The Case for Better

My internet pal Justin Wehr recently pushed on a point that I considered so obvious as to be completely incompetent in its defense. This then, is an attempt to build the case for constant improvement. The case for the fact that you should work to be better than you were yesterday every single day of your life.

It’s worth establishing, to start, what we mean by better. Striving to be better requires being fully aware of difference between the improvable things in your life and those that can’t be. You can’t change your genetics, or the factors that we consider to directly flow from that, nor are you able to change the things outside of yourself. A 5’4″ overweight man will never make himself into the most physically attractive mate for a woman who favors skinny men over 6’4″ with a different skin tone. Part of getting better is realizing and accepting that reality.

The thoughts, comments, and actions of others are thoroughly beyond our direct control. (It is, however, worth realizing that by changing the way you act, you can in time shape the way you appear to others.) But if you’re going to get angry any time someone disrespects or disagrees with you, you’re going to live a hollow life as other peoples’ rag doll. Thrown around by the impulses of people who rarely think of you at all, you’ll be subject to endless turmoil and frustration, and that’s no way to live.

Essential to this idea of better is this idea that the thing you can control is the way you live. It’s not only within your control, it’s essentially the only thing you control, so why do you think it’s okay you treat it like garbage? There’s a seldom noticed point that I consider relevant: the smaller a person’s area of control the more seriously they take the maintenance of it. Hoarders are generally people who feel they control nothing in the world, or the whole of it. Someone who recognizes that they own their living space and are the sole one responsible for maintenance of it generally treats it quite well.

And so it is with your abilities and mind. They are essentially the only things you have direct control over. Which is different from saying that they’re the only things you think you control. Some people believe their inability to understand mathematics is wired into the system, (barring some rare developmental disabilities) they’re wrong. Some people believe they can exercise complete control over the subservient people in their life (be they family, romantic partners, employees, or even slaves), they too are wrong.

Once one sees fully and exactly what they control and what they don’t, they generally tend to believe in the value of improving it. One of the biggest obstacles people have in understanding the case for better is that they have mistaken beliefs in either their omnipotence or impotence.  The delusions that allow people to believe in either direction are one of the most important obstacles to people living the best life they’re capable of. And they’re far more complex and multifaceted to fit within the purview this essay, so I’ll move on.

If we agree that we control our mind and abilities, we’re left with three basic options: get better, get worse, or stagnate. Getting worse is not easy, but people manage it all the time. When you only learn things because people make you, you’ll forget them quickly and be unable to comprehend facets of the world you once did. This is getting worse. When a boyfriend pushed you to eat better and exercise more, and then left your life, you’re probably going to neglect those things you once did well. That’s getting worse. Generally, we get worse because we were never committed to get better in the first place. We did those things that the wise recognize as good because there was someone pushing us out of the rut, once the pushing stops the rut feels welcoming, like home.

Laziness, habits, and willpower conservation are also the reason we typically stagnate. Without outside pressure to know more about the universe than the model of the solar system you got in grade school, you’ll only have learned of the demotion of Pluto from planetary status because the news was so prevalent as to be unavoidable. Without a school-mandated councilor there to push you to work with your anger in a healthy way, you’ll probably never get any better than the modest extant to which they were able to help you fill in the bottom of your rut.

Without a self-motivation brought on by a belief that you can be better, your life will be controlled by others. By the things you can’t help knowing, the work you can’t help doing, by the mental reactions others evince in you because you’ve never taken the time to try to control your own mind. At the most basic level, I think the case for better comes down to this: who do you want to control your life: yourself or interested strangers? Surely there exist strangers genuinely interested in your improvement (most such people also have a deep interest in their own improvement, it’s worth mentioning), but leaving yourself at the mercy of strangers nets out as an unwise proposition. Even a few people with a truly sinister interests can easily overwhelm those trying to be of help when they can.

All of that gets to sounding a bit “me against the world”, but it’s not. One of the best and most common reasons that people have for being better in their life is so that they’re able to help others better. Taking care of yourself seems selfish until you try a few times you help others and make the whole situation worse. When we’re not in control of ourselves, our attempts to help others will frequently go wrong. Being the best version of yourself also allows you to be the best help possible for other people. So if you don’t want to to try to be better for your own sake, do it for our sake. For the sake of your family, friends, neighbors, and world. If there’s a better reason to do anything I’ve not found it.


Kosovo and Separatism

Last week, I counted Kosovo’s declaration of independence as a good thing. I still think that, on balance, it was. But I’m increasingly interested and perhaps troubled by how much I didn’t and don’t know about the whole thing.

And sadly, what commentary I’ve seen about it hasn’t really clarified the issue for me. Most visible opponents of Kosovo’s independence seem vaguely allied with Serbia or to have some related ax to grind. It’s often cited that those countries that have most prominently failed to recognize Kosovo’s independence have separatist movements of their own–Spain, Greece, Romania, Slovakia. I’m not swayed by this argument, because none of those have provoked–whether merited or not–outside intervention on behalf of one of the parties.

