When news of Al and Tipper Gore’s split hit a while back, many newspaper pundits chose to put a happy spin on it. Deirdre Baer, writing in the New York Times, urged us “not to feel sad” about the end of the forty-year union. Instead, we should “rejoice” that they have decided to take the plunge and find themselves!
Self-actualization is the new god.
This line of thinking goes like this: if everybody pursues their own dreams and values and goals, then the world will be better off. We must be true to ourselves. To fail to do so is to betray our deepest convictions; it is to betray who we are.
This philosophy reminds me of a comedy routine on drug use that Bill Cosby did years ago. He asked a druggie why he got high, and the druggie replied, “It intensifies your personality!” Cosby looked confused. “But what if you’re a jerk?”, he queried, though he used much more colourful language.
Good point. What’s so great about doing what is true to you if you’re also a jerk? Won’t that just increase the misery in the world? Following one’s heart is only a good idea if one’s heart is first going in a positive direction. The heart is not a very reliable compass, because it is too often governed by feelings rather than real conviction.
Living by one’s feelings makes one into a liar. If you are going to live based on feelings alone, ensuring that you are always true to yourself, then you won’t be true to anyone else. Al and Tipper vowed at their wedding to love each other til death do us part, forsaking all others. At least one of them has violated that pledge. They vowed it once, but it doesn’t matter now.
Similarly, when you become a parent there is an unspoken pledge that you shall now put your child first, caring for that child and loving that child and nurturing that child until adulthood. If you one day feel that you would be better off pursuing your dreams away from your child, you’re true to yourself. But you’re not true to that child.
Feelings are not the best guide to right and wrong. Hitler probably felt very fervently that he was pursuing his dreams. Most criminals who now languish behind bars were letting their feelings get the better of them, too. The world is full of scars from people doing what feels right.
Our culture may celebrate feelings, but it needs conviction. Without people willing to work a double shift at the hospital, even though they shouldn’t have to, our health care would collapse. Without accountants willing to be honest, even though they could really use some extra money, our businesses would fail. No workplace would long function if workers only decided to do what they wanted to do, and not what they promised to do when they signed on. And no family can provide a shelter from the outside world if people aren’t really committed to loving each other no matter what.
I’d rather that people decided to follow something outside of their own hearts. I’d rather that people find a set of values that didn’t change—that we judged ourselves not based on whether we feel fulfilled, but on whether or not we are doing the right thing. I’d rather that people cared far more about honour and legacy than they did about fun and self.
To live in a world where everyone strives for their own fulfillment is to live in a world where nobody really cares about anybody else. And despite what the New York Times may think, that doesn’t really sound like anything to celebrate. That sounds like something to mourn.