Some days I can barely get out of my front door without tripping over my own contradictions and hypocrisies.
I believe I should be selfless and loving, but I am ambitious and chiefly desire vainglory.
Ambition feels like a pastime of the young, and I assume I’d grow out of it (though I have never wanted to). My younger self wanted to study mathematics so that people would know he was smart, and so that, eventually, he could lead humanity’s vanguard in understanding quantum gravity, because it was an untrodden path where he could earn distinction. Abraham Lincoln had once warned his listeners of people like me, or rather people who have the same level of ambition but combine them with the sorts of talent that I lack. He knew those ambitious persons would desire such distinction, and would never be satisfied filling the seats of existing institutions.1 They would want to build their own with their own names on them, and would not mind destroying society for a chance to build them. So my contradictions are, in a way, a comfort to me, as they might make me hesitate before I bring something down to build myself up. The obvious way to combine these two parts of my self is to seek glory for being selfless and loving. I am, curiously, no less ambitious or desiring of glory than my 13-year-old self who wanted to show the world his brilliance in quantum field theory. But unlike him I have regrets. I regret that I spent so much time studying arcane branches of mathematics and not preparing to earn distinction solving problems that actually matter to people: the attacks on liberal ideas (like equality before the law and freedom of conscience and speech), a climate changing to be inhospitable for civilization, an increasingly violent and chaotic world. I feel powerless to help with any of it. And rather than lamenting that my contradictions rob me of the confidence to do anything I lament that there is nothing that I can do.
It’s hard to say that I believe that loving people is the most important thing without choking on one or two of the multitude of examples of my doing exactly the opposite of love to the persons around me. So it’s easier to think of ways to help people in the abstract – about those ideals of equality before the law and freedoms, about climate change, et cetera. It feeds my ambition, too. I want influence and power to shape society so it still values those things, and I want praise for establishing and defending those things. But more than anything I am afraid that what I really want is the comfort of not being able to control those things to any real degree.
When Russia invaded Ukraine and the press reported on Ukraine’s call for foreign volunteers I wanted to go. I cannot imagine what I could do about climate change or the fact that freedom of speech is becoming passe, or anything else. But I could imagine myself carrying supplies to the front lines of a battle against a very real and tangible threat to the rule of law. And I can imagine earning distinction and praise for doing so.
It was and is a ridiculous idea – I have no combat training, don’t speak any of the local languages, no nothing of the geography, no first-hand knowledge of Ukraine or Russia, or the culture or histories that led to the war. I’d be a danger to the professional soldiers around me and a grief to those that love me. It’s an idea I’d expect from my 13-year-old self, the version of me that decided that quantum gravity, and not civil liberties, was the most important problem to work on. How I envy him! He made choices and sacrifices and actually worked towards his ambitions. I debate my contradictions and my ambitions are nothing more than fantasies and delusions. Where do they come from? Is it an opportunity for glory that I see myself running towards in Ukraine, or the feeling of impotence here that I want to run from?
I also start to choke when I admit out loud that I am ambitious. If people know my inner desire is for glory then I am, again, revealed to be a hypocrite. Everyone can see how far the fantasies and delusions of my ambitions are from the realities of how I actually live. I say I believe that I should live selflessly for other people, but do I love those around me? I want equality before the law, but do I hold persons in partiality? I bemoan that I can do nothing about climate change because of structural economic demands for energy et cetera whatever, but do I ever cut back on my own usage?
It’s weird how your mind can trick you into creating a comfort zone and safety net. I can convince myself that I believe in loving others because I can point to my inner desires and ambitions to help others in these abstract ways. And I can keep this ambition alive without doing anything because I have the excuse that I hold no real power. I’m not running towards any form of distinction or glory, I’m wrapping myself up in blankets of impotence. My real lament isn’t that there is nothing that I can do.
My true lament is that I just can’t be bothered to do anything.
You, kind reader, don’t have to be like me.
You can do something, in particular, about Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. Specifically, there are some easy things you can do that can make a difference:
- Write your elected representatives to remind that that European/American security depends on a swift Ukrainian victory and that a world where borders can be changed through the use of force is not one you want to live in.
- You can donate to Ukrainian defense efforts.
- You can donate to Ukrainian humanitarian assistance.
In the past, it was said that all evil needs is for good persons to do nothing. But today’s evil mostly hopes that you’ll get distracted. You can cheat those hopes by setting a calendar reminder to do these things monthly.
You can also volunteer your time. In particular, you can assist families affected by this senseless and unjust war by volunteering here.