Saturday, July 24, 2004

There is no perfect tree

One of the major changes in my perspective on life was the realization that differences from norms aren't defects.  The idea of personal perfection is nonsense, and there is no particular way things "ought" to be.

One day when I was out in our back yard thinking about the audacity of some people who were trying to tell me that some things were wrong with my life, it occurred to me that there is no perfect tree.  We don't judge a tree by whether or not its branches and leaves have exactly the shape we think they should have; we look at the whole tree and admire its beauty.

I was taught that sin is a failure to live up to the perfection that God requires for a relationship with him.  The concept of a perfect person makes no more sense than that of a perfect tree.  Each is different and each is good.  I feel uniquely valuable and enjoy being myself.  I look for ways in which my particular abilities can be useful to other people.  I take pleasure in who I am, apart from my accomplishments.

It seems that we increase our discontent with life by comparing it to the way things are "supposed to be."  We set up an unattainably high standard for what we want from our friends, our jobs, and every aspect of life, and then feel disappointed because the reality isn't what we think it ought to be.  Realizing that there is no "ought" has mellowed me.  I can enjoy my job even if it isn't what I've always dreamed of doing.  I can be disappointed with my friend's decision not to go hiking with me without being angry that he isn't doing what a friend "should" do.

Many quarrels in the world arise from moral judgements.  We classify people as good and evil based on their apparent motives.  It seems to me that we all have one fundamental motivation for everything we do: to improve our own well-being.  The people we think of as supremely evil—serial murderers or terrorists, perhaps—are distinguished by their disregard for the well-being of other people.  They apparently believe that the well-being of others is incompatible with their own.  It seems likely that in the vast majority of cases they are mistaken in this belief, but that doesn't make them any less human or less deserving of life than the rest of us.  By accepting the fact that other people have different values, it's easier to address issues more compassionately and negotiate arrangements that are mutually beneficial.

People make moral judgements as a way of attempting to control other people's actions.  At the bottom of all control issues, there seems to be fear—fear that people will do things that will harm me or other people.  Maybe they will.  If they do, I will do whatever I can to protect myself and others.  But I will try to limit myself to defensive actions that don't unnecessarily limit the offender's choices, because that's how I would want to be treated.

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