Saturday was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in the Jewish tradition, when we remember what schmucks we’ve been in the year past and promise to do better. Then we break our fast and eat. I’m not Jewish, but my wife Kathi is, so I ate along with everyone else.
There are similar traditions in other religions, and for good reason—we are schmucks. Why? Because we’re irrational—or, to be more precise, we’re driven by irrational desires and needs that often override the “better angels of our nature.”
I see this every day at work. As a group we are generally smart, personable, hard working, and focused. Are we focused on a common goal? Sometimes; but a huge amount of the energy is devoted to seeking approval and recognition. We worry about where at the table we sit at a meeting, when we enter a room, who knows what gossip first, all of which reflect how close we are to some source of power.
In part we behave this way in an effort to be more successful—to get paid more and rise up the career ladder. More negatively, it is to avoid getting fired, because we need the salary to eat and live. Also, in the United States access to good health insurance is often dependent on one’s job, and good insurance can mean the difference between life and misery or even death.
But our desire for approval and recognition in the public sphere runs even deeper than these very practical hopes and fears. At the heart of the striving and primping and jockeying for position lies a more essential hunger: the need to be loved and appreciated. No matter how big or small our public profile, everyone is subject to this desire. Unfortunately, in most settings we function under the principle that there must be winners and losers. To show one person love, we must show another less, and this leads to resentment, dishonesty, and grasping, greedy, demeaning behavior.
We are fighting forces that are much stronger than our individual wills. If we vow never to be a foolish, selfish, and dishonest, our overriding, unconscious need for love will soon subvert our resolve. A person can become so desperate for any kind of attention that he will make a complete fool of himself rather than shut up. A notable example of this was former San Francisco Supervisor Chris Daly, who made a New Year's resolution to use the "F" word at every meeting toward the end of his time serving the city. (One San Francisco resident was quoted by ABC News as saying "I think it's F'ing ridiculous and I am so glad he's almost out of here.")
But let’s say you were to succeed in becoming a more highly evolved being, no longer subject to these base emotions—what then? You’d be pretty lonely. Having achieved a higher state, you wouldn’t be able to find anyone to date because your higher consciousness would reduce the field of potential candidates to zero, though you could date yourself.
I think our best bet is to find a noble goal and cling to it. Some will find this in religion, some in parenting, some in their work. Whatever it is, we should do it with all our might, aiming for the right; but we must always remember that our calling isn’t everyone’s calling, and that our point of view is only that—no matter how correct or smart we think we are.
Earlier I used the phrase “better angels of our nature.” I couldn’t remember the source, so I looked it up: they were the closing words of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address, a speech he gave before the Civil War broke out:
“I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
We weren’t. Angels had to step aside while men went to battle. People died, including the man who gave that speech. But even after the apocalypse, we are given another chance. A New Year. Let’s be honest about what we’ve done wrong, and make new resolutions based in reality—rooted in self knowledge. And let’s do better than Chris Daly.