Must We Always Be Improving

I was born in 1942, soon after the United States entered World War II.  I am the grandson of impoverished and oppressed Jewish immigrants who fled Eastern Europe for a better life in America.  Like so many others, they arrived without resources, and their fortunes did not rise like meteors in this land of milk and honey.  All four of my grandparents lived hard lives.  Three died young.  My father’s parents contracted tuberculosis and left their children in an orphanage so that they could enter a “sanitarium” in Colorado.  My mother’s father was a ne’er-do-well, I’m told, charming and often out of work,  leaving his wife bitter and alone.  Her name was Birdie, and she lived with our family from the time I was six and she was sixty-three, a lonely fish out of water in our Long Island home.

My parents were also born to poverty and struggle and we were still poor when I was young.  They worked hard, though, and I was raised to believe that every aspect of life could and would be improved with sustained effort.  There was no doubt in my mind that I would succeed at my work, form a family that I would love, and live the life of a productive citizen in our democratic society.  I don’t know exactly how these ideas settled so powerfully into my soul—and  they were shared by a large number in my generation of Americans—but they were as solid to me as my belief that the sun would rise in the morning and summer would follow spring.

So, too, a belief in American society.  I learned that the ideals articulated by our Founding Fathers in the eighteenth century were gradually being realized.  Slowly, steadily, generation by generation, we were coming closer to the just and compassionate society that I learned was our birthright.

Look at our progress: the Jacksonians brought the vote to the common man; Abe Lincoln and the Civil War brought an end to slavery; the Progressive Era of Wilson and TR reigned in the corporations and the power of the rich, giving rights and power to the working man and his unions; FDR’s New Deal continued the progress and began to establish a safety net for all citizens by establishing Social Security.  Then came Truman’s Fair Deal, Kennedy’s Camelot, Johnson’s Great Society, the movements for the civil rights of African Americans, women, gays, and the disabled.  Sure there were bumps in the road, obstacles like Reagan and Nixon, who tried to undo decades of progress, but I believed, as I believed that the sun would rise in the morning, that progress would continue along its ineluctable path.

In my life, the personal and political have been indivisible.  And I have judged both our society and myself accordingly: Are we improving?  Are we doing everything in our power to become better and better?

After all these years, though, I have come to doubt the American belief in continual progress, and to think that we step backwards almost as much as forward.  In the political realm, the doubt has tormented me.  I am like a religious person feeling abandoned by God.  I have not given up the hope that our society can reach towards its ideals but I have stopped believing that the objective is near or inevitable, and I have come to believe that there are powerful forces of reaction, like tribalism, fear, and greed that stand in the way.

I have begun to wonder if, instead of constant progress, we will always alternate between coming together and falling apart as a people, that we will periodically overcome the greed of the few but that they, the rich and powerful, will have their day, as well.  The pattern has come to seem more circular than the simple, upward trajectory that had been my lifelong faith.

Naturally, getting old has dampened my faith in a constant upward personal trajectory.  But I’ve also discovered that there are some profound rewards for letting go the need for continual improvement and the harsh self evaluation that comes with a failure to fulfill that ideal.

For most of my life, the promise of improvement seems to have served me well.  There were always aspirations and I love to reach towards goals.  Reaching towards those goals lent meaning to my life.  Believing in the future also comforted me when I was down.  Even if things weren’t working out now, they would do so in the future—if I gave it my best.  There was always the future for hard working people.

But living for improvement and living for the future also exacts a price.  It lends itself to a judgmental perspective, as if life were a competitive game in which you are winning and losing all the time.  The intense focus on that game brings anxiety and frequently causes us to ignore the present, the world we actually live in.

Let’s begin with judgment.  If you are always expected to improve—and, by adolescence, that expectation has been almost fully internalized—then you are always evaluating yourself.  Did I improve enough?  And you almost always come up short—especially if you have grown accustomed to setting the bar high.   It’s a very Calvinist way to live, very stern at its heart.  It almost reverts to the idea of “original sin.” In this case, you inevitably sin by not improving enough.  This is an attitude that does not permit you to rest.  It inhibits your ability to affirm and to enjoy your life.  Even if you’ve done well, there are other hurdles you should leap—you probably should have leapt them already.

And here’s the irony.  Even when you depart from this very linear, up and down, model, through meditation and other methods of bringing you into the present moment, you begin to apply the standards of old: Am I present enough, calm enough?  How long and how much work will it take for me to achieve higher states of consciousness.  In other words, you absorb anti-evaluative models back into the improvement paradigm.  Once you’re an improvement junkie, it’s very, very hard to break free.

Once you internalize the linear, upward seeking, improvement paradigm, you inevitably fail by declining, especially as you age.  All you have to do is look at your body.  It’s not what it once was.  You watch, almost as an outsider, as your career begins to wind down—and then end.  Take a realistic look at family gatherings, where your grown children are more and more the center of the action—as they should be.   If ever you once were, you are no longer a towering figure in those gatherings.  Well loved, if you’re lucky—you can’t really complain—but declining.

But declining only if you hold a linear view, a view that insists that you have to be getting better all the time.  If I open my eyes and look outside my own trajectories, even I can see that my children and their children are ascending.  I am immensely proud of them.  I love who they are.  Part of who they are, part of how they succeed in their endeavors, is that, like me, they have become absorbed in the world of improvement.  I have such mixed feelings about that: mostly glad and admiring; partly wishing I could free them from the pain it also causes.  But it is their time to succeed and probably not a very good idea to try to free them from the effort.  I wouldn’t succeed anyway.

They will eventually understand what I am coming to see: that life is better understood as cycles: seeds are sown and grow into plants, then cast off their own seeds, then die and fertilize the ground for new plants.  The cycles of birth, life, and death are endless.  They are varied and they are beautiful.  All spiritual writings tell a similar tale about the seasons of our lives and about the great calm we achieve by melting into them, not fighting to free ourselves from their rhythms, but we often ignore their wisdom for much too long.

The beauty of this more cyclical paradigm is that it is restful.  Since the cycles will persist for all eternity, we can relax into the present moment.  It will pass but no matter.  And when we relax into each phase of the cycle, we can pay better attention to what is happening now.  That’s when the colors grow more vivid, and we do, too.

I’ve come late to this new this perspective, not on an intellectual level, because I’ve been reading about it for decades, but on the level of lived experience.  The notion that I have helped to plant seeds, whose growth will depend on the ground in which they grow and can’t be controlled by me, not by my best or worst behavior—the notion that I have helped to plant these amazing seeds, and there are many seeds—my children, people I have mentored, organizations that I have given birth to—the notion that I am simply part of these endless cycles is becoming powerful and very comforting to me in my old age.