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068 - On Private And Public Service - Moral Letters for Modern Times

The greatest good is done by those with the least need to talk about it. The true meaning of public service is not those offices that are most visible, but those deeds that have the greatest impact.
Trail with hikers walking alongside a river - Moral Letters to Lucilius
Photo by James Bellerjeau

We do things in the reverse order: we encourage young people into public service and positions of power before they have learned wisdom, and we urge our elders to withdraw from public view when they are most likely to be of service to humankind. At different stages of their lives each person should consider how they can make a contribution to the world, and this starts with learning how to better themselves. A broken ruler will never yield a straight line, no matter how many times you put it to service, so your first task is to learn what is true.

Rarely does an education in life come for free, though you may not pay the tuition in money. Experience is a hard teacher, Deuteros. I would have said unforgiving, but that’s not true. For though we cannot control everything that comes our way, the consequences are applied evenly for all. The teacher of life is strict but consequent, and a lesson learned need not be repeated. The fact that some of our companions may need multiple sessions is not the fault of the professor but of the inattentive student. A sincere student is watchful, attentive, and above all humble. To know when you do not know is to gain the key that will open the door to wisdom. Certainty is a key that will turn many locks, but open no doors.

Think of your life as a series of stages. In your youth and early adult years, you should be best friends with curiosity. Be a sleuth, observe much, say little. Inquisitiveness is your watchword. Strive to make every sentence begin with “Why …?” Most of what you hear in response will be wrong, misguided, or irrelevant. Scattered among the inaccuracies will be grains of truth, but how to tell which is which?

You will note that what people say and what they do are rarely in harmony. Listen to their words and watch carefully their deeds. Gaining an insight into the human motivations behind both talking and doing gives you X-ray like perception, allowing you to see beneath the surface of things. In time, you will develop rough models for not just how the world works, but also why. Incentives are everything and I will come back to this another time.

In the second stage, let’s call it middle age though it may come at any age, you will have working hypotheses. You will be able to say the words, “In my experience …” and it will not be the start of an empty sentence. You will still watch more than you talk, because you are conducting experiments to test your hypotheses, not yet publishing the conclusions of your studies. Besides checking whether your predictions regarding people and events are accurate, you may begin to wonder how best to direct the course of events. If what people say is an unfaithful guide to their actions, and they can be influenced without even realizing their minds are not their own, may you not put human motivation to use for your own purposes?

By this time in your life, most of your peers will have given up on trying to see behind the complexity of affairs and will accept the surface appearance of things. They will not think explicitly this is so, but their convictions about how the world works will steadily calcify, reinforced by the fact that everyone else believes the same as they do. When all around you say “more money is good, more responsibility is best, more possessions are pleasurable,” who are they to disagree?

This is when you are at your most dangerous, and when you must watch yourself with the vigilance of a prison guard whose every inmate has escaped multiple times before. For you are like a child grasping a sharp knife. You know that it cuts deeply and which end is pointed, but you do not wield it confidently or accurately.

At the next stage, your values become paramount because they are put to the test. For the first time you have the power to direct the course of events in a material way. The young student may not know much, but they also cannot influence much. You have learned much, including not only how and why things work, but also how to make them go in the direction of your choosing. Will you be wise in your choices? For with your greater insight, you are now in a position to make choices on behalf of others, not just yourself. Though the sheep believe they are making their own choices within the comfort of the herd, the shepherd knows they are controlling the flock’s direction, guiding and steering with a tap here, a word there, a sharp whistle from time to time.

In this third stage of your life, you are ready to make the move away from the private service of bettering yourself towards the public service of bettering humankind. This does not mean you must take up public office. That is but one possible avenue of service, fraught with many pitfalls and as much likelihood of doing harm as doing good. For most, I say you are better served by serving in obscurity. Best that none know your name or position, though your influence may be widely felt. “Why is this?” you ask, “What is the harm in being transparent and gaining recognition for your works?” The risk in prominence is two-fold, Deuteros. The first comes from yourself, and the second from others.

To the first risk, when you act for the benefit of others fame and recognition are false currency, feeding your pride more than they do your reason. The reward for being altruistic cannot be to burnish your vanity. Otherwise, your own motivations will be corrupted to gain acclaim rather than to do good. Only infrequently will you find these two in good company. You must maintain a watchful guard over your mind to stay alert, for your wisdom has not permanently vanquished your ego, only temporarily subdued it.

The egos of the masses present then your second risk. Do you think any will be happy to learn of your manipulations? That you have had not only the idea, but also practice trying to influence their actions? That you say it is for their own good will not dim their outrage. Do you think they will delight in hearing that everything they value, all they have placed stock in, has been misguided? We would rather be told sweet lies, blindfolded and only steps away from the guillotine, than to be told that we are naked and exposed with a long way to go till paradise.

Tell the truth at your peril, for the ignorant will not understand, the wicked will not care, and the great many will hate you for making them doubt their own beliefs. Thus, you must serve in silence if you wish to preserve your ability to maneuver. The greatest good is done by those with the least need to talk about it. The true meaning of public service is not those offices that are most visible, but those deeds that have the greatest impact. And remember this: you may change the world more with a single honest idea than you do by leading the mightiest army.

Be well.

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