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.

Volunteers planting a tree on National Public Lands Day, Sept. 26th, 2009.
Volunteers planting a tree on National Public Lands Day, Sept. 26th, 2009.

Perfect Imperfection

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.

  1. Bobby

    Much of this is apologetics for tolerance, and your use of the term “change-crusader” with the added caveat “nobody loves a fanatic” are most interesting.

    Now, I know that your wish is to limit this discussion to the individual and the path he chooses to follow. However, since the organized environmental movement seeks to achieve its ends through local, regional, national and international politics, that quickly becomes impossible. Any individual environmentalist might wish to live quietly with as small a footprint as possible. He may also wish to proselytize his neighbors into accepting his beliefs and customs. Fortunately, within the mostly free borders of the United States, he can do this with little threat of reprisal. However, the moment any individual supports a politician – directly or indirectly – on the basis that said politician will impose that individual’s beliefs and customs on society at large supported by the full force of law, he removes his cloak of tolerance and risks crossing into the realm of tyranny. Tyranny could be defined as the exercise of absolute intolerance. Fortunately, there are degrees of intolerance and rarely do we see examples of absolute intolerance. However, the ironic reality is that some level of intolerance is necessary to defend against tyranny, because the tyrant views the tolerant as weak.

    Your use of the terms “crusader” and “fanatic” are pulled from the millennia long religious conflicts fought amongst religionists and political dogmatists. In modern America, the crusaders are viewed as intolerant Christians who invaded a peace loving Middle East, because that is what the schools have taught the children for decades. There is virtually no mention of Muslim aggression ever happening, even though it occurred across most of the ancient world. Teddy Roosevelt’s book “Fear God and Take Your Own Part” states, “From the hammer of Charles Martel to the sword of Sobieski, Christianity owed its safety in Europe to the fact that it was able to show that it could and would fight as well as the Mohammedan aggressor” and “During the thousand years that included the careers of the Frankish soldier and the Polish king, the Christians of Asia and Africa proved unable to wage successful war with the Moslem conquerors; and in consequence Christianity practically vanished from the two continents.” Intolerance to conquest saved Christianity in Europe.

    We all know what Hitler did to the Jews but could the Jews have prevented the Holocaust via intolerance, instead of dying like lambs. Since Hitler had already confiscated all of the guns, the answer is probably no. However, in modern Israel, the intolerant Jews refuse to ever again accept a similar fate as a means to guarantee their survival.

    Could tolerance be the reason that millions were killed in the twentieth century at the hands of but a few tyrants? Are not genocides simply the intolerant exercising absolute power over the tolerant who are viewed as – and may have actually become – weak?

    Newbusters recently ran the headline, “Penn Jillette: It Was a ‘Shock’ That Religious Americans are the ‘Most Tolerant People Worldwide’.” What a strange observation in a nation where the educated and ruling classes view Christians as the very symbol of intolerance. Maybe the educated class finds it difficult to separate the actions of individuals from the actions of a nation. Consider Patrick Henry’s statement, “I know, sir, how well it becomes a liberal man and a Christian to forget and forgive. As individuals professing a holy religion, it is our bounden duty to forgive injuries done us as individuals. But when the character of Christian you add the character of patriot, you are in a different situation. Our mild and holy system of religion inculcates an admirable maxim of forbearance. If your enemy smite one cheek, turn the other to him. But you must stop there. You cannot apply this to your country. As members of a social community, this maxim does not apply to you. When you consider injuries done to your country your political duty tells you of vengeance. Forgive as a private man, but never forgive public injuries. Observations of this nature are exceedingly unpleasant, but it is my duty to use them.”

    Now, my comments here should by no means be taken as a statement of support for one religion over another or for one political ideology over another. The examples should only serve as confirmation that where tolerance has reigned supreme, intolerance has conquered.

    1. Justin Van Kleeck

      Bobby, forgive me if this reply seems terse, but it is about all I care to give. You seem to have completely misread my posts, both in spirit and in letter. I never said anything about tolerance, intolerance, excepting anyone from moral accountability, or bowing down to tyranny, let alone genocide. Quite the contrary, in fact. And I am sorry if you feel Christians have been and are mistreated, but I do not think this particular post is the most relevant place to make a case for it.

  2. Bobby

    Justin, please accept my apologies for going on an off-topic tangent; possibly even a rant. I think that I may have focused too much on your two paragraphs below the heading “Making Change in a Perfect World” where you talk of enemies, dogmatism, war and destruction. Now, with regards to the mistreatment of Christians, one could easily make the case that every religion, race, creed, gender, etc. has been mistreated at one time or another throughout history. It is sadly the nature of living in a fallen world, and mistreatment has had lasting impacts on the worldview of the groups and the individuals who were affected by it. If history teaches anything it is that segments of the population believe their way to the be the best, that they fight to protect it from those who would change it, and that when they successfully defend their beliefs and customs, they all too often seek to force their beliefs on others; which keeps the cycle repeating.

    The biggest error in my earlier comments was that I failed to close the loop by coming back to the relationship between modern environmentalism and what some call the “status quo” society. I was getting tired and cut it short.

