A letter came yesterday that was addressed to my former neighbor, Michael. It looked like an invitation of some kind. I took it and another letter along when I ran errands. As I drove, I was sorely tempted to toss Michael’s letter in the trash because I do not like Michael. The one store that had a mailbox out front was the last on my list, so I had a lot of time to think about that letter and what I wanted to do with it. I went over the matter thoroughly, and pleasurably, without coming to a conclusion.
When I got to the store, I saw that there was a trashcan between me and the mailbox, and, if I had only had Michael’s letter, the trashcan was where it would have gone. But since I had to walk to the mailbox anyway, I put his letter there too—and instantly regretted it. I even had an impulse to break into the mailbox to get it back.
Aside from having to mail my own letter anyway, I re-mailed his largely because throwing it away seemed piddling, tacky. If the envelope had contained something significant—say his income tax refund—it would have ended up on the sidewalk in the part of town known as Felony Flats. But an an invitation? Let it pass.
One might ask if I didn’t feel better by having done the right thing. Well, no, because I can never convince myself that doing good by my enemies is the right thing. I want my enemies to suffer, and I want to help it happen. In the absence of reconciliation, this is as true of someone who wronged me forty years ago as it is of someone who wronged me today. I don’t feel that I have to get along with people, but in the face of egregious or persistent harm, my patience runs out.
My own vengefulness inspires me to treat other people better than I might otherwise do, because I don’t want other people lying in wait for me as I lie in wait for some of them. I show respect and helpfulness for anyone who is not my enemy, mostly because it pleases me to please others, but also because I never know who might be in a position to harm or help me somewhere down the line. I am especially courteous—or at least tolerant—toward the many bicyclists and pedestrians who pass my house, including the ones who litter and steal flowers, because they know where I live.
I recognize that my vengefulness is an immoral attitude, but what is morality other than those rules inculcated by society for its own benefit, rules that: (a) sometimes harm the individual who accepts them, and which (b) society itself feels no need to obey (if I kill my neighbor because I hate him, I am a murderer; if I kill my neighbor because the government tells me to, I am a patriot). No, I prefer to determine my own morality, at least to the extent that it is possible. I doubt that any of us have the capacity to be truly self-defined, but the other way would have us not think, to accept on faith that someone else, whether it be the church, the government, the author of an old book, our parents, or the leaders of some club or gang, is in a better position to make decisions about what is good for us than we are. I would only suggest that one look at the fate of their followers.
“Why, their fates aren’t always so bad,” one might say. No, they are not. Conformity has its rewards. It is often ill advised to defy authority even if that authority is wicked or foolish. But there is an in-between place where the authorities are absent or powerless. This is where freedom lies for people who refuse to internalize the edicts of those who claim the right to control them.