Almost no one arises in the morning with a desire to wreak havoc in the world. (Psychopaths, not my enemies, are the reason I say “almost”.) And yet the world is very regularly judged “a mess”, even in places that no psychopath has been.
Most people believe in “the Golden Rule”. Many would testify to even higher intentions: not just setting out to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us”, but perhaps to help, to teach, to build, to encourage, to improve. So why is the world such a mess? Why do so many people feel, accurately, that they’ve been mistreated in some area of their life?
There is a gap — a profound, unmistakable gap — between what people, on reflection, profess to want to do in the world and what they typically do. What we do and what we wish that we would do are rarely the same thing.
Part of the issue is our myopia. We genuinely struggle to see that the world extends infinitely away from us, and our actions propagate throughout that infinity. We mistake the fact that we feel good about a situation for the fact that everyone feels good about it. Obviously when it’s a raucous party you’re throwing or a physical fight you won, there’s likely to be someone who validly feels exactly the opposite way as you about the exact same situation that has given you a high. And even in less obvious situations, it remain the case that every action can give rise to a huge array of opinion.
This myopia gives rise to a much more insidious problem: we can easily misunderstand what we’ve done; confusing ourselves into thinking we’re helping when we’re not. We venture into the world to make it better. On that path we find someone we perceive as making it worse. So we scold them bitterly in our strongest possible language and then feel righteous and certain that we really are making the world a better place, without the least regard for the ones we scold. In short, we become deluded about the real effects of our actions, missing the very real tumult they cause. We think ourselves correct and upstanding and blameless as we survey the discord we sow in our life.
Even if we avoid these pitfalls of myopia and delusion, we’re still not safe. The next peril is the hardest one to surmount. It’s the fact that the things we want to do and things we do are frequently at odds. Reconciling that difference is a life-long process.
Our patterns of behavior are deeply furrowed. You may know that your daily two-liter of soda is the cause of your large and embarrassing paunch. But then you order a pizza, break out the soda, and forget about the plan to cut back.
The only medicine that works against these patterns is awareness. You can’t start to correct the problem until you’re aware of it. And when you’re aware of it, you have to stop yourself from surrendering to a feeling of powerlessness as you see the gap between how you’d like to act and how you do.
The gap between the world we have and the world we want is large. The first, most important, step is realizing that the gap exists. From there, we travel with our awareness down the path of slow and continuous recognition that the gap will not narrow without us making a daily and small effort to change it.