Are You Sure You Want to Improve the World?

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Photo by William Navarro on Unsplash

Life is complicated. I think we can all agree on that. But there will come a point where the complications of life will lead us to feel irritated.

Or perhaps seething in rage with a lust for vengeance.

How we decide to respond will have ramifications not just for us, but for the lives of others because if we successfully resolve our problem, people will want to follow our example when they’re faced with similar problems.

Obviously I don’t know what the very first problem a human being experienced was because we had problems long before we could even classify ourselves as “human.”

But there was clearly some resistance to some event happening in the external world or the internal world.

Maybe we got sick of being hunted and eaten. Maybe we were terrified of being ostracized from the tribe. Maybe we couldn’t take the harsh weather conditions which led to a lack of food and starvation.

These are all legitimate gripes because humans have an innate will to live, achieve homeostasis and enjoy peace of mind. Dare I say all life-forms have these desires.

So to be blocked from these things could cause us to resist what’s happening. There are then two options.

On the one hand, we can do something about it. We migrate to a different climate. We fight to assert dominance. We use our ingenuity to make the problem go away.

This option is often the go-to solution because at least you’re doing something to try and stop the pain and suffering. And let’s face it, it has produced solutions.

But on the other hand, there is the option to embrace what is happening. Does this mean to do absolutely nothing? Not necessarily. It means to primarily drop the resistance and resentment of what is occurring. You stop making the event wrong and then you may decide to act or not.

Despite this option being posited by philosophers, most tend to ignore this option.

Lao Tzu wrote in the Tao te Ching,

Do you want to improve the world?

I don’t think it can be done.

The world is sacred.

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.

There is a time for being ahead,

a time for being behind;

a time for being in motion,

a time for being at rest;

a time for being vigorous,

a time for being exhausted;

a time for being safe,

a time for being in danger.

The Master sees things as they are,

without trying to control them.

She lets them go their own way,

and resides at the center of the circle.

Alan Watts explained in a lecture that the Bodhisattva understands that you don’t have to go anywhere to achieve Nirvana. It was already here. However, if you object to what is, you will miss it.

If you go with the current of the stream, you are still. But if you fight the stream, it fights you. If you return to going with the stream, you are back at stillness.

I’ve heard these points before and I know Lao Tzu and Watts are right. Where I have objection to all of this is when I reach the waterfall. At that point, wouldn’t I curse myself and say, “I should’ve fought the current! Then I would’ve saved my life.”

Watts suggests that the only reason one would fear the waterfall is because one belongs to a culture where one fears death. He points out that we celebrate life and hate death, which makes no sense because life is most certainly a one-way ticket to death!

To be honest, a part of me still wants to fight the current. At least I could prolong my life. But then I’m faced with the realization that I would be in constant pain because of constant struggle. What kind of a life is that? And then I would’ve died never actually tasted the sweetness of life but the bitterness of avoiding death.

I did some introspection because I wanted to see just how much I resisted death. Turns out, very much so.

It explains why I got so uncomfortable and self-conscious when I was around a friend of mine who was diagnosed with cancer. It explains why we all feel this way when we’re around people who are facing the waterfall.

The waterfall isn’t only physical death. It could be anything that you could resist. The waterfall could be unrequited love, financial insecurity, anxiety, depression or the realization that you cannot achieve something you really want.

And like I said before, we have two options. We could feel the fear and react in order to preserve ourselves. Or, we can embrace what is — not in an attempt to improve life, but to just flow with the current.

After accepting what is, we may decide that we really don’t need to do anything at all. But we might have the inclination to act.

In unrequited love, we write poems and songs. In financial insecurity, we value what we have. In mental illness, we find support groups. In the failure to achieve what you want, you keep doing it because you simply love it or you shift your energy to something else.

It’s all about flowing with the current of the stream.

Our ancestors have made many decisions to try and thwart the things they hated. As a result, we have a history of war, suffering, disease and ego. They also made decisions that yielded acceptance and love because they decided to accept what is instead of fighting against it.

At some point, the human race will reach the waterfall and we will cease to be.

Should we arrive after enjoying the current of the stream, or should we arrive by tiring ourselves out with resentment and trying to change what is?

I know what we are unconsciously compelled to do. Believe me, I do.

But it’s funny. The option to relax and accept doesn’t even occur to us. We really are programmed to fight or resist what is. It’s actually harder to relax.

How different would life be if we embraced what is? Do we have the courage to find out?

Written by

Former Edu. Psychologist | Current Writer | Constant Learner | “By your stumbling the world is perfected.”

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