Moral Stamina

I believe all people are innately tuned towards sin because more often than not, it’s the easy way out of things. Check out the seven deadly sins: each one of them is caused by some form of selfishness, some variation of “I’m going for the thing that will satisfy my appetites easiest, other people be damned”. Saying “human beings tend to be sinful” is like saying they have mass, and therefore have weight; it’s only natural for them to fall, to gravitate towards the depths, to stoop low and sink.

However, I also believe that all people are capable of doing good. While people have mass, they also have muscles. They can choose to stand, to rise, and to move forward.

The thing about doing good, though, is that it usually takes a toll. Doing the good thing often takes some measure of sacrifice. One is considered virtuous if one acts against his or her own self-interest.

Make no mistake; defying gravity is not purely an experience of exhiliration. Birds don’t fly by virtue of some anti-gravitational force field. It takes a constant beating of the wings, an awareness of headwinds and tailwinds, an adjustment to gales and currents. In a similar manner, I believe doing good is a draining task, and one needs to develop the right kind of moral muscle to sustain that. One needs not just moral strength, but moral stamina.

So what gives you moral stamina? What is that one core belief you hold on to to keep yourself on the right track, no matter how inconvenient it may be for you? What is that one thing you have to keep telling yourself, that one gospel truth you have to latch onto to keep upright?

When you feel start to feel the burn after being your good self for so long, how do you keep yourself from crashing and burning?

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5 Reasons to Try Not to Be a Jerk

People can be jerks. This we know. Whether it’s bullying, pollution, theft, vandalism, gossiping, or just simply the feeling of schadenfreude, we know that people can all get a little mean. Nobody’s perfect; we all have our weaknesses that hold us back, appetites that we have to satisfy, and blind spots that can make us a little insensitive. Even the most decent person has bad days, when steam just builds up and he unfortunately has to unload or vent on the nearest person. We all understand.

That doesn’t make it right, though. Even though people can be jerks, they shouldn’t, and I think people, by and large, don’t try hard enough to be decent. Label me a bore, call me a square, or say whatever it is people say to mean “being good isn’t cool”, I really think everyone should exercise a bigger effort to be a good person. And I think everyone knows this; they just need to be reminded of the reasons once in a while.

1. We’re All Connected (Whether We Like It or Not)

“What goes around comes around”. “Pay it forward”. “Karma’s going to catch up with you”. There are plenty of cliches, usually spun off from religions and new-age philosophies, that suggest we’re all part of some moral economic system, where good deeds and bad deeds are somehow counted, good people and bad people sorted, and sometime, somehow, everyone gets what they deserve. Whatever narrative they use to justify it, the bottom line is always the same; you have to be a good person to others, and they have to act the same to you, because we’re all connected. “We’ve got to love others as we love ourelves”, “we’re all children of (preferred deity/religious icon)”, and so on.

But let’s say you don’t buy into that. Let’s say you don’t let yourself be governed by the rules in some book, or the words of some “holy” man, and you don’t see how coming from the same spiritual source means that you should act straight-laced and not be selfish. You don’t believe in the afterlife, or some sort of moral reckoning at the end. Maybe you think there’s no justice; there’s just us.

Well, sorry, but even if it’s not by spiritual means, we’re connected, for the simple reason that resources are limited and shared. No matter who you are, you partake of money, food, water, electricity, and a million other resources that come from a common source. We’ve got just one planet, and there’s only so much of it to go around. Even the simple problem of overpopulation is causing all kinds of problems with living space and strained public services which, especially if you live in a poor neighborhood, can lead to a lot of friction and frustration. And since we don’t know how to go to other planets and make them livable, this situation will continue.

2. What You Do DOES Matter

There are some people who think that it’s okay for them to be jerks, because in the big scheme of things, they’re not the biggest jerks. “I may have flushed some kid’s head down the toilet the other day, but hey, I’m not Hitler, so I must be doing something right”. A variation of this is people telling themselves that there are figures who have more influence, more power, and more authority than they will ever have, and those figures get to be jerks; “My being a jerk affects the world on a much smaller scale, so don’t talk to me about my being a jerk until those bigger jerks are dealt with”.

Sherlock Holmes has better things to do than catch the guy who farted in the elevator, right?
Sherlock Holmes has better things to do than catch the person who stole one guy’s office lunch, right?

There are a lot of reasons why people would feel like this. They may feel like they don’t matter. They may be feeling some sort of insecurity. They may not be getting a lot of love, and you may have decided that attention is the next best thing, no matter how you get it. So you put others down to build yourself up.

