The two systems of morality that modern Westerners espouse

event_153746762I was recently at a party in San Francisco, and everyone there was talking about gentrification. I was actually a bit astonished by how much it came up: it was this last Saturday people were talking about gentrification about as often as an ordinary household would mention the Super Bowl. It was odd to me, because we have just as much gentrification in Oakland, but I and my people around here don’t discuss it nearly as often. Of course, we’re not in the tech industry, so we don’t feel nearly as indicted by the issue of gentrification.

That was what I mostly noticed: the tremendous guilt and anxiety that surrounded gentrification–the feeling that we, the partygoers, were part of the problem and needed to solve it somehow.

This guilt not an uncommon feeling amongst the upper- and upper-middle-class people I’ve known, and I both understand and sympathize with it, but I’ve never shared it. I mean, I believe in all the things other people believe in. And lately I’ve even been involved in anti-gentrification work (yes, I’m an activist now, you jerks). But I never feel bad, on a person level, about this stuff, because…why bother? These are systemic issues, and they need to be solved by changing the system. There’s no need for personal guilt; all you need is to act.

I was telling this to someone else (at a different party), when they were like, “Well…if you don’t feel bad about global issues, then what does make you feel bad?”

And I was like, “When someone’s mean to me.”

But as I was thinking about it, I was like…plenty of things make me feel bad. And I’ve done plenty of things that I regret. But it’s not guilt. It’s alway shame.

I’m sure you all know this, but guilt is when you feel bad about something you’ve done, whereas shame is when you feel bad about who you are. And while I rarely feel guilt, I frequently feel shame. I’m a person who’ll say one awkward thing and spend the entire night mentally flagellating himself for it. That’s because I have so much of my self-image tied up in being intelligent and witty that any failure on those fronts feels deeply unsettling, as if I don’t even know who I am anymore. And once I start to question that, then I also start to feel bad about all the time I’ve been fronting, and pretending to be something I’m not, and the shame gets even worse and even deeper.

This is not at all an original observation to me, but modern Westerners seem to simultaneously espouse two separate systems of morality: the helping-people morality; and heroic morality. The helping-people morality is good Christian virtue: am I helping and not hurting? And that’s the moral system that gives rise to guilt, because there’s something very objective about it. It’s not about thoughts. it’s about actions. Did you do something that helped other people? Or did you do something that hurt them?

Whereas heroic morality is all about being something great. And, you know, it takes many forms. There’s the people who want to be the most learned and witty people in the room. And there’s also the people who want to be wisest and most self-actualized. There’s the ones who want to be smooth and confident, and the ones who want to be genuine. I don’t know. People choose their own model. But all heroic templates share certain traits: they’re all cohesive and admirable. If you manage to successfully model a heroic template, then people will admire you and no one will pity you and you’ll feel like…you’ll feel like you are something. That you’ve actualized yourself.

And if you could always just believe in that vision of yourself, life would be great. But you can’t. Eventually, cracks appear, and you start to berate yourself for not failing to live up to this standard.

I don’t really know what the solution is. Self-compassion, obviously. But should we also stop attempting to achieve these heroic templates? I really don’t know.