The basic argument here is made by Serbia’s foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, in a New York Times Op-Ed, in which he says:

Recognizing the unilateral declaration of Kosovo’s independence from Serbia legitimizes the doctrine of imposing solutions to ethnic conflicts. It legitimizes the act of unilateral secession by a provincial or other non-state actor. It transforms the right to self-determination into an avowed right to independence. It legitimizes the forced partition of internationally recognized, sovereign states.

Now aside from the need to discredit any commenter who has a horse in the race he’s covering, there is a legitimate point to be heard here. After all, Serbia had been willing to offer Kosovo nearly complete autonomy if it had remained a province of Belgrade. This, to one not schooled in Kosovo’s grievances, seems like an admirable solution.

And if you believe, as many seem to, that NATO intervention in the Kosovo issue was illegal and illegitimate, it stands to reason that this is indeed a great historical injustice. I have to plead ignorant on the question of whether or not the intervention was legitimate, my interest at the time that it occurred was minimal and my learning since–even after reading the Wikipedia article on the topic–has been limited. And, it seems, no news source I can get my hands on wants to tackle this difficult issue fraught with pitfalls.

The more interesting point, to me, is the question of Slobodan Milosevic. Even Mr. Jeremic admits that what he did was bad, but he makes the interesting claim that punishing the state for it is illegitimate.

A historical injustice is being imposed on a European country that has overcome more obstacles since we democratically overthrew Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000 than most other nations have in a much longer time. Recognizing Kosovo means saying, in effect, that Serbian democracy must be punished because a tyrant — one who committed heinous deeds against the Kosovo Albanians in the 1990s — was left unpunished. Such misplaced revenge may make some feel better, but it will make the international system feel much worse.

Again, limited by own ignorance, I can’t really accede to or deny this version of history. And so here I am, unsure. I’m tempted to reach out and blame the news media–or the weak narratives of Wikipedia articles–for my inability to come to meaningful conclusion on the question of Kosovo and separatism. I’m sure that’s unfair.

But I do wish I had some answers instead of all these questions. Maybe the best non-resolution to the issue I’ve seen is offered by Al Eislele, who said, “The tortured history and complex nature of the Serb-Kosovo conflict leaves non-expert observers like me open to criticism.” Perhaps that, then, is the nature of foreign policy.

american society, USA, world

“There is almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves”

Source: cursedthingBill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton was on Charlie Rose last Friday. He said a lot of interesting things, and though they also did a fair bit of rehashing tired arguments about the presidential campaign, it is a pretty good interview to watch.

Without question, the line that most caught my attention was this one: Mr. Clinton said, making what felt like a rather precarious jump, that the American people now know as they never have before that “there is almost no problem we can solve all by ourselves.” That America’s citizenry recognizes that the problems we face as a country: terrorism, nuclear proliferation, climate change, health, and immigration, are all outside of the control of any single government, even the most powerful.

Though Clinton wouldn’t have been a good politician if he regularly denigrated the intelligence of the American people–as I sometimes think is appropriate–I do think he’s overstated the case. One doesn’t have to look very hard in this country to find people as convinced as ever that America has the right to impose its will upon the world. That its policy can and should be to unilaterally do whatever it wants, whenever it judges itself justified.

I have no doubt that those who easily forget that the United States is merely one country in a much larger world is shrinking and continues to shrink. But I find it incredibly hard to accept the argument that the whole populous has come to this revelation.

To be fair, Mr. Clinton is doubly right. More Americans than ever realize that their government doesn’t run the world, and every day a few more do. Further, he’s right in that the world is indeed a less “Amerocentric” place than at any other time since the Second World War.

Certainly, the attacks on September 11, 2001 shook a number of people out of the delusion that they lived in an impenetrable fortress from which they can run roughshod over the whole world and never face any consequences. Unfortunately, from there they went on to allow Mr. Bush to convince them that the wisest course to restore their illusory security was to depose Saddam Hussein–a hideous man no doubt, but hardly a grave threat to American security.

It is in Mr. Bush’s nearly-unilateral, (now known to be) misguided, and poorly executed invasion of Iraq that many Americans realized that they cannot persist as a hegemon. So too has Iran’s nuclear ambitions, Bush’s intransigence on climate change, and the many failed attempts to reform America’s broken immigration laws.

All of this has made clear that Americans do not have sole control over their own destiny. Though I hate the over-simplistic term, “the emergence of China” has clearly changed the world. For one, America’s recent economics hardships have been far more localized than many expected.

There was a time when a devaluation of the American dollar was an absolutely terrifying scenario for world economics, but it hasn’t had the expected debilitating impact. As the world slowly decouples from the formerly-all-important American economy (and thus its government), this country, like Britain before it, will have to recognize that it is not the king of the world.

Love or hate the former President, he is right about that.