Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The internal moral compass

Yesterday, I wrote about Ahead of the Curve and said I had more thoughts. They're not very clear thoughts, but they are thoughts.

The author, Philip Delves Broughton, spends a lot of the book wondering whether or not he has an internal moral compass and, if so, what it is saying. At the same time he is agonizing about what he is going to do with himself after he has finished his MBA. He has a vague idea of what it would look like and it involves being with his wife and (by the end of the book) two sons. But none of the clear paths seem to lead to that end.

SPOILER ALERT! Don't read the following italicized paragraphs if you don't want to have the events of the book revealed.

His wife gets pregnant during the first year so he decides that if he is going to do a summer internship, it has to be in Boston so he can be with his family. He doesn't get an internship. He wonders if he's been a fool; would 10 weeks have made that much of a difference?

In the second year, as the school announces that "95.5 percent of the class of 2006 have been offered jobs," he's among the 4.5 percent that has nothing in front of him. He feels like a failure and wonders how he will provide for his family.

OK. Safe to read now.

At every turn, even though he didn't seem to know it, he was making his decisions based on the simple premise, "Will this allow me to spend time with my family?" But he didn't seem to know that was what he was doing. He wandered, taking strange missteps, stumbling around, berating himself over and over for not knowing what he ought to do, feeling his way quite blindly and without any clarity about where he was going or where he ought to go.

In a strange way, I found his confusion encouraging. I've wandered quite a bit myself and berated myself for it. But I think, like this author, I have been blessed not to be on a clear path. I'm not sure why I have been so lucky; it certainly isn't any particular moral fortitude on my part. If things had been easy, I would not have gone to Uganda, for example. Or doing what I'm doing now. But that certainly wasn't because I had cleverly chosen my way.

And in some ways, my path has been a selfish one; there were places I did not go for the simple reason that they did not feel right for me. And I confess that there was pressure to ignore that feeling because why should the choice be about me?

Except my own self and soul is all I've really got. I think that's what Philip D.B. recognizes at some unconscious level: that these businesses where he is interviewing are trying to purchase his self and soul and he simply recoils. Maybe we're both being selfish. Or maybe we're trying to be true to what we are called to be. More likely it's a bit of both, being a stew of mixed motives and external/internal forces. And we probably, none of us, will ever know for sure, but will keep stumbling along.

I keep remembering Kipling's poem, If--
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;

And the thing that struck me was that, in this book and often it seems that the people who are losing their heads seems to know what they are doing. They march steadily onward and seem so confident in their progression. Now, maybe internally, they have no idea. But the path seems so clear-cut for them. But perhaps "keeping your head" is a lot less about being calm in a crisis, but in not simply marching onward when everything in you says, "Stop!" and everyone around you says, "Keep going."

1 comment:

qoe said...

I cannot remember which Ken Wilber book I read, about 6 years ago, that gently reminded me (but it seemed like a V-8 moment) of the true meaning of ego, a word that may have been inadvertently misappropriated into a dense psychological/existential thicket by means of the way Freud's work was translated into English (talk about parallax views...). Ego means "I" and it will always mean that. Viewing life and making choices within life's circumstances can only ever be done from the sight and site of the individual. Since your life is yours, choices you make cannot rationally be defined as "selfish" by any person (not even, really, by oneself!); that is what free will is all about. The author's struggle is in how he perceives his choices: do they exemplify ethical egoism? And if they do, is there anything wrong with that? Perhaps, if we were to concentrate on a Christian perspective, we would question whether our motives exemplify ethical altruism, as opposed to ethical egoism. But, to this I say that it is a trap of handwringing (dealing with the past, rather than being in the moment) over something of which God alone is the ultimate judge. And if, as Meister Eckhart posited, God sees through our eyes, then is it not correct that he should see the world as we filter it through our unique perception? Through our unique choices and landmarks and learning of lessons by our actions and reactions to circumstance?