There are two logical extremes available in life. Leaving aside any sacred/secular motivations, the extremes come down simply to this; do I live for myself or do I live for others? It only takes a brief glance at any given day’s news to discover which one most people choose. Contrary to what most self-improvement folks think and say (PUAs, motivational speakers, self help authors, etc.), it is actually really easy to make yourself happy. Altruism does not come easily to humans. All you have to do is suppress that “I should” voice in your head, and listen to the “I want to” voice. Boom. I just saved you a thousand dollar self-help conference.
The “I should” voice is a lot harder. The “I should” voice asks us to do things that aren’t comfortable. It asks us to do things that go against the grain. And it has to be exercised, unlike the “I want to” voice. If you let yourself (granted, you have to do it in a thoughtful, logical manner) do what you want to do, rather than what you feel like you should, then you can be happy, after a fashion. Alternatively, you could take the much sweeter (but much harder) road of doing what you should. The problem there is that our notions of correct behavior are at odds with our nature, and so are corrupted almost immediately. Contemplative seeking out of the proper action is necessary to enable us to do what we actually should do.
What does this have to do with Horace’s quote, you ask? Everything. What we ‘should’ do is deeply tied in with denial of self to the glorification of others. Denial is self-sacrifice. Whether you are a religious person or not, it is easy to see that many people we admire deeply are admired because of their self-sacrifice. Ghandi. Buddha. St. Francis. Jesus. All of these people, whether you agree with their transcendent teaching or not, are admirable because of their devotion to others. Horace said that it is a sweet and fitting thing to die for your country, and I think he was right, but the daily death of putting others first is far sweeter and more fitting, if a thousand times harder. This is what we have lost. There simply aren’t many Nathan Hales alive today (and I’ll bet that most of them are in the military), so how many fewer Ghandis or St. Francises must there be? That is who I want to be.
Oh, and by the way; that last phrase contains the entire point of this post. After a certain amount of practice (more in some cases, like mine), the “I want to” voice starts sounding a lot like the “I should” voice. It doesn’t work the other way around. I’ve tried.