You come into the house by the kitchen door, and mama is there at the table. Her head is in her hands, her hair is a mess and her eyes are swollen, red and wet. She’s not crying, not quite, but you can hear the catch in her breathing and you know she has been sobbing, and she’s trying very hard not to break out in tears again. She smiles weakly, and you know she doesn’t want for you to see what she’s going through, but there’s really no way to hide it.
What do you do in that circumstance?
You want to help, don’t you? You want to soothe and comfort and console. You want to take the pain away, to take a tissue and wipe away the agony as you wipe away the tears. You want to make it all better.
That’s the way I’ve been feeling about a column Peggy Noonan wrote for the Wall Street Journal. It’s a compendium of tragic episodes, and on reading it you might think there is no connection between the events. But there is. The connection is Noonan’s pain, the despair she feels for a modernity that seems to be nothing but ugly and twisted and wrong:
A tourist is beaten in Baltimore. Young people surround him and laugh. He’s pummeled, stripped and robbed. No one helps. They’re too busy taping it on their smartphones.
I reject pain. I refuse to let it have my mind, I rid my life of anything that might cause me pain, and I forget all about it as soon as it is gone. I’ve never been any damn good around people in pain, because I don’t see why anyone should ever feel anything but Splendor. But there’s mama crying in the kitchen, and a stirring lecture on the avid pursuit of values may not be the best medicine in the immediate moment.
But that really is the cure, the topical ointment and the general vaccine: Pursuing your values.
The world is full of news, good and bad, and all of it matters to you to the exact extent you tell yourself it does.
If you are completely consumed by your own values, you will attend to the “news” not at all, regarding all of it as being irrelevant.
If instead you have too much time on your hands, and too much internet at your fingertips, you will take on the burdens of Atlas — and then weep.
It goes for me, too. What is Noonan to me or me to she? I don’t want for mama to cry like that, but for all I know she bawls every day when I’m not around. I can’t take her pain away, I can only induce an unnecessary pain in my own life.
And that’s a disvalue, isn’t it? If my actions are not advancing my interests, they’re retarding them. If I am not scaling the spire of Splendor, I am sinking, by default, into the pit of Squalor.
Each one of us has a hierarchy of values, and for most of us that hierarchy is inverted — upside down. We seek the good outside of our minds, and we spurn the highest good in any human life, the self. If you want to find Splendor — and, in consequence, to shun sadness and despair and Squalor — reverse the sign in your value equations, invert the inversion. When every second of your time and every moment of your mental effort is devoted to making your own world more perfect in every possible way, the imperfections of the world around you will seem irrelevant to you. When all you can see are your own values, you can’t see anything else.
And what if everyone behaved that way? Would mobs torment tourists if each individual person were focused only on his own values? Would a Secret Service agent soil himself and wreck his marriage and carreer if his highest goal was self-adoration? Would any self-respecting, self-loving person ever work for a government?
To weep for the world is a vanity. It is a waste of time of your life that cannot be replenished, and it changes precisely nothing — except to diminish your own future self-regard. If you want to love the world, start by loving your life — and share your love of your life with your family, your friends and your neighbors. When enough of us have reversed the sign on our values, the world outside your mind will be the wonderful place you want it to be.