The Good, the Bad and the Better
Using meaningful conversation to improve ourselves
🇫🇷🇫🇷🇫🇷🇫🇷 *** HAPPY BASTILLE DAY *** 🇫🇷🇫🇷🇫🇷🇫🇷 Published on July 14 2022
I don’t know about you, but as I’ve gotten older, I seem to be honing in on two thoughts. First, I have a growing realization of the errors of my youth. There are many. For example, I’ve seen how naïve I was in my love of deconstructionism (and taking things out of context). I know that I wasn’t always a good brother to my sister. I was a poor loser on the tennis court (especially when playing my father!) I remember how I would make statements about things without proper reflection or study. Secondly, I am gaining a clearer focus on what’s important. I’m coming to believe that it’s not about doing good or not doing evil. It’s about doing better. It feels today that ‘doing good’ depends on what others (e.g. the media) believe is good (or bad). Let’s start with the premise that we are all a bit good and a bit bad. We absolutely need to have greater self-awareness. We must live with our paradoxes and in the nuance. The most reasonable path is to improve myself and to do so in a way that improves the world around me, within my means, in a manner that is congruent with whom I truly am. And it is this self-knowledge that is perhaps the hardest quality of all. Without it, we are blind to what needs improvement.
I have two non-obvious questions for you:
When is bad ever good?
What could be bad about ‘doing good’?
I long thought, somewhat obliviously, that it was blatantly obvious what is bad and what it meant to do good. Considering what is good and bad is the purest ethical question there is. But let’s dig in a moment. Is it possible or desirable for an individual to establish an independent understanding of what is good or bad? Or must it be the larger society’s decision? Who is responsible for driving the ethics debate? Where is this debate happening in an open and honest manner? Or are we to submit to a Manichean vision of the conflict between light and darkness? By opposing them against one another, are we not just encouraging division? It feels like, in our western societies, we have been stripping the nuance of our debate. For this piece, let’s explore the ‘other’ side of the two models of Infinity and Finitude that I have introduced in earlier articles. The Model of Infinity could also be called the model of Hope and Good. Whereas the Model of Finitude could also be called the model of what is Bad. As such, they offer an opportunity to explore what is good and bad. And I will argue, lead us to seek to be better, rather than simply be good and avoid bad.
The expanded Model of Infinity
In the Model of Infinity (see below), which has peppered this Dialogos, I’ve expanded it to include a few more concepts that fit in with the progression that leads to the ultimate goal of immortality. As I’ve argued, the initial notion of hope is absolutely vital to our existence. It’s the yeast of our bread; it’s the pilot light of our oven. With hope, we can believe that things will progress, get better. Then we start to think about doing good, helping to make the world a safer place, free of disease, poverty and danger. As we continue to do good, eventually we strive to be perfect, with projections of our perfect selves displayed for public approval. In so doing, we create our legacy that says that we did good in our lives, thus gaining a form of immortality, depending on the amplitude of the good achieved. This is the Model of Infinity. But progress isn’t always good.
The underside of good
There are some magnificent principles within this model, notably if we aim our efforts at doing good for others. However, there are also alternative readings that we might call the other side of the coin. Doing good cannot be an innocent undertaking. For example, if we do good by redistributing the money and resources of the rich to help the poor and underserved, there is a consequence. In taxing the rich, whether that’s at the individual or state level, there’s a disincentive to be rich and (arguably) a lesser propulsion for the poor to get out of their misery. At its inception, we could say this redistribution is humanity at its best. However, it’s a lopsided discussion. Much like democracy, and sometimes also true of calls for transparency. The ones without will always pine for more. And the ones “with” will inevitably seek to minimize their exposure. Yet, do we need to be cognizant of the risks behind the large gap between the haves and have nots.
History has shown that this gap, along with other indicators such as inflation, will probabilistically lead to social unrest. However, it should also be noted that, in the U.S., whereas the perception that the decade of the 1950s was the most bountiful ever, the average household’s wealth has since doubled in relative terms. In 1950, the average household income was $3,300 [source] which, adjusted for inflation, would equal $35,400 in 2020. In 2020, the median household income was $67,500 [source]. In the same breath, we can also note that there are many more very wealthy individuals who are flouting their status online, much to the envy of all the gawkers. As discussed in the Sam Harris podcast with Morgan Housel, to gauge our happiness, it seems we’re less focused on our own situation and are more likely to compare with others. Behind our desire for progress, we’re always expecting more. But, we’re not always prepared to pay the price. So, it’s about the allowing for a discussion – and some facts -- with nuances. It can’t be all one way or the other. And exaggerating the discourse to make the proverbial pendulum swing will always bring about a reverse effect. As Newton explained in his third law, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
The underside of safe
Seeking safety, at many levels, makes sense. Our brains are wired to sense and to avoid danger. The progress made in medicine and industry over the centuries has led to many benefits, as we all know (e.g. longevity, quality of life, travel, etc…). We’ve also made great strides in safety measures and requirements. But when we take the notion of safety push its bounds, we end up with a degree of protectionism that becomes unhealthy. By being overly precautionary, we fall prey to fear. We are more likely to abandon our autonomy and agency for the sake of being safe. However, as a species, we’re also programmed to explore and discover. To create a stronger immune system, our bodies require exposure to microbes. As children, we need to learn to fall over and get up. We learn to explore, manage risks and overcome pain and failures. A life without challenge, adventure and risk is hardly a robust way to learn how to be creative and inventive. And, as anyone who has been in a team that has gone through a very difficult time knows, deep challenge creates the strongest of bonds.
