Working for Change in a Perfect World
In my last post, I explored the truly radical (and yet ancient) notion that, as Lao Tzu puts it, the world is perfect and “can’t be improved.” That is, the world is perfect with all of its beauty and its ugliness, its joy and its sorrow. When we see the world from this perspective outside of the judgmental nature of everyday duality, it can help us not to get caught up in our own judgments, ideals…and causes.
But even if one accepts this notion, that still raises some key questions: How does one live, and act, in the world? Is there any reason, or justification, to work for change if the world is already perfect?
The answer to this question starts from the understanding that to say the world is “perfect” does not mean that everything has to be good, beautiful, or pleasant. That view would be just to cast everything as white by repainting the black. Instead, a perfect world includes both good and bad, white and black, yin and yang.
What matters, however, is to understand that what we perceive as good or bad is always seen by the lights of our own personal perspectives–which are limited, contingent, imperfect, and variable over time.
This recognition immediately exposes the relative nature of our judgments. You may be dead certain, for example, that it is absolutely wrong to hunt animals for food. Yet an Inuit hunter who relies on animals as the sole source of food for him and his family could feel equally strongly that, done rightly, hunting animals is not only necessary but valuable. Who is right?
Making Change in a Perfect World
When one recognizes the relative nature of all judgments about right and wrong, one can then begin to see things with more understanding. People with differing opinions are not outright enemies to be conquered, or evil villains to be thwarted and punished for their crimes, so much as other equally limited humans.
This is important, too, because the greatest hindrance to positive actions for positive, helpful change is a dogmatic, myopic attitude. The greatest catalyst for war and destruction is seeing things in an “us vs. them” way…to draw sharp, deep dividing lines across the world. The loss of empathy is a sure step towards harmful actions.
How does one act and work for change in a perfect world, then? Some important steps include the following:
- Reflect on your intentions. Why do you think some change needs to occur? Are you acting solely out of selfishness, so as to make your condition better in some way? Is what you want to achieve beneficial on a larger scale, for many others? Is it realistic, or are you fantasizing and romanticizing? Is this truly important to you or a passing fad…can you commit to it or are you wasting your time on a whim?
- Recognize the relative, imperfect nature of your value judgments. What might be “bad” for you could be “good” for someone else. And you might not always be right!
- Educate yourself as fully as possible, with information from as many different resources and perspectives as possible. Then you can make wiser, more skillful decisions about an issue and how to act.
- See all sides of the issue. Although something may seem bad and destructive from where you sit, would changing it harm others in some way? Is the ultimate outcome of your desired change really a better state, and how can you achieve it without causing great damage in the process?
- Do not think in terms of “should.” “Should” takes you out of the world that is and right into the realm of ideals, judgment, and abstraction. It essentially criticizes the current state of reality as something that should not be, is wrong, needs to be fixed. Avoid “should” thinking and instead see the world as it is and then how you can best act to make a positive impact in that world and in your own life. Accept and love what is, not what “should be.”
- Make the means be worthy of the end. That is, do not seek change “by any means necessary.” When you do commit yourself to change, do not justify any action by the end you are working towards, but remember to make every step towards your goal helpful and justifiable on its own. That way, the end is truly good from start to finish and harm is minimized.
- Abandon all hope of success. This may seem like a guarantee of failure, but it truly is not. Hope can be a great motivator, but it can also be a cause for burnout, zealotry, justifying of harmful means, and attachment to an ideal as an ideal instead of for its results. Rather, focus on the work to be done and the most skillful ways to get there without worrying about the payoff. To some extent, being concerned primarily with success can be a selfish act: You get to experience the thrill of victory, to make the world in your own image, to achieve fame and praise, to prove your worth… To be concerned with success also brings attachment and grasping onto ideals despite reality: The timeliness or justifiability of your ideal may be gone, but you push onwards nevertheless simply to reach the goal, no matter what. Act, then, but without hope of success or of seeing your actions come to fruition. Commit yourself to the work of reaching the end, and be faithful to that work…but not to the end itself.
- Be a good winner, and a better loser. Do not gloat or grasp on to your successes, but accept and appreciate them humbly and then move on to what needs to happen next, or how to best use your gains. And when you lose, as you inevitably will, take it as a learning experience without lashing out at or vilifying the other side. Even in defeat, think like the Dalai Lama, who sees the Chinese as “My friends, the enemy.”
- Always check yourself. Never lose sight of the fact of your own limited perspective and the relativity of your judgments. Conditions change, but your ability to perceive them through your own eyes does not. Have you universalized your particular views at some point? Have you lost any empathy and connection with the other side? Have you given up other things that you value in order to achieve an end, possibly harming yourself or limiting your ability to do good in other ways? Remember not to become a change-crusader; nobody loves a fanatic.
- Draw upon the strengths and energy of good, wise company. Friends, experts, and teachers can be of immense value in helping you to refine your views, your actions, and your methods. They can also be great sources of support when times get rough, despair sets in, or zealotry takes over. “Regard him as one who points out treasure,” the Buddha says in The Dhammapada, “the wise one who seeing your faults rebukes you.”
- Nourish your spirit, and take time to recharge. Do not get so caught up in your idea(l)s that you forget to do whatever nourishes and supports you. Find the beauty, happiness, and love that feeds your heart and keeps you fresh.
These are just some important aspects of working for change in a perfect world. The world of beauty and of ugliness offers us many opportunities for joy and suffering, as well as many opportunities to make positive change happen and to help others.
In the process of living, acting, and being in this world, remember that, no matter what, you are a part of the perfect world, too. The world is much bigger than any one of us, or even all of us together. We are small parts…but we are essential parts, just as essential as any other. We, too, are good and bad, beautiful and ugly.
More importantly, we, too, are part of nature, as are the beautiful and ugly things we create–our art, our civilization, ourselves.
The world is perfect, and so we are perfect…even as we work to change the world, limited and imperfect though we are.
The world is perfect.
It can’t be improved.
So how are you seeing and being in the world?
Is your world perfect not yet…or never…or right now?
Image credits: 1) Roz’s individual photography, from Wikimedia Commons; public domain image. 2) U.S. Army, from Wikimedia Commons; public domain image.