"Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest." ~ John Stuart Mill
Life as Me
"I should not talk so much about myself
if there were anybody else I knew as well."
My life is a puzzle. It is not, however, the usual type in which the pieces are set and cut to fit, forming a final coherent whole. Pieces, rather, fall into place, sometimes don't fit, fall away again, and are replaced anew. The final solution is not fixed, but rather is dependent on my own perception of how my life has been lived, what I live it for now, and how I wish to live it in the future, as long as I have one. No one can, or should live my life for me, live theirs through me, or tell me how I should live mine. It is for me, and me only, to decide what I think right, just, and decent, just as it is incumbent upon me to spare others my views on their shortcomings, which, until I have attained perfection, I am unqualified to judge at any rate. It has been said that the truth of a speaker's words is unrelated to his competence, but I can only say that, for me, some deeper understanding of a matter must be present before an opinion can be delivered.
A life lived along these lines, according to these principles, is sure to achieve for one an unflattering reputation among one's peers, unless accompanied by an unusually gregarious, engaging nature. I, unhappily, was not endowed with this gift of amiability at birth, and have to take my friends where, and, more to the point, how I find them. By my good fortune, most of my friends seem to have this ease of relation, and often are well liked themselves, as I am not. It is strange to me, though I suppose it shouldn't be, that most of my friends are people who can get along with most anyone. I am, by most accounts, singularly unlikable. Those worthies who will admit to enjoying my friendship pooh-pooh this assertion, but the lie is put to their denial by the very paucity of their numbers. I do not mean to imply, of course, that my friends regularly lie. If they do, they are too good at it for me to detect.
It would be a lie, however, for me to state that I have always lived by the guidelines I attempt to employ now. No one is born perfect, or even close to it. I have been more disadvantaged than most in this area, indeed. I have failed at almost every enterprise I have attempted, whether employment, military service, or relationship. I can only continue to attempt, and revel in my freedom to fail. Living rightly, according to my own lights, without consulting others as to the justifiability of my acts, is the only success I can claim. Independence of the opinions of my fellows, and the willingness to accept the disapprobation which accompanies such independence, is the acme of my accomplishment thus far. This is not to say I have not consulted those whose views I feel worth valuing, asking, "Have I done right here? Am I good?" The key, however, is to pick deliberately the input to be consulted, not accept all critique willy-nilly and live as others would choose for me. No man is free without independence of mind, coupled with discrimination of action.
Of failure, I can only say that it is a wonderful insulation against egotism. Having no recollection of any great accomplishment, successfully carried through, in which I was the driving force, I have no standard against which to place my relative degree of achievement, no spot on a chart to point to and say, "Here is my high-water. Here I can say is my zenith." A flat line of mediocrity is the best I can claim. Why persevere, then? Why continue to try? Certainly, after thirty years, I should have done something to be proud of. Yet this has not been the case. Is success so important, then? What is it, really? Finding the cure for the common cold? Getting a good-paying job? Fathering and supporting a family? The yardstick seems a little imprecise. Have I really failed, then, forever? I think I have a bit of life left to go yet, and the calligraphy has not yet been applied to the stucco.
Where I feel I have done a bit better than many of my fellows is in the arena of personal conviction. No pecuniary compensation, no display of approbation, none of the usual trappings of success in life accompanies this achievement, if achievement it is. Indeed, principle is usually the keeper-away of wealth and admiration. No one knows of how I conduct my inner life but me. Communicating by lecture or other sort of harangue is ineffectual, resulting normally in glazed eyes and hasty departures. Pointless, then, to express the satisfaction of living consistently by principle. One sounds smug and superior, when one's aim is to share, rather than alienate.
