The world is a better place if you don’t care if the world is a better place.
Tolstoy criticized a thing he called “family narcissism,” which he described as the mindset that says “The world can go to hell, just as long as everything is alright with my little Andre.” Thing is, the world, as far as I’m concerned, can go to hell, just as long as everything is alright with my little [fill-in all seven kids’ names].
Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want the world to go to hell, but it can go to hell for all I care.
And why don’t I care? For a simple reason: there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s outside my control. It’s not even within my “sphere of influence.” If I care about the world, nothing happens, so why care? It just leads to disappointed hopes, frustration, and even anger or ill-will toward others.
I ascribe to Nock’s notion that I have one responsibility only: to present the world with one improved unit. If I do that, I’ve done my job as far as the world is concerned. If everyone took care of that small (but pretty delicate and intense) task, the world wouldn’t need anyone to care.
If a person takes care of that one task, which entails attention to his family (you can’t present the world with one improved unit if you flunk your primary role in life), his family will normally fall into line, with the result that he helps present the world with even more improved units. At that point, a person is exceeding his obligations to the world. If that person then has sufficient time and energy to assist in local matters, good for him: One’s locality falls within his sphere of influence (measured, incidentally, roughly by the areas he physically frequents), so it’s fitting and noble for a person to help improve that area, but make no doubt about it: he’s going beyond what the moral life requires at that point, as far as I’m concerned.
Such a worldview (or anti-worldview, as it were) helps a person lead a better life: by putting the focus on where it existentially belongs, the person becomes an improved unit in various ways. One important way: it helps a person to stop judging others. If you don’t care if the world goes to hell, what do you care if that person is doing X, Y, or Z? I don’t. If that person is within my sphere of influence, perhaps I care, but otherwise? I don’t care. Or rather: ought not to care. I can’t say I’ve attained this Nockian level of serenity . . . it’s a work-in-process.
And because I’m a work-in-process, some things still rile me up. One of them: tattoos. I hate ’em. When I see ’em, I instinctively think “trash.” They evidence the phenomenon of short-term thinking that is wrecking this county (aye, the world!). The perennial hallmark of the lowest socio-economic class is the inability to see past immediate gratification (see Banfield’s The Unheavenly City). The tattoo is the perfect symbol of this: immediate gratification with no thought to how circumstances (including your aging body) will change.
So it was with a little bit of unfortunate delight that I stumbled across this New York Times article about people who have the “Livestrong” tattoos. These people got the tattoos a long time ago (say, 2011) and now they’re kind of embarrassed. The NYT does its best to help these people, assuring them that the tattoos do not signal approval of Lance Armstrong, but rather are a reminder that they oppose cancer (those of us without the tattoos are, apparently, cancer fans). No matter. It’s still pretty funny.
Those Livestrong tattoos provide a lesson that should be tattooed on everyone’s brain.
Something for Lent
“For those of you who are not Catholic, the idea of Lent is you’re supposed to give up something so you can experience suffering. Or you could just go on a Carnival Cruise.” Leno