One of my all-time favorite Peter Gabriel songs is Big Time, whose lyrics go like this:
Hi there. I'm on my way, I'm making it. I've got to make it show, yeah. So much larger than life. I'm going to watch it growing.
The place where I come from is a small town. They think so small, they use small words. But not me – I'm smarter than that. I worked it out. I've been stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out. I've had enough, I'm getting out. To the city, the big, big city. I'll be a big noise with all the big boys. So much stuff I will own. And I will pray to a big god as I kneel in the big church.
(Big time) I'm on my way, I'm making it
(Big time) I've got to make it show, yeah
(Big time) It's so much larger than life
(Big time) I'm going to watch it growing ...
(Big time) My car's getting bigger
(Big time) My house, getting bigger
(Big Time) My eyes, getting bigger
(Big Time) And my mouth
(Big Time) My belly's getting bigger
(Big Time) And my bank account
(Big Time) Look at my circumstance
(Big Time) And the bulge in my big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big, big...
Gabriel skewered the Wall Street excesses of the 1980s and the conspicuous consumption that came with it. How remarkable that we can blast out this song 35 years later and hear it describe equally well our materialistic, social-media obsessed age.
I spend enough time in the Moral Letters showing how Stoic philosophy warns us about putting value on external things like wealth, power, and possessions. Explaining how a person's physical appearance says nothing about their worth, just as their number of followers or Instagram account of their last vacation illuminate little of their inner values.
Today I'm going to change gears and say go ahead and be bigger in every way, with just one little caveat (to come below). Have the big career, go after the big money, amass the most possessions. Attract the best-looking family, acquire the biggest vacation home, and take over-the-top trips. Heck, you can even go large in your person: go to the gym and get stronger, more tanned and toned. Or if you prefer, forget about fitness, and just get bigger. It's all OK.
All of this is fine, provided you can also become the bigger person. Here's how you can spot the bigger person:
- The bigger person doesn't need to win arguments; they don't argue at all.
- The bigger person's happiness never comes from making another person feel small.
- The bigger person never compares what they have to what another person has because they know such comparisons bring only sadness.
- The bigger person always knows that what other people own, say, or do is utterly irrelevant to what they themselves think and feel.
- The bigger person happily admits when they are wrong, because they know this makes them stronger.
- The bigger person will apologize even when they're not wrong, because keeping friends is more important than winning arguments.
- The bigger person does not ask anyone to do anything they would not do themselves because no person and no task are beneath them.
In sum, I think you'll agree the bigger person is an insufferable pain in the ass. Who wants someone like that hanging around making the rest of us feel bad about ourselves? Now you know why so many Saints have been martyred. (Even here, the "bigger person" Saints are annoying, not needing to have a miracle attributed to them to be canonized. I suppose it's miracle enough that such persons exist.)
Now you might be thinking, "Wait a minute there, James. I was with you there until you said virtually no such people exist. I know people who demonstrate they are the bigger person all the time." To which I say, "You've probably watched a few too many Hollywood romantic comedies. I'm referring to people who exist in real life."
But seriously, remember we're talking about people who say they want to have power, fame, possessions, glamour, wealth – they want it all. How many such people do you know who also display bigger person behaviors?
I was thinking about the desire to have it all when writing this week's Paradise Found installment, What's The Score, America? I discuss the most important score for many people, i.e. their credit scores, and the effect this obsession has on their lives. Getting what you think you want is sometimes the very thing preventing you from achieving happiness and wisdom.
In Moral Letter 095 On Doctrines (Theory), we continue the discussion we began last week about what philosophical aids are helpful to an eager student in pursuit of happiness and wisdom. Quotes and sayings (precepts) can be helpful to reinforce a good lesson. But they are not sufficient because we need to look deeper to the reasons behind our actions. Wisdom in the Stoic concept means taking deliberate actions in line with reason. Your actions themselves are important, but your judgment underlying your chosen action is key because it illuminates your values.
This week's second Moral Letter 096 On Adversity provides a refresher of the classic Stoic lesson: it is the fate of humans to suffer and struggle. Our path to mastery lies in embracing the struggle with a clear mind.
Whether you eschew possessions or avidly pursue the type of "big time" that Peter Gabriel sings to us about, pay careful attention to what this does to your values. Even if you don't want to be a Saint, trading your reputation for mere things seems like a poor bargain. Why not go big instead?