I am frequently impressed by Misanthropic Humanitarian’s selection of Quotes for the Day. Today is such an occasion:
Those three quotes underscore one of the deadliest conceptual tragedies of recent times: the shift in emphasis from achievement to acquisition. I’m about to start sounding like a cranky old man, here – as I am a cranky old man, I consider that an earned privilege – so bear with me.
I was raised to believe the sentiments in those quotes, and I do. I was also raised to understand the concept of “enough:” i.e., moderation. One of my reasons for writing fiction is to illustrate those things in stories. I did so most recently in In Vino:
Ray held up his glass. “There are eight more bottles of this delicious stuff in a case on the floor behind me. Do you intend to leave them here, Matt?”
The vintner nodded. “With my compliments.”
“Thank you. But I’d guess that you don’t expect Father Monti and me to break into them after the rest of you have gone home. Am I right about that?”
Lundin chuckled. “You are, Father.”
“And we won’t,” Ray said. “Because we understand ‘enough.’ It’s part of our ethic as priests not to abuse the good things of life. It’s also part of what we try to teach our flocks: Take enough, and be well and happy.”
He panned the table.
They seem to get it. Will they get the next part?
“A great part of what’s wrong in modern society comes from the refusal to allow that ‘enough is enough.’ The acquisition of wealth and property becomes a matter of ego, a way to measure yourself against others. Or you might consume without stopping to distract yourself from an inner emptiness that food, alcohol, drugs, and expensive toys can never fill. But these are not temptations that can be fought directly. They can only be beaten by cultivating an old virtue.”
He sat back and waited.
“Which old virtue, Father?” Rachel murmured.
“It’s called temperance,” Ray said. “The disciplining of one’s own habits and desires, acquired through the conscious practice of ‘enough.’ It’s one of the four cardinal virtues.”
Temperance is a tough virtue to internalize, especially today. It can take many years. It’s made harder by the flood of consumption-oriented messages. Most such messages carry the implicit subtext that you deserve this, and if you can’t get it, someone is cheating you.
Nearly all contemporary advertising embeds such a subtext. It’s riddled American society with the worst of the capital sins, and let it be writ large:
For some of us, whether by virtue of ability or inheritance, acquire more than others. Those others look at wealth with envy-germinated hatred. They seek to pull it down, since in their heart of hearts they know that they could never achieve so much. And all too frequently, they succeed at the one thing of which envy is capable: destruction.
Sometimes the destruction includes the envious one:
“I nursed him through two divorces, a cocaine rehab, and a pregnant receptionist. God’s creature, right? God’s special creature. I’ve warned him, Kevin. I’ve warned him every step of the way. Watching him bounce around like a fucking game. Like a wind-up toy. Like pounds of self-serving greed on wheels. The next thousand years is right around the corner. Eddie Barzoon…take a good look because he’s the poster child for the next millennium.
“These people, it’s no mystery where they come from. You sharpen the human appetite to the point where it can split atoms with its desire. You build egos the size of cathedrals. Fiber-optically connect the world to every eager impulse. Grease even the dullest dreams with these dollar-green gold-plated fantasies until every human becomes an aspiring emperor, becomes his own god. Where can you go from there? As we’re scrambling from one deal to the next, who’s got his eye on the planet? As the air thickens, the water sours, even bees honey takes on the metallic taste of radioactivity…and it just keeps coming, faster and faster. There’s no chance to think, to prepare; it’s buy futures, sell futures…when there is no future.
“We got a runaway train, boy. We got a billion Eddie Barzoons all jogging into the future. Every one of them is getting ready to fistfuck God’s ex-planet, lick their fingers clean, as they reach out toward their pristine, cybernetic keyboards to tote up their fucking billable hours. And then it hits home. You got to pay your own way, Eddie. It’s a little late in the game to buy out now. Your belly’s too full, your dick is sore, your eyes are bloodshot, and you’re screaming for someone to help. But guess what, there’s no one there! You’re all alone, Eddie, ‘CAUSE YOU’RE GOD’S SPECIAL LITTLE CREATURE!” — “John Milton,” played by Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, describing the milieu that gave rise to his doomed partner Eddie Barzoon.
The above is one of the most brilliant pieces of dialogue ever inserted into a movie – and to make it sting really badly, scriptwriters Jonathan Lemkin and Tony Gilroy had it come from the mouth of Satan himself. They could not have chosen better.
I’ll resist the temptation to beat this into the magma layer. Let it close with a handful of bullet points:
- You are two things: a what and a who. You cannot change what you are, which will include some of your limitations. You can only change who you are, which includes your acquired abilities, through study and diligent effort.
- What you have does not define you; what you’ve done and what you can do are infinitely more important.
- Your limitations proceed from within you. They are no one else’s responsibility to remedy. Accept them and take responsibility for them.
- Accepting your limitations is perhaps the most important goal of the maturation process.
- If you are a parent, take the above to heart for your children’s sakes.
Have a nice Labor Day.