The underside of perfect
Over the years, working with organizations and brands, I have always bristled when I hear talk about perfection. Luxury brands are most tempted to associate themselves with the art of perfection, but they’re kidding themselves in being able to deliver at that level all the time. Even when it comes to luxury, the idea of striving for perfection is not only an ideal that tends to encourage inactivity and stagnation, it’s just not desirable deep down. We’re all flawed. That’s our human condition. Brands that add perfect into their name are somehow inviting criticism, the minute something goes even slightly wrong. There’s a saying attributed online to both the painter, Salvador Dali, and the Nobel prize winning scientist, Marie Curie: “Have no fear of perfection, you’ll never reach it.” Whether either said it is incidental. The point underneath about fear is lucid. Perfection is as illusory as it is unattainable.
A far better idea is to accept our imperfections and strive to do better. But more about that in a moment.
The underside of legacy
As someone who has long been interested in promoting one’s legacy, especially as it pertains to contributing to those around you, there’s also the risk that it becomes a narcissistic enterprise. At some level, having children is a way of sustaining one’s own legacy, at least the family lineage. When, as a parent, you become concerned about your after-life reputation, you can put inexorable pressure on your child (or children). The narcissist becomes more interested in his own legacy than the lives of his offspring. And, there’s worse. I think of the desire of some to improve their legacy after having spent a life of sin or evil. The stereotype is when an uber wealthy financier ‘nobly’ chooses to make contributions to a prestigious art museum or opera house. It’s as if these later-in-life charitable donations are an effort to whitewash their ill-begotten gains and less savory reputation. Gaining that legacy is one step toward that most elusive goal of immortality.
The underside of immortality
Last but not least, is the quest for immortality. As is implicit in the transhumanist movement, which explicitly seeks to augment human beings through technology and extend lifespans, some individuals would see fit to live forever, such is the size of their ego. Similar to the precautionary concerns for our safety and the quest for perfection, one will wish to avoid all forms of risk and pain in an effort to prolong our life and, ideally, achieve immortality. Yet, the objective of immortality is the ultimate rejection of our humanity, which necessarily means our death. Immortality is tantamount to playing god. It’s a fine demonstration of the extraordinary reigning narcissism in certain circles.
Enjoy the journey
As I have maintained from the outset, this must be a nuanced discussion. That’s in order to be true to my style and my desire to bridge the divide. At the same time, I ask myself, if I stay only in the grey zone, is there a risk not to provoke enough debate and/or not bring the fence sitters into the discussion? The point of this Dialogos is to bring people on a journey.
I may be going to hell in a bucket, babe,
But at least I’m enjoying the ride, at least I’ll enjoy the ride.
– Bob Weir, Hell in a Bucket
In confronting the underside of the Model of Infinity, I wish to push people to think more deeply of what is “good” and what are the limits or unintended consequences. The need is to find a way to live with hope and in full conscience of our finitude. And that’s a journey. In fact, that is THE journey. Let’s now look at the Model of Finitude.
The Model of Finitude
As I wrote at the outset of this article, we could equally call the Model of Finitude the model of the Bad. But just as there may be darker elements in light, let’s look at the brighter side of “bad.”
Bringing light to imperfection
Being imperfect is the starting point of the Model of Finitude. We are by essence imperfect. To wit, there is no perfect symmetry in our body. Whether it’s our eyes, foot size, breasts or ear lobes, they are never the same and yet exist as part of a whole. To accept our own imperfection is an important key to understanding ourselves. When we struggle to accept our imperfections, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment. We’re also projecting an image of ourselves that is inaccurate. It’s a mask. Just as we must keep hope, we must also accept our foibles and personal issues.
Light in difficulty
What some would avoid, I have sought out. I think life is about dealing with challenges. On the rugby pitch, for example, it was about facing the physical and mental challenge of tackling a faster and bigger opponent, or kicking a penalty with the stress of the team and side-line audience looking on. In my travels, it was about the difficulty of learning a new language or understanding a foreign culture. At work, it was about coming up with a creative solution to an impossible problem. Rather than shirking responsibility, it’s about leaning into these challenges and relishing them. In one of those other widely spread online sayings attributed to a mysterious author, Joshua J. Marine (there’s no trace of his existence), I nonetheless subscribe to the saying:
“Challenges are what make life interesting.
