Last summer I worked with an extraordinary man. He is somewhere between mad and brilliant. Filled with neuroses, wickedly quick, and a powerful hunger for empire, he was Napoleon reincarnated. We met on campus some years back and though our philosophies were vastly different, we became friends. I listened as he plotted to build an impossible media and intelligence empire, and watched in disbelief as it began to raise from the ground. In the time that I joined him we talked often about our life theories and ideals. The one that we clashed most over, and the one that keeps coming back to me is our conversation of emperors and turnip farmers.
To him it was never enough to be good, or even great at something, you had to be the best. He told stories of how he had threatened his brother that if he did not win a debate, he would break his knees. I always took this to be a gross exaggeration as many of his stories could be, but his was the kind of intensity that you could never really be sure. You could see this gnawing hunger within him, the need to have his name in the history books. He had come from an old family that had had much taken from them. “When you are emperor,” he told me, “no one can take anything from you.”
This did not strike me as true. I watched him and thought to myself, I could never live like him. Yes, there is nothing exactly like being at the top, but does it really offer the greatest value to your life. It is wonderful to be the best, or the most powerful, or the most knowledgeable to be sure, but at what cost? No, emperor did not sound like a good idea to me. When you are emperor, everyone around you will doubtlessly want to be emperor too. History books drip with blood of friends and relatives, spilled over the right to rule. When you are emperor you can never feel secure in the ones close to you, or in your position. You must fight every day to legitimize yourself or your position, eliminating possible threats. It sounds exhausting. The emperor has everything, but can he be happy?
And what of the turnip farmer? The turnip farmer may not have the wealth and power of the emperor, but perhaps he is happier? If the turnip farmer can be content with his turnips, if he does not desire wealth and power, would not he be infinitely more at peace in his life than the emperor? Is that not what everyone strives for in one form or another, happiness? And if, as I postulated earlier, that happiness is a choice, then why not choose it as a turnip farmer? I saw, and still see nothing wrong with people who are content with their lives. My Napoleonic friend would dismiss them contemptuously as having no ambition, but what was so contemptible about people who had already figured out how to be content?
The turnip farmers that I know will live happy lives, and in all likelihood, will die happy. The aspiring emperors, and I know many of those too, of them I am not so sure. Little emperors of their own domains, and yet they are always hungry and the turnip farmers always full.
Then what of me, as I decide where to take my life? As I fret about my direction, it dawns on me that I could go back home and live a perfectly comfortable, adequate life. I have terribly blessed, I should have nothing to agonize over. Yet, I lie awake at night discontent…and hungry.
I hold those who are content in their lives in the highest respect, for they have done something that I cannot. While I shudder at the thought of being emperor, I do not want to be a turnip farmer. I see all the fallacies of one, yet I cannot reconcile myself to the other.
I often feel divided like this, like I am two people in one. I will surely never be able to give myself over entirely to the pursuit of glory, or empire. Will I too, then, live out my life hungry?
Maybe one day I will learn, but today, I do not want to be a turnip farmer. I am hungry.