Some days I can barely get out of my front door without tripping over my own contradictions and hypocrisies. I believe I should be selfless and loving, but I am ambitious and chiefly desire vainglory.
Ambition feels like a pastime of the young, and I assume I’d grow out of it (though I have never wanted to). My younger self wanted to study mathematics so that people would know he was smart, and so that, eventually, he could lead humanity’s vanguard in understanding quantum gravity, because it was an untrodden path where he could earn distinction. Abraham Lincoln had once warned his listeners of people like me, or rather people who have the same level of ambition but combine them with the sorts of talent that I lack. He knew those ambitious persons would desire such distinction, and would never be satisfied filling the seats of existing institutions.1 They would want to build their own with their own names on them, and would not mind destroying society for a chance to build them. So my contradictions are, in a way, a comfort to me, as they might make me hesitate before I bring something down to build myself up. The obvious way to combine these two parts of my self is to seek glory for being selfless and loving. I am, curiously, no less ambitious or desiring of glory than my 13-year-old self who wanted to show the world his brilliance in quantum field theory. But unlike him I have regrets. I regret that I spent so much time studying arcane branches of mathematics and not preparing to earn distinction solving problems that actually matter to people: the attacks on liberal ideas (like equality before the law and freedom of conscience and speech), a climate changing to be inhospitable for civilization, an increasingly violent and chaotic world. I feel powerless to help with any of it. And rather than lamenting that my contradictions rob me of the confidence to do anything I lament that there is nothing that I can do.
It’s hard to say that I believe that loving people is the most important thing without choking on one or two of the multitude of examples of my doing exactly the opposite of love to the persons around me. So it’s easier to think of ways to help people in the abstract – about those ideals of equality before the law and freedoms, about climate change, et cetera. It feeds my ambition, too. I want influence and power to shape society so it still values those things, and I want praise for establishing and defending those things. But more than anything I am afraid that what I really want is the comfort of not being able to control those things to any real degree.