The challenge is to hold those ideas lightly, see other sides of the same reality, let thoughts go in order to experience pre-verbal reality more clearly as it constantly changes, and not take words too seriously and let them become rigid labels that simplify and distort reality.
The trick is to make judgments without being judgmental.
People who live in suburbs or rural areas often think they’re more ethical than “city slickers” who seem to believe “whatever’s right” or “whatever works.” And urbanites often consider themselves more “hip,” or “on the cutting edge.” With an air of superiority, each side disrespects the other, which breeds resentment, contributes to the division between “red” and “blue” states, and undermines understanding.
As individuals, we evolve and steadily realize our potential. We become more fully human. We become better persons.
As Abraham Maslow framed it with his “hierarchy of needs,” we satisfy our more basic needs and move up to higher levels, from physiological to spiritual (“self-transcendence”).
Some individuals, therefore, are more evolved than others.
But whether we can determine who is more evolved or “great” is another matter. A homeless person with chronic pain may be as fully human as an independently wealthy writer who meditates three hours a day.
Ralph Waldo Emerson argued that each individual should live the way they want everyone to live, while respecting and accepting that others should do the same. Walking that fine line is a delicate balancing act.
The word “great” is used with different meanings. Emerson also wrote that anyone with integrity who is true to who they really are is a great person. We often comment “great” as a term of approval. And we often hear a celebrity described as a “great person” when they simply seem to be a regular, humble, kind person. Those uses of the word do not depend on measuring and comparing. They are absolute, not relative.
Generally, however, the word “great” is relative, based on a comparison.
But compared to what?
When we compare humans to our closest living relative, the chimpanzee, many of our experiences are superior, more evolved. “Great” applies in the absolute sense. We’re saying, “You’re being true to who you are as a human being.”
Humans have in common certain characteristics, their human nature. Observing very young children, we note curiosity, compassion, and joy.
Those basic human instincts are pre-verbal emotions. Words can help us understand them. But words can also distort.
As we mature, those instincts become more fully developed. Being awestruck by the Beauty of the universe leads to compassion, which leads to the desire to establish Justice, which leads to the quest for Truth in order to maximize effectiveness. The discovery of Truth leads to a greater appreciation of Justice and Beauty. And establishing Justice leads to a greater sense of community rooted in Truth and Beauty.
In those ways, the pursuit of Truth, Justice, and Beauty is a holy trinity, grounded in a profound unity. Each reinforces and leads to the other two. That’s what it means to be human: being curious about what is true, wanting to reduce suffering, and enjoying life. As we evolve, we become wiser, more compassionate, and more effective.
Focusing on one while neglecting the other two lessens one’s humanity.
At the same time, as a human being, we are all of equal value. We are equal. Each of us should be treated equally in the eyes of the law and have a voice in the affairs that affect us. Each of us deserves to be treated with respect. Each of us is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. None of us deserves to be condemned as less than human. None of us has the right to execute another human being (the death penalty is an outrage). Even those who commit evil acts are not essentially evil; rather, their humanity has been distorted.
We cannot really know what another person is experiencing. We cannot see another person’s soul. We can only experience our own soul. Down deep we are essentially alone. We are not separate because our souls are interwoven, but we are distinct. Ultimately each of us walks our own path alone. Each of us is unique, with our own thoughts and feelings.
We therefore cannot measure another person’s heart, their degree of integrity, or how true they are to their essential compassionate nature. We cannot say that anyone is a “great person.”
We can only describe their behavior. We can say that someone is a great athlete, a great singer, or exceptionally kind. Or we can rank them according to what they do in some other way.
But one’s integrity depends on what they feel. And I only know what I feel, think, and observe.
So I cannot judge another person’s ethical character because I cannot really know their motivation.
Someone may appear to be very compassionate, but they may be driven primarily by selfishness. They may want to appear to be compassionate. They may be giving in order to receive. Or they may want to act in a compassionate manner but are unable to do so. Since we cannot walk in others’ shoes, we cannot judge them as persons.
What we do or accomplish does not reveal who we are as a person.
I can say, “That person violated the rights of his neighbor without justification.” I can say, “He is a convicted criminal.” I can say, “He should be punished, or asked to make restitution.” But I cannot say, “He is less than human.”
People have understandable reasons for doing what they do and don’t do. Good luck and bad luck play major roles in affecting our actions.
Compassionate action toward others is an ideal, but we all need to love ourselves as well as others. We all need to take care of ourselves so we can take care of others.
When to practice self-care and for how long is a personal decision that each person must make. When I’m afflicted with a sudden illness, for example, I may focus more on myself.
But at other times, grounded in “good ego,” I focus on others and my work, while trying to avoid burnout.
Determining when one is being excessively self-indulgent is impossible. We cannot measure whether one has been unduly selfish (or dangerously selfless, as in less self).
“The human mind can only stand so much,” as Bob Dylan wrote. We often experience compassion fatigue and information overload. Frustrated, we bump up against our limitations and need to rest. No one can tell another how to balance loving others and loving oneself.
All of our major institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals are interwoven into a social system — “the system” — that operates to perpetuate itself. That system is designed to enable individuals to accumulate ever more wealth and power for themselves and their families, even though others suffer as a result.
To alleviate suffering we therefore need to reform the public policies that reinforce that system as well as ourselves as individuals. Otherwise, we will continue to be swamped by the suffering created by that system.
Ideally, everyone would engage in ongoing self-improvement, do no harm, and help to fundamentally reform our social system. We need a united, massive grassroots movement to advance human evolution.
Some people, however, are content with themselves as they are. Some are unwilling to admit mistakes and resolve to avoid them in the future. Some people fail to recycle properly or eat meat (as I do occasionally). Some care only about themselves or maybe their family. Some talk only about themselves without really listening to others. Some are cruel and want to hurt others. Some are indifferent about what is right and what is wrong. Some believe it is impossible to alleviate suffering now by changing public policies. In those and other ways, some individuals are less fully human than those who are more grounded in compassion.
Some remarkable individuals are exceptional in the degree of their devotion to the holy trinity, whether or not they are recognized as such by others. Those individuals who act on their compassion and remain true to what it means to be human are “great” persons. With regard to their moral character, they are markedly superior.
None of us, however, will ever know who those great souls are, or how we ourselves rank on that scale. We can label specific behaviors, as with, “That was great.” But it is foolhardy to label people with regard to the quality of their soul, as with “He is a bad person.” Only God can make that judgment. Moreover, such labels can be damaging, for they can help shape future possibilities negatively, and the future is unpredictable.
Compared to chimpanzees, we are all great. Those around me who appear, from their actions, to be extremely self-centered have within themselves a big heart aching to burst out into action. What we have in common is much more significant than our differences.
And even if we could know who is a great person, it wouldn’t really matter, because what we have in common, our humanity, is far more important than our differences. And on that scale, we’re all equal.
So, even if she was right, my mother was wrong to repeatedly tell me, “Wade, you will be a great man” because we’ll never know if she was right and pursuing that goal has been like chasing a rainbow. What we believe matters and that message was unnecessarily harmful.
Recently for several days I was energized when I told myself “I am a great man” and accepted it wholeheartedly without ambivalence. Now, however, I merely say, “I am a good person trying to become a better person.”