So, then, principle cannot be communicated, expressed, or shared verbally. How do I know I live by it? By consistency of thought with action. I cannot behave differently towards people than I feel about them. If I think poorly of someone, which I normally only do if I have observed him or her behave in a dishonest or deceitful way, or be derogatory publicly of another, I cannot pretend to like or respect that person. Likewise, I cannot, by action or inaction, behave in a way in which I would not like to be behaved toward. A simple principle, espoused by many, yet heeded by fairly few. Have I, myself, always behaved in a fashion of which I can be proud? No. But I recognize the need, and I try every day to be as I define a "good" person to be, and, by the attempt, improve.
Where do we find this philosophy of mutual respect most consistently ignored? In the halls of those who claim to serve you and me, but really serve only themselves and the interests which placed them where those people can help those interests.
Militarism in particular, both the usual kind seen in TV commercials pleading for the young to come be dehumanized and indoctrinated, and the more insidious kind currently transforming the nation's police organizations into paramilitary cadres, offends against human dignity and individualism. The qualities of duty and honor are held up as the virtues military service represents, the fulfillment of which being the only road to their possession by mere mortals. As a veteran myself, I can assure you, civilians are looked upon as the lowest form of life by the soldiery, this view being inculcated from the fresh recruit's first day at boot camp. Similarly, in police circles, especially among the younger officers, the general populace is viewed as an untrustworthy mob, which must be approached warily, hand on pistol, ready to kill at a false move. Ask Abner Louima, or Amadiou Diallo, who wound up with 41 bullets in him, including in the soles of his feet, because he didn't understand instructions, if you doubt me.
Consumerism, too, which is being heavily promulgated as the savior of the economy as I write these lines, is an offense to the idea that people shouldn't be treated as a black hole of goods and services, fit only to take in, and spew forth specie in return, while a few reap the rewards of power and influence. You have to wear this, and drive that, and color you hair lest you look "old," and have hair sewn to your head if you have none to color, and have bigger breasts, and straighter, whiter teeth failing the possession of breasts, if you want to "belong." The question never seems to come up as to whether this sort of society is worth belonging to.
"Well, really," says the reader, "it is the way things are. You can't change it, or really affect anything you decry, in any meaningful way. What do you propose to do?"
Live, I suppose, a life of principle.
How does one do this? I can only share what I have found to be my perception of truth, and that is to conform to the truth, rather than the illusions, and illusion, of society. What are the illusions of society? Duty is defined by subjecting oneself to artificial discipline, by accepting humiliation for the sake of the collective, by thinking that consumption equates to happiness, by supporting the idiocy of "my country right or wrong," by accepting the pap we are all fed by the spoon of contempt. Heroism comes from self-sacrifice alone, and the only people who sacrifice are so-called public service workers. People are incompetent to look after themselves and their own interests, and are selfish if they want to. These illusions are the destroyers of independent thought, and serve the promulgators of collectivism, to the detriment of the truly free. In my opinion.
In the past, I have been described as antisocial, due to my views that the individual is the only quantifiable political unit of consequence, and that collective effort is, generally, useless above an extremely localized level. The use of collectivism to improve public works, such as roads and bridges, of course, is efficacious when untainted with that venality which too often accompanies it. Collectivism in the pursuit of "higher" goals, however, such as "social justice,' or 'domestic security,' inevitably leads to the abuses of power and the trampling of personal exercise of will to which all government is heir. The concepts themselves are false, and the means employed to their ends are equally suspect. How can any right-thinking being not see the futility of rule by coercion, the power of the state to murder its citizens being the ultimate expression of this doctrine? Confucius it was who asked why the State felt itself obliged to punish its citizenry when they did not behave morally or justly, since if the State behaved that way itself, its citizens would follow such example. This is the illusion of society, that, if one refuses to belong, one must be insane, for only the deranged would not accept the inevitability of submission to authority.
In rejecting this illusion, I open myself to the derision of my fellows, and the acrimony of the State, but I wear this scorn as a badge of honor, for, if they laugh at me, and hate me, I am different from them, and the better for it, as far as I am concerned. I used to mind derision being heaped upon me, but no longer, for as I do not deride, so am I the better man for it, and so the difference between me and the proponents of the collective society is made more stark and satisfying.