You know how it is when you are in a new place, and you are after somewhere to eat, and there are plenty of choices… a couple on this street and then that side-street and perhaps round that corner, and so you go on wandering, and if you are like me you end up back with the one where you started because, having pored over all the menus, you realise it probably was the best, anyway.
Or you are after that idyllic spot by the sea, the deserted cove, the view not spoilt by someone else’s garish sunshade, no beach volleyball, no pedalos. Perhaps it’s just past those rocks over there… and then a bit further, and a bit further.
Whether it’s the perfect view or the perfect meal or the perfect outfit or the perfect home with the perfect lover… ah, is it that?… whatever it is, it must be perfect?
Can I bear it if his car is sportier, faster, newer, dare I show up when her trainers are a better name, her gear cooler?
One life two compulsions – have I got the best? – do I look the best?
- Have I got the best?… is it perfect?… or I’ll never be happy
- Do I look the best?… will I be envied?… or no-one might notice me
There they are, the classic human weaknesses that we never escape – greed and pride.
Believe it or not, it all boils down to the one thing and that, like so many things in life, can be good or bad depending on which side of the coin you are looking at – it all boils down to ‘I.’ It doesn’t matter whether we actually use ‘I’ or not, there is always an ‘I’ in everything we think or say… because we are conscious (of ourselves).
That’s good, you say, and I would agree with you. But ‘I’ accounts for good and bad. Because we are conscious, fair enough, we know we are alive, but also we know that we are going to die. Because we are conscious, we make plans, and we also worry. Because we are conscious, we have hopes and desires, and we can also be disappointed and disillusioned. Not so if we were a cat or a dog or most any other animal: for them, there’s nothing out there in the realm of could be, might be, might not be – everything is simply what’s here and now. (A few species have an awareness beyond themselves – the dolphin which holds up a drowning person has worked out what is needed – but no species would think, “I need the biggest nest (or lair or hide) to feel ok.”)
The antidote to greed and pride
The trouble with most human characteristics is that they are sometimes good and sometimes bad. The coin again. In fact, it is quite hard to think of anything which is always and completely good or always and completely bad. Partly that’s because even ‘good’ and ‘bad’ have their problems – who is qualified to say, for a start, what’s good and what’s bad, and even if we think we know right now, how long will it hold true?
So everything is relative to where we are. If you keep on going north for long enough, you will end up going south. If you over-dose on a medicine that is helping you, it will actually end up harming you. So the only perfection we can ever know is the recognition of “enough”.
But don’t give up, for it can be done.
Go back to greed and pride. Supposing we re-define greed as self-improvement went mad, and pride as self-projection over the top? And the point at which each turns from being something which is positive to something which holds us back is the point where you pass the north pole.
And it is the ancient Greeks who provide us with the two key maxims which can keep us straight today:
- “Nothing to excess” applies the brake to greed and gives a measure for ‘enough.’ What is excess? Well, if doing more would be like going the extra mile, so it’s in someone else’s interest, then it’s not excess. Otherwise, enough’s enough.
- “Know yourself” (which Shakespeare re-invented as “To thine own self be true”) is a leveller for our pride, because to vaunt ourselves beyond that sense of who we truly are and the person we each know in our hearts as ‘the real me,’ that is the greatest disrespect we can show ourselves. It tarnishes all we have achieved and compromises all we still can be.
Improving ourselves, to the extent that it means being more effective and worthwhile members of society, has to be a good thing. Single-minded self-advancement, not so – because in the end, society will only tolerate so much self-interest, and throughout history, dictators have always come to grief in the end.
Likewise, putting ourselves out there so that our good ideas and skills are able to contribute benefits for all, that must be good, but self-aggrandizement for its own sake is always short-lived – for the ancient Greeks ‘hubris’, the overweening pride of men who thought they were above the gods, was the most certain route to destruction.