I was reading an excerpt from philosopher and psychologist William James’ Talks to Teachers on Psychology: And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals reprinted in the February 2010 issue of The Sun magazine. I was not in the best of moods at the time, feeling down about the state of the world and about U.S. politics in particular.
James’ sunny description of a happy week he spent at Chautauqua in the company of “intelligence and goodness, orderliness and ideality, prosperity and cheerfulness” surprisingly didn’t lift my mood. As I read about the wonderful Chautauqua where people gathered in community, peacefully and industriously, I felt strangely uneasy. Perhaps that was because behind the positive description lay the seeds of what James would go on to write:
“I stayed for a week, held spellbound by the charm and ease of everything, by the middle-class paradise, without a sin, without a victim, without a blot, without a tear.
“And yet what was my own astonishment, on emerging into the dark and wicked world again, to catch myself quite unexpectedly and involuntarily saying: ‘Ouf! What a relief! Now for something primordial and savage…to set the balance straight again. This order is too tame, this culture too second-rate, this goodness too uninspiring.”
Reading this, I, too, felt relief.
How strange. I spend my days trying to promote “goodness.” (Two of my books are titled, Above All, Be Kind and Most Good, Least Harm for crying out loud.) Yet I understood what James’ meant, and suddenly, I also understood what Captain Kirk meant in the Star Trek episode, “This Side of Paradise,” when he tried to convince his crew and a colony on an Eden-like planet (where a certain plant conferred bliss upon the inhabitants who lived harmoniously and happily) that humans are meant to struggle and “claw our way to the top.” As a young teenager, I balked at this. I yearned for such happiness myself, and seeing my idol, Mr. Spock, happy (for the first time in his life, as he says at the end of the episode) was deeply satisfying. In “This Side of Paradise,” Kirk managed to incite a riot among the blissed out crew and colonists (by blasting an irritating sound on the planet) that counteracted the effect of the plants. At once, the leader of the colony realized that they had “done nothing here.” He was seemingly grateful to be freed from bliss so that they could be productive.
In my teenage years, watching this episode many times, I neither understood nor agreed with the message. I mourned the loss of bliss. Now in my late forties, I understand the bland boredom that comes without a bit of struggle, without drive toward achievement and productivity. I understand what William James meant when he went on to write:
“The ideal was so completely victorious already that no sign of any previous battle remained, the place just resting on its oars. But what our human emotions seem to require is the sight of the struggle going on. The moment the fruits are merely eaten, things become ignoble. Sweat and effort, human nature strained to its uttermost and on the rack, yet getting through alive, and then turning its back on its success to pursue another more rare and arduous still – this is the sort of things the presence of which inspires us….”
But although I understand this now, I find it both perplexing and disconcerting. I have often said that I would like to put myself out of business; would like a world that did not have any need for my and others’ efforts at promoting compassion, peace, restoration and solutions to grave challenges. But if we achieve such a world, I do sometimes wonder what humanity will be like. Will we finally be content? Will we find paradise? Will we create the Eden we believe we fell from? What will a peaceful, sustainable world in which everyone’s basic needs are met and there is no more exploitation and oppression of others – human and nonhuman – look like in practice? What will we choose as our hurdles to jump, our heights to scale? Where will our drive to strive find its home? Can contentment exist with a lack of struggle?
In my next post, I’ll continue musing upon these questions, and in the meantime, I welcome your thoughts.
Author of Most Good, Least Harm and Claude and Medea
Image courtesy of eflon via Creative Commons.
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