When I went to my first job interview to be a teaching intern, I was asked the standard question. “Do you love children”. My response was this:
I know that’s a standard question that the interviewee is supposed to gush over with not only yes, but yes, yes, yes, but I don’t think it’s possible to love people in general. I think one has to love them in particular. And to do that, you have to know them. So I strive to know each of my students, to learn how they are unique. And then I think it’s impossible, once you find that uniqueness that makes them who they are, not to love them. I love every child I’ve ever known. On a broader scale, as merely a group – “children” – I don’t think any teacher really loves the children that bring guns to school and shoot teachers and students, or deal them drugs that ruin the lives of the ones they’ve grown to know and love. I think we can *want* to love them. But I think we love the ones we’re protecting from all that.
Needless to say I did not get the internship. But I didn’t mind. It was worth it to be the kind of person who can tell the truth. I’ll pay for that with whatever I’ve got on hand. I got the next internship at a struggling middle school in a class of ED (emotionally disturbed) kids – I was a Special Ed major.
Still to this day, I distinguish between people and individuals. I look out at a violent world, full of murder, torture, and hate – carried out as a matter of course by ordinary people – just the average person driving around in a car – at what Hannah Arendt calls the ‘banality of evil’ in her classic book Eichmann in Jerusalem. I look at the general intolerance of the amazing, thesuperb, of creativity and invention – at the general bigotry you find in the most liberal minds and at the most loving dinner table, and I think human beings are generally stupid and depraved – as a group. What’s that line from Men In Black: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals, and you know it.”
But everyone that I meet and get to know, I love. Even enemies – even people that strive to hurt me. Don’t have enemies? Try making more than someone in a corporate context who thinks what you do is easy and they deserve your job. Tell a school administrator that you won’t be cowed, have an attorney, and will gladly see that your rights aren’t violated – think that gleam in his eyes is affection? Or embarrass a religious fanatic by disagreeing with them, and then being able to withstand the tirade without folding or cowing or being embarrassed yourself. It is not only possible to love enemies, it’s basic to how we are built, because primates, among so many other creatures, are embued with empathy. Ender Wiggan, a character in Orson Scott Card’s “Ender” series, said, “In the moment when I truly understand my enemy, understand him well enough to defeat him, then in that very moment I also love him.”
It’s when you don’t feel as alone as Ender did, when you love so many others like you love yourself, that you have to distinguish between kinds of love. If they come after my family or my children – my orphans, my animals, I no longer love them – not in that way – I see them as a group, because I have to, and I resist for the sake of all the others I love. The kids who bring guns, drugs, and gang warfare to schools to lure away or harm your babies – they’re a group – they have to be resisted as such. The inflamed individual who makes anonymous threats is representative of the mass of depraved humanity, and needs to be dealt with in that way. The person that inhibits one’s livelihood, which strains an innocent group of dependents, out of nothing but spite and vengeance, is asking for a special kind of attention that’s not reserved for the people we love, but is given out on behalf of them.
I think a lot of solopreneurs walk this line between people and individuals. We abandon corporate ship and middle class values, because we think the world is screwed but, by doing so, we end up meeting brilliant, creative, ethical people who do good things in the world, and we finally find our true colleagues. I’m always wiling to broaden my world of respect for anyone that has integrity, diligence, style or anything really above the banal and depraved. It’s just that spending years in the wrong contexts – mediocre companies, mediocre academia, and a lot of religious groups, you don’t meet a lot of those kinds of people. You meet exceptional people in greater numbers by quitting all that to become exceptional, yourself. And you find lots of role models as you go along too. Some are great icons and some have serious ethical and ego problems, but you can still admire them for having style, verve, genius. They might be too controlling and ruining their social network, the might be too shady about how they do online marketing, and you don’t like that about them, but you like that they are doing something, even if, for all their riches, they don’t quite make it to full stature as human beings.
In fact, I find myself attracted to ‘machines’ for consolidating more and more brilliant people. Free Agent Source is one of those. And while I’m not involved with TED, I think TED is definitely a venue for that kind of thing. So of course, these are exactly the kinds of things I tune into or go to. What I think is that defining yourself as a person, as an individual, is partly about distinguishing yourself from people, as a pack. In my Faith, this is one of the core concepts we insist upon, the distinction between person (what is unique about you that no other human being possesses) and nature (what is common between you and all human beings). This distinction, like that of individuals and people, implies that discovering and determining who you are as a unique personality, an individual, however much that can evolve, is partly about something core within you, something unique that has always been there and exists in no other person anywhere, ever, and is partly about nurturing that distinction until it grows into a baroque personality that is increasingly exceptional and even ‘more’ unique, as if degrees of uniqueness were possible. Naturally, as you do that, you’re interested increasingly in people who are doing the same thing, in the same way if you go through a rigorous academic program, it can help for others to be going through as well. I’ve seen that done solo on the surface, but there were always colleagues pursuing something similar, if in a different field. Becoming an individual then, of full stature, also means never losing that link with others who are doing the same thing.