Climbing the Totem Pole of Magnanimity



Call me crazy, but I have this theory that being a good person is a big part of what makes people happy. And that’s really what this blog is about: abolishing the pusillanimity of a wholly self-serving life and incrementally replacing it with the radiance of magnanimity (or something like that.) Magnanimity is a great word – it conjures up images of a person glowing with good-ness. This is a confident, humble, wise, fulfilled person that others tend to gravitate toward. Magnanimity is the pinnacle of goodness – it is the wisdom, strength, courage to act rightly. But it isn’t simply altruistic. With no self-serving motivations, the magnanimous person nonetheless recoups much in the form of self-esteem, even self-actualization.

Magnanimity is available to anyone, anywhere, any time to dignify their existence – with relatively little effort, you can choose to be the Wise Owl at the top of the totem pole. In other words, no matter where you are on the hierarchy of needs – trying to meet your basic needs of thirst and hunger, securing your safety, working on self-esteem – you can (and should) reach for good-ness. It’s harder to think about others when one is starving, but that may be when the highest manifestation of magnanimity is expressed.

Of course, one act of magnanimity does not a magnanimous person make. So, while it’s easy to be the Wise Owl in one instance, the goal is to string together enough of these instances in your lifetime that when people look back on you, they think of you as the Wise Owl. Most of us will have moments of weakness when we’re the Squished Frog or the Upside Down Guy at the bottom of the totem pole. We can forgive ourselves some of these moments of weakness, as long as we’re striving to be better.

This is all very platitudinous of you, Poppa, I hear you saying. Where’s the pragmatic beef? Well, here’s another platitude instead: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.”* A person with nothing can still give in the form of being good to others.** A person with plenty (Bill Gates comes to mind) should give a lot (say, by starting a foundation that helps to alleviate suffering around the world). So while you may feel you’ve gotten the short end of the stick, knowing you are a good person can make it a crutch in hard times, a pole vault in better times.

We can start by being good people at home, and let it radiate out from there. Simple courtesies with one’s spouse and children and friends go a long way. We should acknowledge, listen to, empathize with, and actively help those around us. Dale Carnegie, the self-help guru, somewhat cynically employed these techniques to win friends and influence people. But, if not used disingenuously, these are simple steps in climbing the magnanimity totem pole.

Beyond achieving magnanimity toward one’s family and friends, one can become more involved with improving the community, or even with national or global causes (again, according to one’s means or abilities).

How am I doing in this department? Somewhat suckily, considering all that I’ve been given in my life. (Incidentally, though, having a couple kids has forced my hand, at least locally: I’d say that wiping other people’s butts is pretty magnanimous, depending on the context.) On the magnanimity totem pole, I may be one of the dog-like animals near the middle. One of my weaknesses has been my inability to focus on the present, which often leads to poor listening; my mind is often meandering through all the fields of possibility for my ideas and projects, which can diminish the importance of your ideas or thoughts or feelings.

To work on this problem, I’ve instituted an experiment in which I’m trying to be more conscious of listening to others, not using “I” as much in conversation, trying to be genuinely nice to others, and generally being more in the present. More globally, over the past few years I’ve had the luxury of more time to work on projects that I hope will have beneficial impacts. I’ll discuss some of these projects in more detail in future posts – some may even have some collaborative elements for anyone interested.

If you’d like some magnanimity inspiration, one hero who shot himself straight up the totem pole is Anjan Sundaram, who graduated from Yale and turned down a lucrative job at Goldman Sachs to move to the Congo so he could help bring attention to the millions of people who were dying there in an ongoing war. If we could all foster just a small fraction of Sundaram’s magnanimity, the world would be a better place.

Peter Singer encourages our magnanimous side by asking us to spend a little more time helping to alleviate poverty worldwide in his book “The Life You Can Save.” And if you want to get into the nuts and bolts of magnanimity, you can check out Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. I’m slogging through that at the moment, so there may be a summary post in the near future.

Be Good,


*A phrase popularized by Karl Marx, interestingly with possible biblical origins. Ayn Rand didn’t like the idiom, so it must be good.

**This is not some don’t-worry-be-happy crap. I realize you can’t eat magnanimity if you’re starving – it is certainly lacking in some of the essential amino acids. Being a nice person doesn’t preclude working on other measures to alleviate suffering; and, lo, contrary to what Ayn Rand might think, other measures are exactly what those with more means should be working on.

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