Although I find him witty and occasionally entertaining, I don’t often agree with Times columnist David Brooks, either in print or when I see his political commentary on public television. As a grad-school philosophy drop-out, I feel perfectly qualified to say that I often find his reasoning faulty and his logic filled with holes. So I was very surprised that I actually liked most of what he wrote in his June 4 piece called The Way to Produce a Person. I won’t summarize the column here (that’s what hyperlinks are for) but I will quote one sentence that stayed with me: “You might become one of those people who loves humanity in general but not the particular humans immediately around.” The key word in this passage is “might.” I know we can all love each other locally and still contribute to the greater global good. We can even butt-text to a charity if we aren’t careful. Of course I want to help the starving children in Africa. But I also want to help the starving children in Chicago. In Portland. In Bath. On Edwards Street. Or my own starving children. Come to think of it, there’s a rumbly in my own tumbly right now.
Friends and acquaintances in my age, education, and income bracket often speak about this mode of being as “balance.” As in, we need to balance work and family, private and public life, selflessness and selfishness (in the good sense), local and global activism, etc. Even though I consider myself a Buddhist, and agree with the Buddha’s advice that we live the “middle way” between extreme indulgence and equally extreme self-denial, I hate the word balance. Balance suggests some kind of compromise, and the older I get, the less I want to compromise. The great Irish writer Edna O’Brien said in a recent interview that she wishes more writers were the drunken brawlers of old rather than the modern ones who now make a lovely risotto. If I had to choose, I’d be the drunken, brawling, bohemian rather than the gourmet chef. (Much to my wife’s chagrin. Although I am a pretty good cook, for a man.)
There is so much pressure these days to be blameless in all of our consumer activity. In his column, Mr. Brooks taps into this idea. He expresses a thought that’s almost dangerous to mention in polite, left-leaning, environmentally-conscious company: that you don’t have to save the world. Or as the great Stanley Fish wrote, Save the World on Your Own Time.
I call it the tyranny of perfection.
Think of the endless questions, the crushing din of our inner leftie dialogue: Did we give our spare change to the Heifer Project? Is our plastic baby bottle BPA-free? What about the air pressure in the tires on our Prius? Is it maximized to produce the greatest gas mileage possible so that we use less oil and thereby don’t deplete the ozone layer any more than it already is and so cause a spike in greenhouse gases that produces extreme weather conditions like tornadoes in the heartland that reduce elementary schools to rubble within seconds? Did a child laborer have to endure incredible suffering under barbaric working conditions just to make my t-shirt, or Air Jordans, or iPhone 5? Is our meat local? Is our dairy hormone-and cruelty-free? To paraphrase that brilliant scene from Portlandia, did we know our chicken’s name before we ate it for dinner? His name was Colin, by the way.
Yes, I’m veering into sarcasm here and I am fully aware that these are serious questions that demand serious answers. Just last night, I was shopping at TJ Maxx and found a beautiful pair of FC Barcelona soccer shorts (crafted in that luxurious Barça scarlet red) on sale for $9.99. Then I looked at the tag and it said the shorts had been made in Bangladesh. I immediately thought about the garment factory that had collapsed there a few weeks ago and even though the shorts were already made and probably from last season’s kit or they wouldn’t have been on the rack at TJ Maxx and they were right there in my hands and they were my size (XL) and that red was so beautiful and I knew that I would look halfway-decent in them once my legs got a nice little summer tan going, I put them back on the rack.
See? So we can make informed consumer decisions based on the suffering factor of the goods we buy. (Read Unto This Last by John Ruskin for the full-blown demand that we take laborers’ working conditions into consideration before buying anything.) And I suppose we should. Surely, we can vote with our pocketbooks as my friend’s granddaddy used to say. But growing up, I don’t remember my parents having to make these decisions. Maybe because our milk came from a local dairy and our clothes were made right down the Thruway in Gloversville and Dow Chemical or DuPont hadn’t even invented BPA yet. Yes, we live in a highly complex, hyper-interconnected world. But what if we just want to get up when our alarm goes off, make our coffee, put in an honest day’s work, indulge in some not-so-serious vices on the weekend, take the occasional vacation, and simply live our lives, trying every day to be the best people we can be to our spouses, family, and friends?
Buddha also advised us to change ourselves first before we try to change the world. For most of us, myself included, that task alone is more than enough for one lifetime’s work.