Finding Perfection in Change

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.

  1. Bobby

    If changes are inevitable and if they truly are the “consequences of our own actions” and “often the results of one faction’s change crusade, which become the target for a different faction,” why do so many environmentalists seek to force those who enjoy life as it is to succumb to life as they think it should be? Why can’t environmetalists just practice what they preach quietly, without constantly trying to proselytize society at large?

  2. Justin Van Kleeck

    @David: Yes, the only things we can truly change are our own actions and how we perceive things…and even that is a monumental task. Thank you for the comment.

    @Bobby: That is a good question, but it is not limited to environmentalists; it easy to rattle off a list of guilty parties: religious fundamentalists, pro-lifers, gun-rights advocates, animal-rights advocates, and so on ad infinitum. As an entire species, we are of the sort to get caught up in our own notions of right and wrong and then to try to convince others to follow us. But specifically, many of the “changes” environmentalists strive to *change* for the “better” are things that we have done to the world and that are obviously harmful. To say that change is inevitable *and* the word is “perfect” is not to deny moral accountability or to say that we should not try to reduce the suffering of others or the harm we inflict.

    To be fair, though, environmentalists do have a tendency to turn relative goods and bads into universals, just as many other causes do. It is such a hard thing to hold the world’s perfection in your heart while also trying to find ways to have a positive impact and make a difference in the world, remembering all the while that your knowledge of true right and wrong is limited. This was the reason I emphasized the need for humility. Sadly, we often do not do a good job of this…leading to self-righteousness, intolerance, and ultimately more harm. I am not sure if that answers your question; I think I tried to address this very issue in my post.

  3. Bobby

    You did do a decent job of highlighting how a movement’s good intentions tend to lead to self-righteous intolerance and rigidness. However, even though you and a few others try to maintain a sense of humility, the larger environmental movement has always relied upon its associations with political sycophants who have the power to legislate or to adjudicate changes that rely upon strong-arm tactics to achieve the movement’s ends. Without going through a laundry list of examples, average people are beginning to note that the many of the movement’s “victories” have thus far done little to improve anyone’s lot in life. Plus, as we are beginning to see with our current political leadership, preachiness absent change for the better leads to resentment among the masses. People are growing tired of being continually forced to accept changes that fail to achieve their promised ends; and which only make life harder.

  4. Justin Van Kleeck

    True, Bobby, but honestly many of the “changes” environmentalists are working for are actually undoing the (clearly or not so clearly) harmful things that humans have done to the planet…because we have not been considerate enough in how we live. Also, if you accept the idea that the world is perfect just as it is, that ALSO means accepting that the change-crusaders, forced lifestyle changes, and so on are perfect as well. Everything is included, not just things outside of ourselves. It may be frustrating when you butt heads with people you disagree with…but ultimate humility comes in recognizing that all of it is what it is, even as you do what you think is best and respond to people you disagree with. I think this is also why there surely will never be any ultimate victories or final solutions to anything; there are too many factors involved that we can never anticipate, recognize, or accept.

  5. Bobby

    Justin: So, eventually, all things work for good. If that is true, one must question the precept that “many of the ‘changes’ environmentalists are working for are actually undoing the (clearly or not so clearly) harmful things that humans have done to the planet…” Defining change as being helpful or harmful to the planet is relative to who is doing the defining. You would view an oil spill from a platform as harmful because it is manmade, but probably don’t give a second thought to the millions of barrels that naturally seep through the ocean floor into the deepest water. Isn’t oil regardless of its source still oil? I would view a volcanic eruption that wipes out a city and blacks out the sun as harmful, but pay no heed to the hundreds of sea floor eruptions that occur everyday. Don’t all volcanic eruptions belch out some of the planet’s nastiest chemicals? To make the claim that environmentalists only work for good, one must consider the company they keep and review their track record. I will forgo the usual examples in the interest of space.

  6. Justin Van Kleeck

    Bobby, I did not say all things work for “good.” All things happen, and good or bad is, as you say, relative to who is doing the judging. We can identify things as “harmful” to particular individuals or populations, whether it be manmade or not. But when humans do it, there is the added question of moral accountability–on a relative level, not an absolute one (as morality is a human construct)–including intentionality, methodology, etc. Thus we can and should have a legal system: day to day, we live on the relative level 99.9% of the time. So again, “harmful” is a question of the effects anything has, resulting from nature or humans or whatever. Environmentalists are mostly concerned with reducing the harm that human actions inflict on others and, when possible, preventing or anticipating major natural disasters to reduce the suffering of others. FYI, I will have a post on acting in a “perfect” world coming out shortly. Main point for now, though: “perfect” is not the same as “good,” and to speak of perfection is to speak from a level beyond duality.

  7. Tina

    Thank you for generating and sharing this beautifully written perspective. It inspires me to focus on abundance and harmony rather than scarcity and conflict — freeing.

    1. Justin Van Kleeck

      Jason, I cannot recall which specific edition/source I used when I originally wrote the post, but this phrasing (and similar ones) appears in various places online and elsewhere. There are many different translations of the Tao Te Ching, each a little different in word choices.

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