Overcoming them is what makes life meaningful.”
It’s another way to express the ancient wisdom (if you believe the Internet) of the stoic philosopher, Epictetus:
It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.
Truth is though that Epictetus didn’t write such a pithy statement in Enchiridion. The closest phrases that together can contribute to the above phrase are (translated by Elizabeth Carter):
“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen” and,
“What, then, is your own? Only your reaction to the appearances of things.”
You can thus extrapolate the meaning, but it’s far from a direct quote from Epictetus’ text. Yet, do I find it a worthwhile philosophy. Reality – i.e. life – is full of difficulties, each in their own context, with relative levels according to the person. The rich and beautiful also face challenges. In today’s world, it seems that some of us are keen to create new difficulties in the absence of real challenges. At one level, this proves the need to find meaning through challenge. It also highlights a lack of sufficient challenge in our overly protective and precautionary mode that we need to drum up difficulties. As any Ukrainian would likely say, these types of difficulties are not real world concerns.
Light in risk
Risk is an inherent part of uncertainty. If we try to make everything certain and avoid risk, we will not only have a life bereft of interest. We’ll avoid other tangible benefits such as an innovative spirit, expressions of creativity, and important life lessons. Probably the most powerful way to learn is through experience, especially in a collective. Reading about how others have experienced life is fine, but it doesn’t replace the power of living one’s own adventure. If you don’t risk anything, you’re likely to stand still and unlikely to turn a profit or stand out. It’s not about doing risky things for the sake of it. But the best learning comes outside one’s comfort zone.
Light in pain
Pain is said to be the clearest proof of our consciousness. In other words, without pain, we have no true consciousness of our existence. As our bodies age, pain becomes a more regular companion. I think of pain, like my scars, at least in part as a history of my life. Many people, as they age, fear pain more than they fear death, which is understandable. But to wish to avoid all pain is to hover in security, in a cocoon, without knowing how to address or steel oneself for possible pain. As much as the pithy “no pain, no gain” has been a strong principle in my sporting life, we must look at pain -- both physical and mental -- as part of life’s journey. If in physical training, you don’t experience some pain, it’s unlikely that you’ve made headway in getting into better shape. We need not necessarily -- nor always -- seek pain out, but certainly we need to learn to live with it and/or the possibly that it will happen.
Light in failure
Some cultures are less accepting of failure, as if it’s a mark of shame. Others (for example, many North American venture capitalists) will look at failure as a signal of effort and a necessary form of learning. I am a believer in the statement that if you’ve never failed, you haven’t tried hard enough. And that’s because I also believe in the need, as the Avis slogan suggests, to try harder.
There’s a French expression “le goût de l’effort,” which is about having a desire to push oneself. Effort means breaking through boundaries, inviting some form of pain. And as you approach your limits, there’s always the risk that you will fail. As Epictetus suggests, then it’s about how you deal with the failure that counts. For this reason, I’ve always fallen back on my experience in sport, where you learn to deal with hardship and suffer loss (i.e. failure) at the hands of your competitors. There’s much to be said about the incentive to do better and/or not to lose again.
Light in finitude
Returning to Epictetus who wrote in Enchiridion:
“…if you are averse to sickness, or death, or poverty, you will be wretched. Remove aversion, then, from all things that are not in our control, and transfer it to things contrary to the nature of what is in our control.”
It is part of our human condition that not only we must die, but that we are aware of our mortality. To ignore death is to avoid life. I have been a fan of one rock’n’roll band for forty years of my life. In the group’s name, The Grateful Dead, they incarnate a very special consideration. Once you accept that you die, you become ever more grateful in the present. My own journey has led me to think deeply about my own mortality. Coming to peace with it has helped calm many fears. Living with plenitude in LIGHT of my own finitude remains the most canny journey on which to embark. Without embracing our mortality, we are bound to live in fear. As explored in Ernest Becker’s book, Denial of Death, if we become death-avoidant, we risk missing out on life. This is the core paradox with which we must all live.
In search of better
Unlike the magnificent, if violent film, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, where there is no real third option, I am suggesting that, rather than making the binary choice between the good or the bad, it’s about living with both and looking for a better path, through an acceptance of both hope and our imperfection. Thus the title of this piece: The Good, the Bad and the Better. We should strive for better, which means understanding who and where we are. It’s about bettering ourselves first and then considering improving those around you.
My injunction: Let’s marry hope and our imperfection and seek to do better.
We must live with our paradoxes and in the nuance. The most reasonable path is to improve myself and to do so in a way that improves the world around me, within my means, in a manner that is congruent with whom I truly am. And it is this self-knowledge that is perhaps the hardest quality of all. Without it, we are blind to what needs improvement.
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