11 years ago, I sat near the Hudson in the shadows of the World Trade Center with a great friend.
We chatted about life and debated the purpose of all of it. We were analysts in investment banking – working across the street from the towers in groups called M&A and Media & Telecom. We were young – but we thought we had it all figured out.
I stood on the edge of a wall overlooking the river yelling (it was around midnight and noone was around – I was 22):
“The world is ours! We can be whatever we want! Like Nietzsche says – we can be the Übermensch - we can conquer it all!”
I felt on top of the world. My friend shook his head. He had other things on his mind:
“No…it is all about the Faustian bargain…all we can hope for is to find contentment. The best thing in the world is to be content.”
I thought he was weak. He thought I was a dreamer.
Two weeks later, the towers were falling. The world was shattered. We kept moving.
Tonight we ate steaks.
He has since graduated from law school, works for the City, and is a healthy and happy young professional. I work for a leading hedge fund after graduating with impressive-sounding degrees. We have both had many failures and some successes.
Only blocks away from where we stood a decade ago, it was almost unbelievable to look at the new towers and buildings (including the fancy restaurant where we ate) that didn’t exist years before.
We reconsidered our dichotomy.
At first, he claimed he still believed in the Faustian ideal – but characterized it differently:
“As long as I am learning, striving towards something and growing…I don’t need much.”
To me this sounded importantly different than contentment.
“What you want is to be out in the ocean: in the waves, with new ones coming – catching some, falling, being a part of it…and learning to ride the waves more over time.”
I used to think that it was all about conquering and accomplishment and being the greatest.
But in the decade that has passed, I have had so much failure and life pass by that I now realize the best we can hope for is something similar to what Nietzsche proposes but much more concrete:
We should strive for greatness – aiming high. But life happens – including travesties like 9/11 – and we find ourselves in the same place a decade later, facing similar trials and tribulations.
The world moves forward and we move forward within it – helping it to be better by being our best.
This is closer to Hegel’s idea of the Spirit realizing itself through our actions over time…
Or like my parents always told me in plain english: you should always try our best and treat others as you would like to be treated.
When we do that, we do our part to help make each day a little better than the last.
Before leaving, my friend asked the waiter a riddle:
“What is the greatest day ever?”
The waiter and I smiled. Waited:
“Today. Today is always the greatest day that ever was.”
I am not sure how to explain the miracle of today or all the unbelievable things that have brought us here, but I know that my friend is right about this: today is a gift.