Accepting the world we have
Forgive me in advance for waxing philosophical. I wanted my last column to address a more fundamental issue than my previous ones.
As I read about all the protests and progressive causes of the moment (many of which I support), I find myself pondering some big questions: What is the goal of all this? Are we going to be striving for “progress” forever? When is enough, enough?
Some might argue that this is an unproductive line of thinking—that given all the many problems facing the world it is premature to pose such questions. If you are in that camp, please bear with me.
Last week there was a brouhaha on Facebook over the Duke Faculty Night. Some people felt that DUU did not exercise due diligence by failing to select a diverse group of professors. As I read over the debate, I found myself both supportive of increased diversity and wondering about the endgame.
Are we going to demand inclusion until every event looks like a corporate stock photo or Justin Trudeau’s cabinet? What happens then? Once we reach some threshold for inclusiveness, are we going to sit back and celebrate—or are we going to identify a new group that needs support, on and on ad infinitum?
How about another issue: inequality. At what point is the income and wealth distribution “fair”—is it when it resembles our perceived “just” allocation? If we were to magically redistribute everything, what would happen? Would envy cease? Would people be satisfied with what they had? Or would human nature kick in, leading the drama to start over?
What about disease? Are we going to invest more and more in treatment so that people live ever longer? How long is long enough? How do we support all those people?
I could continue this for any issue people are working to solve, be it climate change, international development, conservation, bigotry and so forth.
Here’s the conclusion I’ve reached: no progress will ever be ultimately “sufficient.” There is always going to be an issue that demands attention.
In fact, solving one problem often creates another. Treating disease leads to population increase, leading to greater food requirements and increased environmental pressure. Empowering certain groups often means removing privileges from others, leading to resentment and political conflict. And so on and so forth. It truly seems as though Newton’s Third Law is at play underneath it all.
When faced with this reality—that we are never going to create a utopia on earth—I see people take two routes: some fight ever harder, and others rationalize the status quo. The former can lead to an exhausting state of constant conflict with the world, while the latter lends itself to an irrational fear of change and an implacable yearning for the “good old days.”
Both responses are dysfunctional. In one case, the goal of “progress” can become so supreme that people carelessly sacrifice their freedom and create new forms of oppression. In the other, a stolid unwillingness to budge leads to reactionary violence. Of course, both perspectives fuel an “us versus them” mentality that leads to the persecutory narratives we see coming from the right and the left.
It doesn’t have to be this way. It’s said that a child strives for perfection believing they can attain it, while an adult works toward it knowing they never will. I concur.
The question then becomes this: how can I work toward a better world without falling into the trap of constantagitation or blind bias for the status quo?
I don’t have an ultimate answer. However, I’ve found it useful to practice active acceptance of the world as it is.
To many people, “acceptance” is synonymous with passivity, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. For me, it is an active process. It involves dropping all of my internal resistance to a situation and then searching for a solution. It means I do what I can, but I do not carry the weight of the outcome on my shoulders. I become one agent in a large system, responsible only for doing my part.
I find that when I cannot accept something (Donald Trump, “SJWs,” political correctness, etc.), I feel enormous internal turmoil. I become agitated, obsessive, even aggressive. I become unable to respond and do what’s necessary; instead, I react. I often make things worse.
Accepting a problematic situation does not mean that I’m condoning it or resigning myself to its inevitability. It simply means that I have let go of my intense inner refusal. I allow it to be and then honestly ask myself, “What can I do?” If I can do something, I do it with as few expectations as possible. If I can do nothing, I try to let it go. There’s no point in being miserable because of whatever is wrong today; the world has always had its problems.
This is obviously easier said than done. There is a lot going on right now that would test the acceptance of a Zen Master. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. I’m going to make more of an effort to practice this in my own life. I’m going to try harder to actively accept the world we live in, rather than demand the perfect world I want. I will work toward building a perfect society, knowing that I’ll never live to see it.
This is the attitude I will try to adopt. If you’re as frequently troubled by the world as I am, I’d encourage you to test this out in your own life. See how this perspective works for you.
Thank you for reading my column this semester.
Ted Yavuzkurt is a Trinity senior. This is his final column. If you have a comment for him, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.