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The perfect is the enemy of the good

by on June 28, 2010

There are some not-altogether-disjointed thoughts that I wish to comment on.  Firstly, the title of this note is taken from a coworker of my mother’s, and is a quote by Voltaire.  It does not have everything to do with what follows; I’m sure that, as a sound piece of advice, it has something to do with the proceeding thoughts…. These thoughts occurred to me as I sat listening to well-played music by my friend at a wine-cellar, and I am sure that my other friends will forgive me for clearly being so lost in thought that evening; that is what happens to me not infrequently when I go places where there is a crowd.

And so, a thought of mine is that humans are good.  That’s it.  That isn’t a revelation, and it has occurred to me and countless others before.  I contend that humans do not wake up in the morning intending to do harm to other people (certainly not, in general).  We mean well toward one another, I think.

I enjoy swing dancing, on occasion.  I daresay I think too hard most of the time at swing dancing, both while dancing and not while dancing.  Have you noticed the immunity with which the the guys dance with the guys, with which the girls dance with the girls?  I do not complain, except for this, which is what crossed my mind as I listened to music that evening, and thought hard: Webb taught us to study relationships, but not to feel them.  And so, you see, the complaint is not against other people, but against myself, for I did not – have not – learned to feel relationships, in the main.  And that, of course, is foolish, because it is feelings, not thoughts, that create good dances and good physical connections – good relationships – with people.

We none of us understand one another,  though we mean well.  I can play causal game theory through a conversation (casual because I don’t really sit there and generate equations for each statement – although in some sense that’s exactly what we all do) rather well, and know some of the responses I might receive, or not receive, to any statement.  But I can’t know, and no one can know, what’s on another person’s mind, or predict everything.  We can’t really understand one another, certainly not completely.  And yet, I contend that we mean well in our actions.

When we make decisions, are they independent decisions?  What influences them?  And, if they are influenced, are they independent decisions?  Quite clearly, except for those of us who raised ourselves and learned to hunt and gather on our own, someone influenced our decisions growing up.  They influenced our politics; they influenced our education; they influenced our decisions and our decisions were not completely independent.  Does that mean we don’t have free will?  No, it doesn’t.  We can still have aspirations of our own, and act on them.

Do we have what it takes to act on our aspirations?  Willpower.  A girl asked me, sometime in my first or second year of college, how it was that I managed to not drink (alcohol).  After all, there I was surrounded by an awful lot of people who drank, and when they finished drinking they would have another drink so they could forget that they were drinking.  My answer was that it was easy, because it wasn’t what I wanted.  When people were drinking, I had the willpower to say I’m not interested.  It’s not hard, but it takes effort.  Those statements aren’t contradictory; to put effort into something does not make it hard to do.  Things require an input of something, of time, or energy, and it is not hard to have willpower.  But it does take effort.

Why were all those people drinking their way through college?  I don’t know.  I do know that we don’t learn from generation to generation.  That doesn’t mean we aren’t good, don’t mean well, or don’t have willpower; it doesn’t negate anything I have said thus far to say we don’t learn from generation to generation.  We as a society don’t learn from generation to generation; that doesn’t mean there isn’t progress, like ending slavery or recognizing rights, but it means that we will try our same old methods to make the world function – the same energy supplies, the same economic system – because we don’t learn.  And we don’t learn on an individual level either; obviously it’s harder to learn from generation to generation on an individual level because our life ends at some point, however, sitting there observing people drink wine in a wine cellar, listening to music, I could look across the generations and see those same people in a saloon in the the Wild West, or 1800’s France, or any number of places, or see them in the future.  And the perception of these people, good people though they are, did not change much.  There’s not much generational difference.

From → On the Dole

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