January 21, 2016

Stop Trying to Change the World

Stop Trying to Change the World

This unassailable fact confronts me: I am finite. Before introducing the shoulds and should nots of morality and politics I have to begin with the facts that dictate the possibilities of my action. It wouldn't make sense to say that a sloth should fly (as amazing as that sounds) because they don't have that capacity. Likewise, it wouldn't make any sense to argue that I should do more, be more, or effect more than my finitude allows. So why do I, why do so many of us, insist on denying our finitude? Why do we think we have the capacity to be the arbiters of a universal morality?

The war to end all wars
This issue runs deeper than the immortality of the soul, and it goes further than the impulse we feel to leave our mark on the world. It masquerades as humanitarianism and good-faith efforts to improve the lot of others; it acts as if it wants only to curtail the wrongs in the world. Our world is filled with people trying to change others, govern others, improve others. And I'm guilty. Are you?

The battles we witness and the wars we promote — wars of ideology, of religion, of civilization; even well-intended acts we call social justice — these are all based on the conviction that 'the other side' is wrong or evil or oppressive or decadent. It requires an utterly naïve, unconscionable lack of perspective to not be humbled by the fact that the other side thinks the same of us.

This is the rule of all conflict: quite naturally, every side thinks that they're right; quite perversely, every side is certain that the people who are wrong need to be 'fixed'. In the 17th century the Catholics and Protestants tried to 'fix' each other, the Bolsheviks tried to 'fix' the aristocracy and proletariat, the Nazis tried to 'fix' Europe, and the Allies tried to 'fix' Germany. Even today we see the West and Islam, capitalists and socialists, authoritarians and libertarians, Christians and atheists trying to fix each other.

I guarantee that every belligerent act in history, whether outright war or the insidious activities of ideology and politics, are predicated on the belief that acts of violence or coercion are a force for good in the world. War and politics are the two grotesque manifestations of this same need to fix others and improve the world, always for the best, of course.

Who among us is good?
This is the greatest moral fallacy — that we have a responsibility to fix more than ourselves. It reminds me of the famous proverb often attributed to Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Since Burke was a statesman, among other things, it's often used to justify and motivate political action.

I want to agree while turning this quote upside down. I would say instead, "the only way for evil to triumph is for men to think they're good enough to change others." You can be sure that in any conflict between good and evil, both sides are thoroughly convinced that they're good. My question is, to whom does the proverb apply when all of us think we're on the side of good? Adolf Hitler infamously asserted in Mein Kampf, "I believe today that my conduct is in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator. In standing guard against the Jew I am defending the handiwork of the Lord." Hitler, the archetype of evil in our day, could have hung that Burkean quote on the wall of his bunker and smiled with the satisfaction of moral certainty. He believed himself a good man, and he would not idly watch the triumph of evil. Any similar assurance of our own normative righteousness should surely give us cause for a cold-sweated pause.

Can we do anything but change the world?
I admit, my title overstates my point. I believe that everything is connected, that nothing is truly independent. If a butterfly flaps its wings in Spain, then a typhoon in Fiji, et cetera — the butterfly effect and all that. I can't help but change the world when I change myself. In actual fact, it's impossible to not change the world. Deciding not to act has as much consequence on the future as deciding to act.

This means that the operative word in my title is "trying". I can't stop changing the world and to argue that I should would be ineffectual. By the same token, I can't change the world beyond my finitude and to argue that I can or should is dangerous. I should, however, stop TRYING to change the world. Focusing on the changes I effect will do the world no favors. It'll do me no favors either.

Our limits are opportunities, be content with virtue
I would recommend that instead you focus on trying to improve yourself. It's not a modest effort. We can't make people better because the character of other people is far beyond our limits. Change yourself and be content with the fact that it's all you can do to change the world without resorting to violence. Even the character of a child is beyond our reach. We're finite, so live with it. What we can do is be encouraging, loving, sharing, and helpful, not in order to change someone but in order to give them tools and opportunities to act in their own right. You'll find that to focus on the task within is the most practical way of changing the rest of the world at large, but only if that's not what you're trying to do.

And yet I don't want this conviction to excuse us from the weighty obligation inherent in our finite reality. A lifetime is more than enough opportunity for a full-throttle commitment to all the potential that lies before us. Creativity, service, charity, hope, compassion, generosity — could we ever exhaust the opportunities that such demanding, such bountiful responsibilities afford? We could never complete the task set us in our finitude. This is the paradox of our moral existence on earth: we are so radically limited in what we can change, but even so, this task set before us is an eternal endeavor.