Humanity #4: The Desire for Improvement and Self-Control

There are so many attitudes and frames of thought nowadays that are focused on constant improvement, growth, or evolution. The idea is that things as they are now are suitable for this stage of existence, but it would be objectively better, and much more enjoyable, if we managed to improve things even just a bit by gaining control over some aspect of our situation. This makes a few interesting, and somewhat complicated assumptions about our own personalities, our notions of the abilities of the Self, and our relationship to the rest of existence.

If I were being technical, and somewhat nit-picky, the main problem with this constant desire for improvement is the idea that it’s possible. I don’t mean to be pessimistic or to doubt that someone’s situation can change in a way that they would see improvement in. Really, I just mean, what’s going on isn’t objectively improvement. Circumstances may change and your evaluation of a situation may be more positive than it was before, but there are some important things to note about value and our existence.

Firstly, value is a subjective measure of significance or importance. To be very straightforward, some people think that their lives and the stability of the rest of the world would be vastly improved if a certain demographic of people, depending on whose perspective you take, simply ceased acting or ceased existing. This idea of “Everything would be better without you people messing things up!” likely stems from a very unfortunate misconception about stability and sustainability. We need conflict and enemies in order to determine our own values beliefs. Anyone who claims that given a certain evaluation in which some things are good and others a bad, and that we would be better off without the bad things, doesn’t understand that without the bad things to contrast the good with, the good would have no point in being good. In other words, without an opposite, they would lose all meaning and just become the neutral, unimportant things regarding which nothing ever happens because there’s never any conflict. No victories can come without defeats somewhere in the mix.

The second point I’d like to make is less about the relationship of things, and more about the idea of control. What makes you think you can just willingly make things better? And if you could do this, why haven’t you done it already? It seems pretty logical that better is better than worse, and I don’t understand why anyone would want to make their situation worse (it seems entirely contrary to sense), so why haven’t we already improved things to the optimal limit? It is either because there is no optimal limit (my next hypothesis) or because we can’t actually improve things when we want to improve them. We can delude ourselves into thinking that by acting a certain way we can then build up positive habits and gradually shift out of the behavior of worse ones, but there are far too many reminders, such as the attitude talked about above, that show that people are much more irrational and self-limiting than anything we’ve ever made or encountered. Indeed, the strongest chains are within a person’s own mind. So, how then do you go about setting yourself free? How does one break away from bad habits and stop doing what you’ve already acknowledged is no longer, if it ever was, good for you? Self-control in this sense, is like using your non-dominant had to guide and direct your dominant hand because you don’t like the way your dominant hand does things. It’s incredibly nonsensical and based on the idea that you can somehow step outside of yourself and control a thing that is both you and not you at the same time. And anybody who believes that they can really control themselves to the degree of changing anything about themselves at will is liable to think that a tree could dance if wanted to. What I mean by this is that a person who thinks like this believes that they can defy their own nature.

I don’t mean to put anybody down and say that you’re suffering the way you’re suffering because it’s just in your nature to suffer like that, and I certainly don’t mean to provide this idea as an excuse for any problematic or neglectful behavior someone may be expressing. I just mean, the idea that we have control over ourselves is mistaken if you think that you are an individual thing separate from the rest of existence. Psychological research has already shown that while there are some innate determinations of character, there are also significant and undeniable effects that one’s environment has on one’s behavior, perspective, and personality. Quite simply put, if you’ve been brought up in a culture that, over the course of its changes in history has justified such changes as being “improvements” even when they have come with severely negative consequences for themselves or for others, you may be inclined to believe that if things seem to be going wrong, there’s something you can change to make things better in the long run, even at the risk of immediate negative consequences. It’s a culture belief to think that we have control over ourselves. It’s also a cultural belief to think that we have no control over ourselves. The idea that I think finds a middle ground between them and retains some realistic sensibilities is this: We are always expressing our incredibly complex nature, which occasionally changes, and we compare and contrast these different natures as better or worse than the ones that came before.

Running with this idea we get to my third and final hypothesis on why we always seem to be looking to make improvements. What if there is no end to the changes that can be made? What if there is no limit to the number of improvements you could make, and all of human history is a story of the gradual self-improvement of humanity until its inevitable end (and likewise for each individual human)? This means that we are somewhere in the middle of things, having improved from previous situations, yet having infinitely more improvements to make. Borrowing a point from the previous hypothesis, the idea that things are not perfect now is only a subjective evaluation of our current state of affairs. It is a self-perception, but one that includes room for improvement rather than room for change. to pose a counter-perspective, why is it that we do not see the world as already perfect with room for the specifics of things to change? In my view, it is, as I stated, because these are subjective perspectives rather than objective ones which are technically impossible for use to assume.

If one were the entirety of existence rather than an individual (human) within it, then you would have no problem with your evaluations of yourself, because there is nothing that can threaten your sustainability. People on the other hand have goals in mind, and these goals necessitate that requirements be sufficiently met. When these requirements aren’t met, we say the goal was not successfully accomplished, which can be a bit of a downer sometimes, but I also argue it can be quite liberating. Failure is a great teacher, but what it specifically teaches is that it is not the end. If anything, success is the end of things. After all, what more is there to do once everything’s been optimized? Sit back and enjoy it? Do this for too long and you may develop some neglectful tendencies that undermine the sustainability of your perfection.

Anyone who accomplishes success knows that they then have to work so much harder to maintain it, that is, if they want to. But let’s say we saw the world and ourselves in it as “divine” or “perfect” reflections of the nature of existence, like the myriad facets of cut and polished gem. Some refract the light that hits it beautifully, some hardly at all, and some so brightly that it blinds you from the color of the gem. But all together, they make a wonderful light show, demonstrated by a colorful rock-thing.

The goal of Western science as determined by Descartes before the philosophic enlightenment of Europe was for the mastery of nature. He claimed that if one could gain perfect technical knowledge of nature, or existence, then one could master its phenomena and gain control of it. To this day, western science has made many positive advancements contributing to this effort, such as medicine, but we have also created weapons that could erase us from existence. Is this an improvement? Have our pursuits for control lead us to a more stable and sustainable future? Or are we still deluding ourselves with misconceptions from a culture with an inaccurate philosophy of existence.

They say the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and I have one last question to pose here: If the great benefit of meditation is to be able to bring yourself to peace of mind at any given moment by acknowledging that there isn’t actually anything that we MUST to do, that accomplishments are conditional but existence is always immediate, and that we could neither condemn things beyond repair nor fix them beyond any danger, then why can’t we enjoying doing what we love and be grateful for the opportunity to do so?

Featured Photo by Lukas from Pexels

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