To those people, I’ve got one bit of advice: GET OVER IT. You’re better than that, no matter what you think. You count. Don’t think that a little teasing or a little offense is excusable because you’re too small to make a big difference. That’s the gateway philosophy that leads to things like “History won’t remember that I beat this kid up” or “Civilization won’t crumble just because I called this person a moron”. And even if you say that you won’t let yourself get any worse, that you only need to allow yourself a little malice every day, it’s still not a good reason, really. Because…

3. There’s an Oversupply of Jerks

As I mentioned above, there’s a problem of overpopulation in many places. Hell, the human population is expanding at an increasing rate; some may compare it with a cancer or a virus, while others may just snigger at the degree to which the human race seems to enjoy “getting some”, am I right?

Well, with an increase in population comes an increase in the number of jerks. Especially in a world with limited resources, it’s much too easy to justify being selfish, much too difficult to disregard others’ feelings and circumstances. Entitlement mentality abounds. They say that it’s okay to be selfish, because under the “invisible hand” model advocated by old-timey economist Adam Smith, it evens out in the end; everyone’s pursuit of their own selfish ends averages out into one common good.

I'm showing a greedy woman here because I believe in gender equality.
Gender equality: accepting that women can be greedy, too.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that this interpretation of the “invisible hand” only works if people are equally selfish and equally enabled and empowered to act on their selfishness. Let’s talk basic economics for a bit: you have a market, filled with many small players, each of which do what they do to maximize their own share. Each player has only a small degree of influence, so they can’t get more than they deserve. Now, think about the real world, and how there is only one or a few big players in practically every industry that matters. Think smaller; think about how many people in the world are poorer or less able than you, but want and arguably deserve the same things. Still think the “invisible hand” theory works?

But not many people think about that, so they blissfully go through life acting on only their own interests, and their individual actions add up. I think this mentality is too prevalent nowadays, so if your life’s calling is to be a selfish jerk, you’re out of luck. There really is no vacancy, and there are way too many of you already. I admit, I have no solid basis for that assertion; to my knowledge, there is no census counting the number of terrible people in the world. But frankly, I don’t want to be the guy to start the tally.

"Hello! I'd like to ask you a few questions to determine if you fall within the 90th percentile of terrible people in the world."
“Hello! Are you a pitiful excuse for a human being?”

4. Life Can Be Terrible Enough

Life can suck. People die, people get sick, children don’t get an education, families starve, and cities are devastated by storms, earthquakes, or tsunamis. It’s a big, steaming pile of unfairness, sure. But a lot of it is just random. Natural calamities and tragedies are not mustache-twirling villains wearing capes and stovepipe hats; they just strike, and they have no judgment over whom they affect.

So we can all agree that life has plenty of levers and tools at its disposal to blindly bring people to their knees. Given that, we can also probably agree that there’s no need to add to the frustration by being emotional vampires or unfeeling, uncaring robots in human form. People have bad days; bad days can sometimes lead to bad months or bad years. Does anybody really want to be that guy who kicks someone who’s down?

I’m not saying everybody has to be loving. Nobody has to really care about anybody they don’t care about, because some people just aren’t built for it. Some people are just born with a limited ability to accommodate and dispense compassion, and that’s fine, I suppose. So in consideration for those people, I think the only minimum requirement for this world to be a good place is for people to not be a jerk.

But I’d also suggest that, even once in a while, we try to go the extra mile and be good as opposed to just being decent or civil. Because…

5. Being Good Just Might Feel Good

Let me tell you something: one of my favorite movies is “It Could Happen To You”, starring Nicolas Cage and Bridget Fonda. The basic setup is that Cage is a small-time New York city cop, while Fonda is a waitress. Cage buys a lottery ticket for himself and his wife; finding himself short of money to give Fonda a tip, he offers instead to give her half of what the ticket would win in the lottery. Fonda, on a lark, accepts the offer. My favorite sequence in the movie is shown in the video below (it’s around 13 minutes long):

When Cage has to decide whether he should go back on his promise to  Fonda, he says that “it’s not the right thing”. His wife is understandably unhappy, and doesn’t want to split the money with a stranger, even though it was promised. Cage does all he honestly can to get out of his bargain with Fonda, but when he realizes that there’s no way he can get out of making good, he actually seems relieved to be doing what he believes to be the right thing–crazy, but right. That part gets me every time.

Now, I know it’s just a movie, and not the most realistic movie at that. It’s idealistic and sappy, and even though it’s based on a true story, it’s not what really happened. Even if it were, the chances of the same thing happening to anybody is infinitesimally small. So if it happened to me, I don’t know if I will ever have the strength to make that kind of decision, and make it happily.

But what if I could? What if there were some way that I could do something amazing for another person by making an unconventional choice? What if I could prove that I could think and act beyond my own interests? I think if I had the chance to be that kind of different, I’d feel tons better about myself as a person. And I think a lot of people would feel the same.

"Not an ass! Thank God almighty, I'm not an ass!"
“Not an ass! Thank God almighty; I’m not an ass!”

What are some of the reasons/excuses/stories you tell yourself to refrain from being a jerk? What are some of your most hated examples of jerkitude? What are some of your favorite examples (factual or fictional) of being a good person? Feel free to share by commenting below.