I'm not the type to make News Year's resolutions. How about you? More to the point, if you make them, do you keep 'em?
As for me, sure I‘d like to lose eight to 10 pounds, or break my addiction to dark chocolate or to computer solitaire. But I probably won't, so I don't make those promises.
Just the same, not a day goes by that I don't try to be a better person. I think everyone does. We humans are sociable animals. We want others to like us. We want respect. We want the other fellow to be a "better person," too. But better for whom; better for what?
People despise a traitor. A spy is little different. If the individual is spying for us, it's good. If she or he is spying for an enemy, it's not.
If a spy is turned, he becomes a counterspy or double agent; one side considers him a traitor, but in the eyes of the other, that individual has preformed a valuable service, possibly at considerable risk. He becomes a hero.
Consider A.Q. Khan, the Pakistani scientist who confessed to providing nuclear technology obtained from the West to several non-Western countries, including North Korea. In Pakistan, Khan is a hero.
I've always wanted to know what motivates people to these things, so lately I've been reading about espionage, two books recommended by a former CIA agent who wants people to understand what went on during and after the Cold War. Everyone was spying on everyone else, and information passed from one side to another, either because someone rationalized their own conduct or because they actually believed what they were doing was making the world a better place.
Sure, money was involved, but money wasn't as important as you might think. Information was often disclosed to an agent out of friendship. A good spy starts by making friends with his contacts.
After that, it's simply a matter of priorities. One act was seen as better than another. It's better to secure that promotion than remain stuck in a dead-end job, better to help country X a little bit than to remain neutral in a divided world.
What does spying have to do with New Year's resolutions?
There are a couple of lessons here. First, everyone has their own value system and their own priorities; second, these priorities vary from person to person and culture to culture. Add to this a third observation: Ultimately, nothing is isolated, nothing remains secret for long, and the act of a single individual, like a stone thrown in a pool, spreads out in all directions.
We talk glibly about a global society, but few seem to understand that a global society requires global priorities. What comes first in your life? Your family? Your church? Your nation?
When a spy sells out his country, he is selling out his friends and family as well, but the spy doesn't see it that way.
When Khan fed information to an international nuclear proliferation network, he probably didn't consider the possibility that his act could facilitate a nuclear exchange capable of killing billions and changing life on the planet forever. Khan simply believed he was helping his own people.
When an industry fights environmental regulations, it doesn't see itself as increasing the likelihood of global climate crisis. It is simply saving jobs and protecting its stockholders.
It's all in the point of view. This is why we desperately need to prioritize our values. Our most immediate concern is protecting our family, but families don't do well in isolation. We need our friends, our community.
However, communities depend on a larger social structure, and so on. A traitor is one who betrays his country, but what do you call people who betray the whole human race?
Back to New Year's resolutions and becoming a better person. Better means better for the Earth itself, because it is the Earth that sustains us all. Better means better for everyone, people we don't know and will never meet, but who are nonetheless part of our family, linked to us in this global society in ways we are only now beginning to understand.
All this sounds very grandiose and idealistic, but it is also very real. We make decisions that impact others every day. It is simply a matter of realizing there is someone out there faced with a very similar decision.
How do you want them to behave?
Joan King lives in Sautee. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com.