fear axis exhibit the usual sort of normal distribution: the celebrated Bell Curve. I've known persons of unprepossessing nature who sincerely loved everyone they ever met. I've known equally undistinguished persons who feared others so greatly that they left the protection of their own homes only under the pressure of a survival imperative. But "lesser ones" are not of much interest to others, so let's leave it there for the nonce.

Many persons who seek (and sometimes obtain) high public offices fancy themselves great men. Few actually earn the title. Inversely, some very humble men have proved themselves to be great. Grover Cleveland and Konrad Adenauer are good examples of great men who were both humble and personally good; unfortunately, great but evil men tend not to be humble at all.

What got me thinking about this subject is the polar opposition between two of my favorite characters. Both are brilliant beyond measure and physically gifted. Both possess large capacities for emotion. But one, despite being the very archetype of a Lover, seeks to remain as private as he possibly can; the other has aspirations to greatness that he will fail to achieve unless he can first conquer his Hermitness.

An inspiration caused me to jam the two together; this story was the first consequence...but only the first.

What would you tell a young man of prodigious abilities -- a true polymath -- who hopes to achieve greatly and possesses the potential to do so, but is disturbed, even repelled, by other people generally? Would you try to define greatness to him in the abstract, in the sense delineated above? Would you provide him with examples of great men and exhort him to ponder what moved them to achieve as they did? Or would you simply suggest that he reflect upon the achievements of his heroes, consider why he thinks them great, and look for the thread that bastes them together in greatness?

What would you look for in the youngster's character that would impel you to discourage him from seeking to be great? Would you expect to succeed or to fail in such an effort?

These aren't random currents of thought. Some persons who seek to be great attain that status by doing great evil. Yet they might well be satisfied with their achievements. There's considerable reason to believe that the great monsters of the Twentieth Century were entirely satisfied with themselves and their place in history. If it's possible to prevent any more such monsters from rising to power, it would behoove us to think about how it could be done.

As I wrote all the above, I was bombarded by memories of many kinds. Among us are persons who would be happy to be remembered for doing great evil, as long as they would be remembered for something. I've known at least two such. But I've also known persons who, though capable of greatness and fit for the title, would only accept it if it were coupled to goodness: benevolence that yields beneficence.

Rather than extend this piece beyond the limits of endurance, allow me to cite an otherwise unimportant movie: Steven Seagal's Hard To Kill. Toward the middle of that movie, while Seagal is recovering from an almost-successful attempt on his life and is practicing some self-healing techniques, he tells co-star (and at that time, his wife) Kelly LeBrock about a conversation with his first sensei. The sensei asked him what he wanted, and he replied "to be great." The sensei, a great master of the martial arts, replied thus:

"If you want to be great, first learn how to heal people. Hurting people is easy."

The great who are good heal and help.
But to heal or help others, you must love them.
Therefore, if you want to be great, learn to love your fellow man.
If you can't make him well, at least love him enough to wish him well.
Above all, do not fear him, at least not generically. Fear only concrete hostile intentions and deeds.

Quoth George Herron:

The possession of power over others is inherently destructive both to the possessor of power and to those over whom it is exercised. The great man of the future, in distinction from the great man of the past, is he who will seek to create power in people, and not gain power over them. The great man of the future is he who will refuse to be great at all, in the historic sense; he is the man who will literally lose himself, who will altogether diffuse himself in the life of humanity.

Good advice for the would-be-great young man starting out, don't you think?


Anonymous said...

How unlike The Won is this description of a great and good man. I wish our nation deserved better politicians.

neal said...

I guess the middle ground for a polymath could be learning how to fix stuff. Trade skills. My son is like me.

The NSA tried to snag him when he was fifteen or so.
He wants to be a chef. Some middle ground between weaponization and marginalization. Maybe better not to go from one extreme to the other.

Maybe not so much extremes. Just buying time in the hope of a future common frame of reference.