Progress, not perfection
How are we to live?
It’s the essential question that underpins our lives.
Each day we make tens, hundreds, thousands of micro-decisions.
What to do? Who to serve? Who to help? Who not to help? What to eat? What to buy? Where to go? Which chores to do? What to procrastinate? Who to talk to? Who to listen to? What to read? What to watch? What to learn? How to make money? How to save money? What to give? What to keep? How to contribute?
How to be happy?
How to be good?
For each decision, sometimes we are deliberate, patiently taking the time to consider all options.
“Now what will I have for dinner tonight?”
Often we do what’s familiar, routine: “2:30 p.m., time for my afternoon coffee!”
Sometimes we follow our friends. “You’re buying a bottle of water? Get me one, too!”
Very often we do what’s convenient. It’s a natural biological instinct to conserve energy, and many of us would naturally recline and rest rather than jump up and help out. “That’s so nice of you to volunteer to clean the beach! Can I give you my trash to take, too?”
Occasionally we do things out of ignorance. “I’d like a plastic straw in my drink, please.”
We are all human, and we don’t get everything right.
We eat food that’s harmful to our bodies and the world.
We consume things we don’t need.
We prioritize our own well-being and we overlook the negative impact of our lives
The fossil fuels that our civilization is built on, and the corresponding carbon dioxide footprint
The legacies of racism, sexism and colonialism that are still with us, even in a relatively enlightened corner of the world like West Maui.
The unsustainability of the consumption-based model of capitalism that fuels our modern world economy.
In the face of such global and existential challenges, it’s so natural to put our heads in the sand, to focus on survival.
Who has time to save world? We are all living one day at a time. We have family members to care for, bills to pay, classes to attend, chores to do, relationships to maintain.
Life is complicated, dynamic, and uncertain, and we are all fighting our own battles. Sometimes we can’t find the extra energy to be thoughtful, to be good, to make deliberate decisions that improve ourselves and the world around us (or at least, as Hippocrates said, to do no harm).
There’s a provocative and influential Australian philosopher named Peter Singer who captured my attention when I was young, and still has it. He writes, lectures and proselytizes about his idea of “practical ethics.” That is, he thinks about all the ways we express our values in our daily lives through how we spend our time, treasure, and talents.
Mr. Singer sets a very high bar, donating a very generous portion of his own income to charities, for example, to deliver food, medicine, and aid to those in the most dire need, primarily in Africa.
This is admirable, as is anything each of us can do to improve the lot of our brothers and sisters.
But I remember feeling, and I still feel, overwhelmed by the intensity and gravity of such commitments. I remember feeling inadequate at not being able to do enough good in the world, to meet the high and demanding standards of Peter Singer, or even so many Mormons, Muslims and Christians, who give away 10 percent or more of their income.
How am I to live?
Of course, life is what happens while you’re thinking about how to live.
And day by day, month by month, year by year, over time we become the sum total of our decisions: small, medium and big.
I strive for progress, not perfection. I don’t always succeed, but I keep trying.
In a small way, I choose my favorite two R’s (Refuse and Reduce), and I make a point to only consume what I need, not more.
In a medium way, I give my treasure, time and talents to organizations that make the world better, like the Surfrider Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, and Amnesty International.
At the same time, I spend money on things I don’t strictly need, like a fancy Apple computer. (The Protestant Germanic asceticism in my ancestry sometimes loses out to my more Catholic Irish indulgence.)
I’m not perfect, but I’m trying
In a big way, I give my love to my family and friends. Sometimes I make them angry or frustrated instead. But I keep striving to be kinder.
We make progress each day, little by little, decision by decision. We are ever climbing, ever striving, never arriving, but always on our way.
If we welcome the struggle, we can be assets to ourselves, to each other, to mankind. Sometimes we fall, but we get up again and strive higher.
We’re all human. Let’s be kind. And let’s try hard. For ourselves, our families, for each other, for Maui.
Progress, not perfection.