01/03/2013 02:16 pm ET Updated Mar 05, 2013

Belching Leaders

Over the holidays, I had to pay my nephew $5 for belching. I am not sure how this family tradition started. I probably burped during a celebratory occasion, and my wife's family instituted the penalty as a deterrent. For some years now, for each instance of rudeness whatever the excuse I have had to hand over $1 to whichever child happens to be around. I likely am not the only uncle in the world who visits under such a regime, though I have proven to be a recidivist.

Nephew Jackson -- unlike his cousins, who were the earlier beneficiaries -- decided that my gaseousness was a potential windfall. In a wonderful demonstration of the unintended consequences of our policy decisions, Jack Jack wants to encourage, not discourage, belching. When I arrived at his home, he greeted me at the door with the excited directive, "Burp! Burp! Burp!"

His parents realized that the seven-year-old was making elaborate plans for toys he could buy based on this novel source of income.

The children in the family who know me in my role as their relative are surprised that I hold a responsible job with some authority.

When I came back, I went to the gym. As many others do at the beginning of a new year, I resolved to work out more regularly. The gym me bears a family resemblance to the belching uncle. When I work out, I grunt. I check out other people. I look at myself in the mirror, too; you can hardly help but do that, since virtually all the walls are reflective. I imagine how the individuals around me, and I, would look if the late artist Lucien Freud painted us; his thick brushstrokes depicting heavy folds of flesh in a manner most honest. We're all a bit obsessed with the functioning of our own bodies in that place for a moment.

None of this behavior would be appropriate elsewhere.

Over the weekend, I went to dim sum with a friend of mine who is a sociologist. As a scientist, he has studied the obliteration of any distinction between what is public and that which should remain private. We talked about the challenges of leadership in our post-modern era. Among them is our loss of these important lines.

Norms have been inverted. In the recent past, my mother would have warned me that it was shameful to reveal family secrets. Thanks to social media, people regard you as peculiar if you do not confess every confidence to "friends" whom you've never met.

Perhaps we can agree that people who deliver speeches about restraint and lead lives of excess deserve to be exposed. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson claimed to have disciplined himself to act as if the whole world were watching. Yet his self-deception was perfect. Drafter of the Declaration of Independence, our third president preached liberty for all men while owning slaves. He lacked even the humanitarianism of his contemporaries, who wrote wills that allowed for manumission; George Washington, upon his own death, granted freedom to those whom he had held as property.

My concern is not the salutary revelation of hypocrisy. It is the expectation of egotism.

We forget how important social context is to our individual identity. None of us behaves toward our grandparents as we do toward our peers. Our forebears would not forgive us if we did.

I cannot say that I have noticed any strong correlation between political philosophies I support and personal behavior I admire. As a society we do ourselves a disservice by allowing public success to be trumped by private failing. We create standards that require us to sacrifice the many characters whom we are in reality for the sake of a notion of "character" that cannot be attained.

I've never been sure if in Hamlet, Polonius was always fatuous or if he has come to be regarded as such because his aphorisms have become cliches. Even if you don't know his name, you know his sayings: neither a borrower nor a lender be, and so on (try saying that without sounding sanctimonious). His greatest line, "to thine own self be true," sounds like worthwhile advice. But he has it all wrong. (He meets his demise, incidentally, when he attempts to spy on the indecisive Dane, which in my book is a just outcome for his invasion of personal space).

Polonius is misguided, because the actual challenge is to figure out what thine own self is to begin with. For any of us, that means a self situated with all of us. Hamlet is much more interesting than Polonius, because Hamlet hasn't figured it out. The public persona is at odds with the private self. Hamlet is acting out in the best sense. He is trying to perform in order to understand the mystery around him and within him.

We ought to recognize that normal people have many selves. "Be yourself" only has meaning concretely, not abstractly. Some of the time, we're the belching uncle and the grunting guy at the gym; it's a necessary break from the suit and the tie and all that that signifies. The rest of the time, we're defined by other titles and compelled to follow different scripts. Now and then, the self improvises freely.