The Pursuit of Good

“When all the world recognizes good as good, it becomes evil,” because it becomes something that one does not have and which one must constantly be pursuing until, in effect, it becomes unattainable.

This is the paradox of Lao Tzu as quoted in The Way of Chuang Tzu by Thomas Merton.

On the surface it looks a bit cynical. If pursuing good leads to evil, than why bother? But what it is really about is the bother.

It becomes something that one does not have and which one must be constantly pursuing. It’s the pursuit of good that creates the evil.

This is a theme that has recurred frequently in current events. (Not that it isn’t something that hasn’t been recurring since the dawn of civilization.) In Syria, Iraq, Paris, and maybe even California, we have Daesh (ISIS, ISIL, whatever) seeking to quite literally enforce their notion of “good” and “right” with bombs, swords, and guns.

Meanwhile Russia is killing civilians in their attempt to stop Daesh and other groups of Syrian rebels in order to pursue their notion of good in the area. The U.S. can’t really say much about this without bringing attention to the drone program that has been, and still is, in effect in the general area for more than a decade.

A few days before I started this post, a man shot up a medical clinic killing three people in order to enforce his notion of good.

And a few days after I started, a married couple killed fourteen people in what may have been their effort to make a statement about their version of good.

An more secular version of this paradox can be found in Mark Twain’s notebook: “Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to reform (or pause and reflect).”

Twain seems to have been displaying that cynicism that I referred to above: he implies that at some point the majority always becomes the wrong “side.” But one can also read his statement as saying that it’s time to pause and reflect not on what “side” you are on, but on what is being done by the majority to accomplish its goals.

This interpretation brings Twain closer to Lao Tzu’s paradox. When the pursuit of something — anything — becomes an obsession, evil will follow.

There’s not much we can do when this happens in society. Over the past fourteen years we’ve seen a lot of changes in the U.S. related to “battling terrorism.” (I put “terrorism” in quotes because what it is has been open to fierce debate, especially recently.) These changes range from broad surveillance of U.S. citizens, to the imprisonment and killing of civilians, including U.S. citizens (not that it should make a difference), without due process.

No amount of Facebook posting, tweeting, Instagram, or even voting is going to make it stop. Insightful, heartfelt, or angry posts to social media are cathartic, and can garner many likes and new “friends,” but they are not going to really change anything.

We Americans love to think that if we can just elect the right guy, everything will be better. It hasn’t happened yet. Even when we elect a guy that promises to stop the excesses listed above he doesn’t fulfill the promises, some because he promised too much, and others because, well, he just decided not to.

So what do we do?

Over the past few years I have wavered in my approach. At times, I just shut myself off, abandoning all or part of social media and news for weeks or even months. Other times I redoubled my effort to do something, posting angry rants or insightful (I hope) essays or pleas to authority and compassion. Each time I ended up at the same place: angry, frustrated, sad, and despondent.

Taoism is about internal development. Developing the self. There’s no “before” either – it’s not “get yourself in order before interfering with others.” It’s simply “get yourself in order.” Developing the self is a lifelong pursuit, so “before” and “after” is superfluous.

Fixing one’s self is incredibly difficult. Self examination is painful. As the motto at the top of the blog says: “The problem with introspection is that it has no end.” It seems like there is an endless list of irreparable faults within ourselves. Even if one has the fortitude to identify what one needs to be improve (beyond superficialities  like “losing weight,” “watching less TV,” and “remembering to put the seat down”) taking the steps to change them is remarkably difficult, and introspection often concludes that nothing has improved. Later, rinse, repeat.

It’s much easier to focus outside ourselves and decry the various injustices, faults, and follies of the modern world. A quick look at the news, social media, or blogs yields bushels of low hanging fruit. Once the fruit is picked, one needs do little more than hurl it at the stage with a jeer or, if one has a few minutes, a pearl of eternal wisdom.

The hard work, the work that actually can improve the word by starting with your little corner, is to work on oneself.

This is the work I need to do.

How am I going to do that? I’ve started by trying to improve my physical health which as I alluded to above, is the easy part. Developing the ability to assume positive intent, approach others with generosity and empathy, and finding perfection where I used to find fault…that’s the hard part.

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