On ethical mediocrity

I don’t think I could ever say that I got ahead not playing by the rules. I’m embarrassed about it. It’s a source of ongoing shame for me that I’ve been incapable of cheating properly, with bold disregard for authority, as if I was missing that part of the brain which rebels seem to have. Sometimes, I even experience this as a painful sense of lost opportunities. Regret for a path I didn’t dare take.

I often wish I was cooler, lighter, more whimsical and flexible. That I was more able to find short-cuts and save effort, more efficient, winning, driven by a desire to get there first, and shape the world to my will as I bend established agreements. Instead, I feel held back by a deep sense of dull obedience, a bovine desire to lift heavy weights, covered under faux-contempt for those who just want to ‘get there first’ (I actually admire them. I even probably envy them for it). I often feel, still now, like a boring A-student, alienating others around him by excessive seriousness – or naïve like a little child, ready to fall victim to all sorts of manipulations and mockeries.

My step-father used to tell me that I was not actually smart. I had culture, yes, but I wasn’t shrewd in the least, and I’d never be good at life, because life requires shrewdness, which is true intelligence, not culture. I tried hard not to believe it, but some of it rubbed on me. Later, when I joined preparatory classes, my father would criticize me for working too much, not spending time out, drinking, flirting. I passed exams alright, but my street-smarts remained very limited. Even now, I know a lot of things, but I’m not always sure what to do with them, or how ‘people’ would receive what I might articulate.

Sometimes, I wish I was more of a trickster. I wish I had the brains and guts to play tricks on people, use deception to get my way, find the path of least resistance, surf the waves. Instead, I often feel pedestrian, heavy, gullible. Somehow, and in spite of superficial rebelliousness, I think I have a deep trust that there is a proper way to do things, and that’s how they should be done. People have called me creative and original. It’s been a surprise every time. I’ve grown to accept these adjectives as part of the way people see me, but deep inside, I feel plain, obedient, and dull, if sometimes shaken up by eruptions of raw energy. This is one of my defining inner paradoxes.

This sense of dullness applies to my private life. It’s August 2004, and I’m standing outside the Roman Baths in Cologne. It’s the first time I’ve dared to get inside a gay sauna. I feel very proud of myself: I looked, but I didn’t touch. I was expecting, who knows, some deep and meaningful conversation. When that didn’t happen, I was not even able to have sex. Worse, I felt proud of it. I’d been with my partner for over three years – and remained entirely faithful. There were opportunities, but I passed them by.

Until about the age of twenty-five, when I should have ‘sewn my wild oats’, I stuck to strict faithfulness. I craved a stable structure, simple morals, and rebelled against what I perceived as looseness around me. No cheating allowed, brainless puritan. Later, and quite deliberately, I decided to change. I slowly trained myself to build more ‘flexible’ personal ethics. I succeeded to some extent, but sometimes wonder if I didn’t lose on both fronts, and moved from rigid youth to shapeless middle-age.

I don’t think I could ever say that I got ahead not playing by the rules, yet I can’t honestly say that I never took a short-cut either. At school, I did, occasionally, look on my neighbor’s paper for an exam, and change an answer based on that. I never properly stole anything in a shop, but when a pack of chewing gum accidentally missed the scan at the self-check out, I bagged it. During a short stint working for government, when I had to declare my own working hours, I would sometimes add a few minutes at the end of each day, rounding it up to the closest five or ten, and ‘cheated’ about a few dollars from the system for work I didn’t really do. And I did agonize over it.

In the end, it’s like I’ve achieved nothing more than a form of ethical mediocrity. I am still far from the great trickster, the gangster, robber, ruthless figure confidently defying the law that I sometimes wish I could be, but neither am I close to the shining angel of virtue, clod in white purity. I’m not sure if I deliberately adopted this stance, or just let myself slip into it.

I wonder: to what extent would such a pattern of personal behavior, a ‘grey’ relationship to morals, embarrassed tolerance for minor faults, translate into valid ethical leadership? Does that acknowledged mediocrity make me somehow more genuine or human, helping me relate? Because ultimately, most people are neither angel nor demon, and live in fear of excess in any direction? Or have I given up on the possibility of greatness, and the capacity to inspire and influence that goes with greatness?

I also wonder about the trajectory of my own ethical growth, from rigid to flexible, and whether I gained some wisdom from my own lapsing, giving in to minor shortcomings, trading purity for experience? Maybe, whatever material opportunities I didn’t seize, in my younger years, through moral rigidity, are somewhat made up for by an increased capacity to reflect on my own ethics? Can you grow character and bend the rules? Can you grow character and remain flawless? Or is there a necessary choice, and is maturity reached only through compromise, accepting and embracing one’s own short-comings?

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