There’s this thing we do to ourselves. Well, there are two behaviors. One a reflection we love too much, too often, for the wrong reasons. The other the film negative, the inverse of our self-absorption, in which we are rarely kind to ourselves and see only our faults, insignificant though they may be compared to a world population that knows many unimaginable violations and injustices. In the lucky few, the middle path is wandered, step-by-step. We know we have some good qualities and are working on our flaws.
This center path may be best described in this beautiful first stanza by theologist Reinhold Niebuhr:
“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.” (1937; the earliest known version of the “serenity prayer” attributed to Niebuhr)
This is a little different from the more recognizable version, but its focus is the same.
Back to those of us who believe their own hype. Among all the folks fitting this category, politicians are the worst. I’m not really focused on today’s politicians, although the shoe fits. I hope to take a broader view. They are the most public Narcissæ of our day, although there are plenty of others.
Let’s go back in time to when feudal states were the way politicians—monarchs, pontiffs, bishops, dukes, earls, viscounts,barons, baronets, their spouses, and retinues—got stuff done. I am going to simplify and generalize a good bit as any fiefdom was probably a little different than others. A lot of these titles were handed out by monarchs in order to gain physical power over lands that were not proximate to the throne’s location. They were endowed with a feoffment (a word I just learned). There were no truly central governments. If some nonsense was brewing in East Whatsis (EW), the Monarch sent a rider to his noble in EW and asked if he was going to take care of the issue or did he need help. Preferably, his lord sent a message to the monarch telling him what was up and what was needed to solve it—reinforcements, funds, food, etc. If a monarch had lots of these groveling nobles scattered about, the nobles profited by vassals and serfs harvesting and crafting, then giving a majority of their harvest and craft to the noble in materials or taxes. The noble then sent on whatever was demanded of him to the monarch. That was the cost of being a noble. Convey power to the throne and hope that no one gallops over the horizon with more men, bows, swords, lances, pikes, food, and horses than the monarch to whom you have paid fealty. These were early versions of pyramid schemes, although I am sure there were other versions before these (some guy is always looking to rule). The pyramid collapsed when the monarch was deposed and/or killed. The new guy installed his pyramid scheme with the lords that had ridden in with him or the local lords that had hedged their bets against the previous guy (RIP).
Even in this stacked system, there were the folks who owned a square foot of gravel at the edge of their baronet’s land and tried to parlay that into a position in the baronet’s retinue, shabby though it might have been. Their goal was to be the baronet or leapfrog the baronet and become a baron, etc. There was a peasant with a broken back ripping swedes from the earth and trying to live another day who had the same thing in mind with little hope of achieving his dream.
When it came time to stave off an invasion, all able-bodied persons under each noble’s vassalage became part of the defending army. The peasants brought their farm implements, the knights their swords and lances, various other vassals brought whatever weapons they had. And they set to against the enemy. If one side had more archers and cavalry, they usually won.”Positions of honor” on the field—those who had died—were held disproportionately by the poorest of them all, on upwards through the ranks. If the defenders were victorious, the noblest of the warriors went home to fight another day.
How did the lords get the peasants to fight? They gave them a choice: (1) fight; (2) get chained up for a while until we return; (3) die (oh, and by the way, (2) ends with (3), but not before some misery in the dark).
The thing is that the peasants, serfs, vassals, lords, all didn’t have much choice but they all had deluded themselves into believing that if their efforts carried the battle their lot in life would improve. However, the following Monday (which was no different from any other 16-hour day of the week), they would be back in the field pulling swedes, giving 99 swedes to the lord and keeping one for himself, his spouse, and three sickly children. If he had survived the field of battle.
In feudal states, the least of them had little choice and were easily replaced; it was better to be a peasant than to be someone with nothing at all.
How have things changed? There are still feudal states (at some level, people think of their families and communities first, on outwards to states and nations). We don’t have feudal lords anymore—as such—but we have politicians that promise one thing and deliver another. We have CEOs and C-suite corporate officers who drive their employees to (1) maintain a work-life balance while (2) the employees earn fixed salaries for superhuman hours at work or (3) make an hourly wage.
If we do something individually, or as a family, a community, a town, city, state, or nation, we should do it because we believe, in the aggregate, as a matter of collaboration and compromise, that it is for the greater good. We should not do it because someone with more money or power or charisma or media tells us we should.
The not-so-subtle message here is that you should all be informed about any issue that is going to impact you, your family, etc. I don’t mean find a website that agrees with some nutty conspiracy theory or outrageous lie. I mean study history. Study economics and political science. Read about human beings from an anthropological or psychological point of view. Read MORE than one historian or anthropologist or economist or psychologist. Get a well-rounded picture of what we’re doing. Get your mind’s eye 100 miles over the earth and take a cold, quiet look at us doing all the things we do.
Then do something. There is plenty of good information available and plenty of time to study large chunks of it. Do this, then do whatever it is you need to do. It’s always your choice. Don’t let people who spread bias and lies for their own empowerment make up your mind for you. Don’t let people who have the power maintain it just because they currently have it. If you get power, treat people better than those who came before you.
This should be obvious. Shouldn’t it?