A Deadly Shift In Emphasis

     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.


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  1. Sometimes “enough” is not enough.

    1. (grimace)

    • Diogenes on September 6, 2021 at 11:28 AM

    Accepting your limitations is perhaps the most important goal of the maturation process.

    I’d like to ‘adjust’ this to say “knowing your limitations AND WORKING BEYOND THEM,,,” Growth is only acheived by pushing limitations,  anything else is stagnation.  Growth is NOT aquisition of materials,  its spiritual and intellectual, garnering anchors to a higher realm, not accumulating physical anchors to this realm.
    If I am out of line, please delete.

    1. Let me know when you can fly. Or better yet, teleport. I’ve always wanted to learn how to teleport, so if you figure it out, call me at once!
      We each have built-in limitations: Any given man is only so strong, so fast, so smart, so gifted with endurance, so sharp of perception, and so forth. You may need to push yourself to find those limits, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Our limitations are part of why we learn to specialize.

  2. Lol. Point taken.  

    • John Fisher on September 6, 2021 at 4:49 PM

    John Locke was wrong. All wealth is the product of the human mind. ‘Labor’, whether physical or mental, is only the manifestation of that. Much human misery and a lot of evil have come from that error.

    1. Locke was essentially correct. To think is to labor. It doesn’t come naturally to a labor-averse species — and Mankind is certainly that.

  3. Choosing involves recognition of limitations. One of the most perpetually unhappy people I know is one for whom the normal process of maturation has not lead to some narrowing of focus.
    For him, he still believes that, should he just train hard enough, take off around 100 pounds, and exercise mental focus, competing in the Olympics is not out of range. Of course, he is delusion, but he cannot bring himself to accept the extreme unlikelihood of that occurring.
    Same for other goals – still dreaming about the many occupational options – Peace Corps, business owner, PhD, professional training (multiple possibilities!), or world-reknowned chef. The fact that he is over 70 does not deter him from dreaming – and, wasting a lot of time on that fruitless pathway. At a time when he might look to a part-time job + retirement pursuits, he is still applying for full-time employment. This, despite the fact that, when he actually TAKES such a job, he is unhappy with the realities of his life in the workplace (too bureaucratic, too inclined to impose their vision of what he should be doing (rather than let him set the goals/agenda). Too much time taken from family. Not fun.
    I listen. I add my commiseration. I keep to myself the lunacy of his pathway.
    Part of aging involves looking at new goals and dreams – the kind that you will pursue, and on your deathbed, be content to have accomplished.

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