In chapter 29 of the Tao Te Ching, Lao Tzu writes on the world and our relationship to it:
Do you want to improve the world?
I don’t think it can be done.
The world is perfect.
It can’t be improved.
If you tamper with it, you’ll ruin it.
If you treat it like an object, you’ll lose it.
Surely, many would balk at such a claim that this is a “perfect” world as it is, right now. One can easily rattle off any number of objections, a long dirty-laundry list of things that make this world imperfect: poverty, disease, war, torture, rape, murder, environmental destruction…
For environmentalists, as well as activists of all stripes, the idea of a “perfect” world is more like a goal to be worked towards, not a status quo to be appreciated. And change (for the “better”) has been a guiding ideal in many guises for most of the history of civilized humanity. Indeed, the crusade for change has been around since long before the Obama media juggernaut made the word sexy.
The change-crusaders strive tirelessly for improvement of some condition or other: to make things better, more just, more durable, more peaceful.
Their efforts should be commended, too, for there are definitely myriad things in this world that we humans can, rightly, identify as harmful, and that we can work to undo, so that there is less harm, less suffering, and less damage in our world. (This is especially true since many of these things are consequences of our own actions–often the results of one faction’s change crusade, which become the target for a different faction, and so on…)
The question here is not so much whether or not the world is truly perfect, with all of its goods and its bads; that debate could go on forever without conclusion. Nor is it about whether we should or should not try to make a positive impact on the world and the lives of other beings. We definitely should, especially when we can see how our actions directly cause harm and suffering.
Instead, I think it is useful and helpful for all change-crusaders to reflect on the idea, even the mere possibility, of perfection in this world as it is right now.
This is because doing so can help us to overcome the great despair that often comes when we realize the fragility of the many wonderful, beautiful things that surround us–be it in nature, in human culture, in relationships, or simply in being alive on this nigh-perfect (for life) planet we call home.
Take a deep breath and say it: “The world is perfect.”
It is really inspiring, and humbling, if you reflect on it. While we may think we know what is “right” and what is “wrong” in the world, there remains so much outside of our reckoning, calculating, forecasting, and prophesying. More importantly, there remains all around us, no matter what we think about things, such ample and heart-stopping beauty, wonder, magic, as well as suffering, hardship, pain, and death.
What matters at any point is what you choose to focus on.
It is no surprise, then, that we are so often chided by the “wise” throughout history to leave off our fretting, pursuing, acquiring, and achieving, so that we can “consider the lilies of the field,” or “stop and smell the roses.” We have an idea of what a perfect world could be, and we rush about trying to change things to make that ideal become real.
But all the while, we miss the fact that we may well have a perfect world around us right now…even with, not despite, the deforestation, oil spills, mass extinctions, climate change, pollution, soil loss, water scarcity, economic bubbles and collapses…
For however long–a time we can never know beforehand–we still do have great beauty around us, which we can and should rejoice in and value. Especially in those darker moments when all seems wrong with the world, it helps to fully appreciate this. And more importantly to find it, to truly recognize and see it.
For we can, at any moment, find at least the glimmer of glory in this world and in our lives.
Though we tinker, measure, study, circumscribe, and otherwise objectify nature as a foe to be conquered or an invalid to be healed, the world is what it is. It has its beauty, and it has its ugliness. And though we strive to “change” it from without through our (so-called) wisdom and superiority, we are still within and part of that world…
Yet we are always limited in what we can perceive and know, and we are typically caught up in judging things as good or bad based on our feelings about them, on what they do for us. Then, driven by our judgments, we seek to preserve what is “good” and change or remove what is “bad.”
But if the world is perfect, that means the good and the bad are perfect, for they are part of the world. And so are we.
All we can really do, then, is change ourselves, our way of seeing, and our way of being within that world…
The world is perfect.
It can’t be improved.
Where do you find beauty in nature and in your life? And what are you doing to cherish it, celebrate it, and bring it into your heart? But more importantly, how are you seeing and being within the world of beauty and of ugliness? Are you living within it or seeking to fashion it to your liking?
Is your world perfect not yet…or never…or right now?
UPDATE: Make sure to read Justin’s follow-up post, “Working for Change in a Perfect World.”
Image credit: Denis Barthel, from Wikimedia Commons, under a GNU Free Documentation License.