George Armstrong Custer. "The last thing we need in our homes, workplaces, and national leadership is a Custer," Kurth writes. Credit: Creative Commons/National Archives and Records Administration.

When I was a girl, my father called me a “glory-hound,” and I was embarrassed and indignant, probably because it was so true. Most writers, it seems, long for glory, fame, acknowledgement. Some of that is a human need to be seen and valued, an experience we all deserve. But lately, I’ve been seeing a very real danger in the obsessive pursuit of fame and even the pursuit of achievement.

What could be wrong with “following your dream” or “being all you can be?”

In a radio interview, a spiritual author writing a book about a religious icon, mentioned a key moment when she was allowed to see the icon. At that moment, her companion and guide, an elderly man, was so affected, he collapsed to the floor. Her reaction was something very close to, Oh, that’s all I need: a dead guide on my hands.

Wow, I thought. Doesn’t a spiritual quest draw us closer to others, make us sympathetic to their suffering and possible death? That moment is undoubtedly not typical of the writer’s attitude overall, but it made me certainly made me ponder ambition, my own and others’, and where it stands in the way of humanity. Where do we find ourselves seeing others and even their suffering as mere obstacles to our goals?

Custer: A Far Scarier Example

Soon after hearing the radio program, I watched a PBS feature on Custer, a horrible and disturbing story. My mind kept flipping back and forth between two visions. One was a popular picture of Custer in his time, glamorous Custer, a “gallant” triumphant competitor, a rule-breaker and risk-taker, adventurous, courageous, confident, dashing, a man who dressed with flare and had a passionate romance with an equally high-voltage woman, his wife, Libby. This, I thought, is the archetype of success in our culture, the fireworks person, the Steve Jobs, the important one who drives himself beyond human limits and achieves fame, power, and money – and makes us feel bad about ourselves.

The Dark Side of Relentless Effort

If you have ever been on the receiving end of someone else’s relentless ambition, you know how chilling and appalling it can be. Maybe there’s a continuum of moral danger, from the achiever who can’t notice or care about another person’s pain to the fame-deranged psychopath?

In pursuit of personal glory, Custer abandoned some of his men to die. When he wanted a romantic reunion with his beloved, he force-marched his men and their horses for fifty-five hours. (And then, with starved horses and exhausted selves, they faced a battle). Far worse, he attacked and killed native people, not just warriors, but women and children, as if they were beasts, storming into a village without bothering to find out which nation it was, whether they were at peace with the U.S. government or not. He apparently took delight in the desecration of native graveyards. As I watched the sickening litany of “glory,” I began to see him more and more as a dangerous criminal responsible for massacres, a partner in genocide. Conscience, ethics, human anguish – seem not to have mattered to him.

And yet he was a glamorous national hero to many. Headlines of his famous last stand trumpeted, “The Fierce Sioux” “Where gallant Custer fell,” “Our Loss Over Three Hundred…Quaker Policy Toward the Red Man Won’t Do” (though some articles criticized the attack for being foolhardy.) Custer played a role in the truly shameful parts of our history. The last thing we need in our homes, workplaces, and national leadership is a Custer. But his extremes only throw into sharp relief what all humans deal with on a smaller scale. The popular winner-take-all TV shows that exhibit (with admiration!) a sadistic boss humiliating and stressing out competitors is a little too close to many modern workplaces. This should disturb, not entertain us.

The Big Problem: How Can We Care More About Other People?

How (on earth), I’ve sometimes asked myself, can I love my neighbor as myself? It’s the worthiest conceivable goal, and yet can seem so unreachable. Yet we do have way-showers, great spiritual leaders who seem to have been able to consider others as just as important as themselves.

Thich Nhat Hanh is an exemplar of an alternative to Custer. Credit: Creative Commons/Marloes (tussenpozen).

Thich Nhat Hanh is one exemplar, though once we start looking, we find there are many others. In Peace is Every Step, and The Miracle of Mindfulness, he suggests that we experiment, in the present moment, with treating time given to another as time also for ourselves. It’s not easy but it is possible sometimes and that promotes hope. Many people work an unfulfilling job all day and then feel desperate for an hour to themselves. Facing children or students with seemingly endless demands, they may feel emptied out and overwhelmed. But something about being in the present with attentive compassion seems to help. I wonder if Custer was someone whose fantasy life and fantasy self were so overwhelming that they served as a veil between himself and reality? The desperate need for officers during the Civil War seems to have been the only reason he, last in his class at West Point, got a commission. In war, though, he was a big success, and it didn’t seem to matter how many of his men died. After all, the whole point of war is to win; the individual doesn’t matter.

Being Who We Are Now

One commentator on the PBS Custer program pointed out that Custer came from an undistinguished background. His old “shameful” identity was to be burnt up in fabulous glory. No matter how many accolades he received, however, he needed more. Maybe there’s a clue here. Is there a side of ourselves we’ve found unacceptable, fit for the furnace? What terrible things would we do to get rid of it? The Inferiority-Superiority Complex is a cliché of psychology. But it also suggests how we might start. Rather than worshipping the inner winner and despising the inner loser, we might look more closely at how complex each one is. To treat ourselves with compassion and understanding as we struggle seems to be a powerful practice, and many practitioners are convinced it helps us treat others with compassion and understanding. By the time people reach the Custer point, they have caused such grievous disaster and tragedy, however, that it’s very hard to see their human side. We may have to take it on faith that it’s in there somewhere.

Paradoxes In Ordinary Time

In the meantime, dealing with ordinary humans, I try to be more cautious about the voices urging me toward Olympic efforts and intoxicating fame, always on some glorious future pinnacle. If I crab at my family and then sit down to write my fabulous tome about inner peace, the problem becomes kind of obvious. However, if I tune in to the present moment, among the pressure, duties, pain, frustration, and bewilderment, I also discover a significance that has nothing to do with publicity or measurable importance. I don’t want the hell of never being satisfied, always focused on another horizon. I appreciate the growth that has come into my life through mindful goal-setting, but my most precious and enduring memories are, perhaps paradoxically, the face-to-face ones, the kind available to anyone.

Lately, when part of me starts clamoring for acclaim, I give it its due, devote some effort to achievement, but then step back and ask how that effort felt. Was it in the right proportion? Did it have good results for me or others? I keep in mind my father’s sad example: an undying dream of saving the world through an organic farm run by his children and welcoming to all poor people. But none of us is interested in that project because in everyday life, although we love him, our dad can be tremendously difficult. And he loves poor people in general, but many particular ones offend him.

This achievement-compassion nexus can make one’s head spin. A writer friend, Tarn, however, has an approach I admire: she always seems to consider her writing in a spiritual light, as part of her service and connection to others, not just a race for acclaim. She gave me a book recently that I’m finding helpful, The Soul Tells a Story by Vinita Hampton Wright. I’ll close with a quote from it: “If I truly open my eyes and express in words what I have seen, then I will have participated in a spiritual act.”

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