    When the industrial revolution occurred in the West, the goal was not to FORCE anyone to purchase the factory made products nor was it to FORCE them out of the rural areas and into the cities. However, both occurred naturally as people perceived benefits from acquiring those products and by moving into the cities. Oil, gas and coal had uses prior to the creation of the internal combustion engine, but that market exploded only after people decided that trains, ships, planes and automobiles were better ways to travel. Edison’s light bulbs and Tesla’s AC motors replaced gas lamps and provided the dynamos for hosts of convenience products, respectively, and people wanted to have those items in their homes. When the population began growing, it was industrial fertilizers and pesticides that allowed crop yield per acre to increase. Industry has even had positive effects on the practice of medicine. However, for the past four to five decades, the organized environmentalists and their political allies have been telling those of us in the “status quo” segment of society that we must sacrifice our preferred lifestyles to save a planet in peril. They say that we must – possibly by FORCE – adjust our thermostats, seal air leaks in our homes, change our diets, and give up the car for public transportation and a bicycle. They have even used their alliances with the Department of Education and the national teacher’s union to make environmentalism part of the school curriculum. As the prophets of this doom-and-gloom religion spread the message, the “status quo” silent majority slumbered and there was no conflict. For reasons that I cannot explain, the “status quo” (what Yamamoto call the sleeping giant) awoke and began to question why the most visible and vocal prophets of environmentalism continued to live opulent lifestyles and were proposing schemes that would further increase their wealth (at the giant’s expense). They began to ask why many of their offspring failed to graduate with a profitable education, but instead entered adulthood with a sense of hopelessness. They even began to question the “science” and the “motives” of those who decided the world was dying. If the organized environmental movement had adopted your more tolerant methods of working for change instead of campaigning via intolerance to FORCE change, the present conflict might have been avoided.

    TO CLOSE, WHENEVER I POST SOMETHING THAT YOU OR OTHERS VIEW AS OFFENSIVE OR INFLAMMATORY, PLEASE PETITION THE BLOG OWNER TO REMOVE IT. I have told Jeff, a personal friend, on numerous occasions that I will not take offense should he decide to remove any of my statements or to even exempt me from ever posting again. This is his blog and he is free to run it as he sees fit. Lastly, please don’t ever apologize for being “terse.” Sometimes one’s convictions require a little righteous indignation.

  3. Justin Van Kleeck

    This is fine as a statement of your feelings and concerns, Bobby. But referring it to these posts specifically, I would ask you to think about how you are *responding* to these issues you would like to see changed? What sorts of thoughts, words, actions have you manifested. I would encourage you to re-read my posts and think about that. All I can say is, when I read your comments, I perceive a great deal of hostility, which right away takes the discussion to a level of antagonism, divisiveness, and duality. (I know how it goes…I get equally riled up when it comes to animal suffering and human cruelty.)

    Be the change you wish to see, Bobby…and do not believe you have to fight fire with fire.

  4. Bobby

    Thanks Justin. I will try to stay a bit more on topic in the future. I do not believe that I am hostile, but will admit that I can be defensive. How could one not be a bit defensive when nearly everything he enjoys or holds sacred is under attack by the very people who preach tolerance? I hear daily that my faith, my mode of transport, my traditional marriage, my hobbies, my diet, my freedom to choose my doctor, and my house are all wrong, and that activists and politicians are enacting legislation to change how I choose to live. You should spend a few minutes reading Section 201 of HR2454 (The Waxman-Markey Clean Energy Bill) and consider how this might impact the average citizen should it ever become law. It’s legislation that could render an existence akin to life behind the Iron Curtain. I will not even start on the problems with the new health care law.

    With everything being relative to one’s own perspective, it’s hard to suggest that you imagine having the tables turned. But as an animal lover and vegan, could you imagine having activists goading politicians to enact legislation that would not only require you to eat meat, but force you to take the animal’s life with your own hands? I know as an example it is a bit “out there.” However, these are personal choices that you hold sacred. Imagine them being illegal, and consider how you might respond.

    Best wishes and have a great weekend.

  5. Jeff McIntire-Strasburg

    Glad you guys worked things out (and, Bobby, I’m not going to delete your comments unless they’re obscene, illegal, or blatant advertising… and I wouldn’t expect any of those things from you).

    Keep in mind that you’re generally not hearing here that most of the things you mention are “wrong.” Sure, we challenge traditional thinking on issues related to the environment, but, honestly, I try to avoid that kind of finger-pointing… I think it’s ultimately counterproductive. I’m much more interested in promoting benefits vs. branding people and their behaviors.

    Have we been perfect in this regard? No. And, certainly, some of our writers are more willing to point out the flaws they see in traditional thoughts and practices. But I don’t think you need to be defensive here… we try to keep the conversation open.

  6. Justin Van Kleeck

    Here, here, Jeff. And Bobby, please understand that I empathize with how you feel and recognize how, when one feels threatened, one is more likely than ever to react strongly. But again, I would ask you to consider how you are approaching this. You can, if you choose, see this in terms of an “assault” on everything you value, on your life, on your family. Then indeed you have enemies out there in the world. Consider, though, that those same “enemies” are most likely acting out of the same sense of feeling assaulted and feeling terrified at things occurring in (and to) the world around them.

    I have no good answers for how to utilize that essential similarity for constructive progress, but it can be done. At the very least, it can change your life fundamentally when it stops being a matter of warfare.

  7. Bobby

    Although the video is no longer available (I did not get a chance to see it), some say that the environmental left has revealed its dark side with a recent short film. That anyone would even conceive of an “eco-fascist snuff fantasy” only serves to make my case for why those of us in the “status quo” segment of society question the motives and the methods of those pushing the planet-in-peril gospel. Are the strong reactions from those who found it to be in poor taste to be condemned, or are those pushing change via any means necessary in the wrong?




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