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Sinners and Saints
I cheated on a girlfriend once, in high school. And she loved me to pieces. It was a tragedy. I sat next to—I think the most accurate description is: a hussy—in the back of the bus on the way home from some marching band competition. It started out as cuddling, but soon I was going from first to third on a hit-and-run. I wasn’t thinking about my girlfriend at the time. I was thinking about the pleasures of the flesh.
After I returned home, the guilt began to set in. This relationship that I was in was pretty long-term by high school standards—about three or four months—and everyone knew we were together. Hot Stranger on the bus knew we were together, and she clearly didn’t care. I couldn’t be certain that she’d keep the secret, so I broke up with my girlfriend pre-emptively, because I couldn’t handle the shame. After that, I had no girlfriend and no hot stranger, either. But I felt like ending the relationship was the only honorable thing to do.
I think most people intuitively understand right and wrong. There is a small percentage of people—you might call them psychopaths—who just don’t care. Bloomberg did a piece on psychopathy on Wall Street years ago. It was a low blow, but there is a reason the term grinfuck exists on Wall Street. I’m grinning as I’m fucking you over. But yes, most people know right and wrong, and do their best, but ultimately give in to sin, because the temptations are just too great. Would you cheat on a spouse with Hot Stranger if you knew, with 100% certainty, that you would not be caught? Would you get a prostitute? Would you do drugs, if you knew there were no repercussions?
Opinions differ on drugs. Some people treat their body like an amusement park. Why do the puritans believe drugs to be wrong? Because you’re trying to find God by taking a shortcut. The long way around requires prayer and mindfulness and devotion. The easy way is to sniff blow. We don’t deserve the pleasures we get from drugs, and that is the point.
Most people are good people with specific moral failings. They are not perfect—none of us are. If you cheat with Hot Stranger and you experience remorse, you are probably going to heaven. If you cheat with Hot Stranger and you do not experience remorse, you are probably going to hell. Really what we are talking about is selfishness—a promise is only binding until something better comes along. I’m going to do whatever the hell I want and screw everyone else.
But there are all kinds of ways to be bad. The church-going housewife may be in a committed relationship, but engages in character assassination. She may lie. She may gossip. She may spread rumors and undermine people’s credibility. This has never been my particular vice, but for some people, I guess it feels good while you’re doing it. You diminish someone else’s standing to enhance your own. Some people like to create drama.
Some people steal. I have never spent much time with people who do this. You can say what you want about Wall Street people, but they tend to exhibit cash register honesty. They may be scumbags in every other aspect of their lives, but they will not steal money. And that is something. I did run into a small number of instances in which people were not cash register honest on Wall Street, but I will save that for some later book when everyone involved is dead.
Some people may not do illegal drugs, but they will drink too much alcohol. One thing I’ve found about alcohol (and also pot, since that is mostly legal now) is that it serves as some sort of psychological crutch. Get home from work, pour yourself a drink. Get home from work, pour yourself a drink. Pretty soon you need a drink when you get home at night or you are going to be plenty grumpy. The only substance I am dependent on at the moment is ZYN, the tobacco-free nicotine pouches. I picked up this habit back in 2020 and I’ve never looked back. Nicotine, on its own, separated from the carcinogens in tobacco, is mostly harmless. And I’ve found that it sharpens my thinking. I have one in right now, as I write. It’s not entirely harmless, though—it can raise your blood pressure and harden your arteries. In the grand scheme of vices, this is about as small as it gets, and I have no intention of quitting anytime soon.
So what makes a good person? Obeying the Ten Commandments? Is dang-it-all-to-heck Mike Pence, a family man in a faithful marriage, a good person? I believe this to be true. But I think the Jared Dillian of 20 years ago would have thought that Mike Pence was stiff extraordinaire, and I would have preferred to live a colorful life with more excitement. I am not too much into excitement these days. If I were to die in the year 2053, at the age of 79, I would hope that someone would say that I was a devoted husband at my funeral. Actually, that happened recently—I heard that a friend of a friend of a friend referred to me as a devoted husband. And it is true. That is a reputation I would like to cultivate. You get older, and you get smarter, and you start to do the math on this stuff, and you figure out that fifteen seconds of bliss is not worth a lifetime of regret. The risk/reward is atrocious. Wisdom that I did not have in the back of the bus at 15 years old.
I spend a lot of time thinking about how to be a good person these days. When I make mistakes, it is typically errors of omission rather than commission. I’m a bit self-aborbed (we all are) so I might not recognize when someone is doing something nice for me and forget to thank them. Or I might make a stupid Twitter comment that I will later regret. Little stuff. I think the definition of progress is when the bad shit that you do gets smaller and less consequential over time. These days, if I inadvertently ghost someone over text, I am wracked with guilt. I continue to make mistakes. It’s progress, not perfection. I’m sure that there’s at least one person out there who thinks I’m an asshole because of some slight that I didn’t even know I made. But if these are the sorts of things you worry about nowadays, I think the gates of heaven are wide open.
Unlike a lot of people, I do not believe that my political beliefs make me a good person. I don’t think voting Democratic or Republican makes you a good person. But Democrats and Republicans tend to view the other side as evil. I think we can have different opinions on things like abortion without being characterized as sinners or saints. I don’t view the opposing political party as bad people. I view them as misguided people. People generally believe what they believe because of who they are and where they were when, with a little bit of genetics thrown in. I draw the line at Communism—the people who are real, actual hard-core Communists are bad people. They are destroyers, filled with hatred. Outside of that, we can have a difference of opinion on anything and still remain friends.
Does charity work make you a good person? It depends what your motivations are. If you are attention-seeking, it does not necessarily make you a good person. I endowed a scholarship at my high school, and there was lots of splashy PR around it, and while the scholarship will undoubtedly do good (and already has), it was an exercise in ego-gratification. But I’ve made contributions in other areas that I’ve taken great pains to remain secret. There is that old saying that if you do a good deed and you go around and tell everyone about it, then the good deed was nullified. I always like looking up at those donor walls in art museums and seeing “Anonymous” listed up there. That person has the right idea.
The goal here is to get into heaven, right? I mean, if there were no such thing as hell, then what is the point of being good? Clearly, you don’t have to donate a ton of money to get into heaven. And you won’t go to hell if you work on Wall Street. You just have to be a good person, right? Well, it is a little more complicated than that. It’s not quite about altruism or selflessness, but it’s close. I may not be much, but I’m all I think about.