You are you.
Some things should go without saying. Sometimes they don’t.
I recently joked with a friend, referring to this newsletter, that most of my writings could be summarized, “Be a normal person.” Take things one step at a time. Learn as you go. Have opinions.
Just be normal.
In the doubtful moments, I sometimes wonder if anyone needs 1,200 words from me in order to reach these conclusions.
But as I see it, “be normal” is fitting advice in a time when things aren’t. Life is (everyone’s favorite word) unprecedented. Reminders are helpful along the way.
A year ago on a bright Florida morning, I sat in a Friday-only class. It was a B.S. course for one credit hour discussing issues like responsibility and personal character. Soberly, I recognize its value for incoming freshmen, the group for whom it was intended. But as a 26-year-old commuter transferring in as a junior, I’m still mad they held me to it. (This is what I put myself through.)
I enjoyed the reading if not the course. In our short book, the author cited a long list of failures of character in our culture—government failures, business scandals, financial impropriety. He was not political or unfairly biased. In fact, he went for everyone.
His point was, broadly, We have a character problem.
Raising her hand that day, one classmate offered an irritated, dripping criticism of the author to the class: “He’s very America-centric.”
The professor (who I loved), far from a narrow, closed-minded individual, was flummoxed. “Well, we’re Americans, sitting in America, reading an American author. What else would you prefer?”
It wasn’t just the professor; the whole class seemed thrown. We weren’t discussing trade, history, or an issue requiring another viewpoint. The issue was, We’re being bad people. We should stop. Would a more global view be that America is full of saints?
I’d call the method of criticism unusual, but in fact I’m very acquainted with it. It’s (with no disrespect) a sort of pathology—a compulsion today to constantly be zooming out. It’s internet brain-worms, and applied wholesale, it’s wholly unhelpful.
I regard myself as a somewhat thoughtful person—open minded, aiming to see from all sides. If 18-year-old Tim had been sitting in that classroom, perhaps he might have had the same objection. (I can’t attach this fully to age, though, knowing how many online 40-year-olds suffer the same disease.)
Seeing big picture is one view. It’s one important skill. What it’s not, though, is a proper, righteous requisite for every moment and occasion.
In this era of knowledge, we are of global mind.
Technology has flattened the world and opened our eyes to how interconnected we truly are. Marginalized peoples have their stories and histories told.
It’s a healthy thing to evaluate how your life—your decisions, your words, your attitudes—affects others. Decisions have consequences. Be considerate. These are the lessons we instill in children.
Far be it from me to contest these truths. Rather, my thesis is that we’ve lost sight of other truths—truths more fundamental—and undermined our own moral structure.
And this is where Just be normal comes in.
You have a family. You live in a town. You are you.
Yes, there are other families in other towns. They’re not yours. They’re someone else’s.
But this doesn’t consider…
But what about…
Until you know you are you, it doesn’t matter.
The issue with constantly zooming out is that it never lets you finish a sentence. It never lets you answer a question. It never lets you place a period.
Our class about developing character became about another thing: presumably, listing more and more examples. We could have cited moral decay in other parts of the world. We could Google cases in all seven continents, certain not to leave a nation out.
It reminds me of the fascinating, sad, controversial podcast, S-Town. (It followed up the blockbuster series Serial, recently back in the news.)
The podcast’s subject, John, an eccentric restorer of clocks living in rural Alabama, had many fascinating quirks. The most reliable was this: anytime John got frustrated, his conversation completely unwound, crescendo-ing toward its inevitable peak, climate catastrophe.
Simple irritations set it off. He didn’t use his blinker. He doesn’t care. People don’t care. This is why we’re going to burn. I’m exaggerating, but not much. With great regularity, ordinary complaints spun into existential tirades.
We’re not that different than John. An issue confronts us, and we feel out of control. We’re afraid of what we’ll feel by facing it. So instead, we zoom out another layer. The cycle repeats itself. This is how doom operates.
I started this essay with reference to who you are. Perhaps my point is better made by drawing attention to who we’re not.
People are not gods. I think that this is where our issue lies. For so many, our inner architecture simply makes no account for another being, in control when we’re not.
There are 8 billion people on the planet. As a caring, empathetic person, you value life and want the best for others. That’s a very noble trait.
Without a proper view of self, though, this genuine care becomes a weight—an impossible one to bear. Too many of us endeavor our days with it. You carry responsibility for the happiness and survival of yourself, your family, your friends, your city, your country, and other countries, and the climate, and the government, and the planet, and the war, and it all.
In a secular framework, fixing the world perpetually requires more of you. It never ends; there’s no appropriate line to cross where you can clap off your hands and lay down to rest. Even if you mentally recognize that no one person can do it all, there’s a low-grade guilt for stopping short. If there’s no god, we must fill the role.
Many religious people live from a similar worldview, in practice if not in belief. As moderns, we focus on all the positives of religion—a true “good,” hope that things can be better, moral impetus for making a difference. We neglect other elements to our own downfall—sin, repentance, all of the things that remind us we’re not God.
Put another way, we believe in a perfect God, but we’ve never quite distinguished ourselves from him. God is great, but we’re not so bad ourselves. From this view, we retain our role as the world’s primary chaperone.
Atheist or religious, my question is the same, and I really mean it: Are you assuming the role of God?
I won’t attempt to convert you to faith; I’ve surpassed my 1,200 words. But I’ll offer as a paradigm two well-known scriptures—two of the Bible’s greatest hits.
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…”
Mark 12:31: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Grammatically speaking, it’s all in the subjects and direct objects. God loves the world. We love our neighbor.
There is an imperative to care beyond our own selves. There is also definition—a visible target we can aim to love. Don’t take this to the extreme, but you can’t love my neighbor. You don’t know his name.
To love the entire world will keep you awake at night. To love your neighbor will awaken you during the day.
Most of all, there’s one holding the world while we sleep.
So don’t try to live as God. You don’t have to. You’re you.
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“You carry responsibility for the happiness and survival of yourself, your family, your friends, your city, your country, and other countries, and the climate, and the government, and the planet, and the war, and it all. You can’t.”
👆🏼That right there.
Good stuff, Tim.
I think one of my favorite lines was “while we’re sleeping vs while we’re awake”