Making Things Better or Accepting Things as They Are?

Some artwork from the first 5 months in New Zealand

I suppose it is not fair to put this as a forced choice. I imagine there is some sort of yin and yang balance of a time for improvement and a time for acceptance. As an American, I know I can really get caught up in having the restless optimism to make things better. Americans don’t always have such a great track record in regards to the outcome of their attempts to make things better. Many of the wars we have fought in the past 60 years are the examples that come to mind. Also, I just read that the US government is starting several different law suits against BP and related companies for the oil spill damage in the gulf. I am sure that on some level presidents, congress, military professionals, and the general American public thought that war was a good way to make things better. I also imagine that in some way, all those oil executives imagined that there was some good that would come out of their decisions surrounding any decisions that led to increased risk regarding deep water oil well drilling – whether it was simply more profits, helping their investors, supplying cheaper oil, or helping to keep the world flush with oil.

Since moving to New Zealand, I have routinely found myself struggling with this question of should things be better or should I accept things the way they are. There are many things I have come across in business, safety, health care, and many organizational issues that would just not be tolerated in the United States, but here people don’t seem to get too fired up about them. There seem to be different cultural standards about how much can be changed, how much should be changed, and how much things can be accepted and how much things should be accepted. A 27 year old nurse died recently when she was riding her bicycle just a short ways from where we live. There are bicycle lanes on the road, but they are shared transit lanes for bicycle, motorcycle, bus, cars with 2 or more passengers, and even car parking. Some places along the road, there are separate bicycle lanes, but other places they seem to merge into this shared transit lane. Is it acceptable that 27 year old nurses die riding their bicycles on a supposed cycle lane? Is it an unavoidable accident, or is it a failure of planning that has created a dangerous situation. Should this be accepted or should there be an attempt to make the cycle path better?

I rode my bicycle for the first time in New Zealand this week. It was a short ride, less than 30 minutes. I rode past the place where the 27 year old nurse died, but I didn’t ride on the street. There is also a side walk bike lane. The side walk is painted down the middle and half of it is for pedestrians and half of it is for bicycles. It requires a lot of concentration and stopping and starting to ride on this off-road path, even at 6 AM. Groups of runners go 4 abreast and block the bike lane, people with their i-pods walk in the bike lane, you have to be aware of people walking their dogs so they dogs don’t get in the bike lane. Still, I’d rather have to slow down and ask people to move out of the way than be dead. I don’t really think that the on road bicycle lane is that safe and unless something major is changed with it (it is made better) I don’t think I’d ride in it.

Obviously, it is a good thing to make some things better. Obviously some things should be accepted as they are. I suppose that with a lot of things, you don’t really know until the dust settles whether or not it was a good thing to tear down that wall. There are other things that most people could say will not turn out well. Most examples of introducing some new species to make a problem better end up not working well, because the environment has so many complexes interlocking levels. Also, there are some things that you see and you just have to give it a go at changing them.

Maybe it is just because I am an American that I am constantly looking at the world, the businesses I interact with, and my job, and saying “how can this be made better?” Maybe it is really a culture clash in which I am putting my beliefs on other people who are perfectly happy to have things run they way they are. Maybe I shouldn’t get so worked up about a patient’s electronic notes being completely intermingled with another person’s notes who has the same name, or about a couple of pills of psychiatric medicine on the floor of a staff car, or about a client having a misdiagnosis, or about what seems like a tremendous waste of human potential with people sitting in meetings that have nothing to do with them or in a lack of efficient systems so that people spend big chunks of time doing things that could be stream-lined. Maybe all this is because I am an American Colonialist who wants to impose my “better” ideas on another culture. Maybe it is because I was born with something like 5 planets in Virgo and Virgos are driven to be service-oriented people concerned with self-improvement and improving things for others.

Sometimes I think about Paul Theroux’s book, The Mosquito Coast. In that book, Allie Fox seems like a restless American visionary. He is critical of the government, of people’s complacency, laziness, and blind acceptance of what they are given in a consumer-driven culture. To me, he starts off as a totally sympathetic character, a restless philosopher and mechanic, a practical dreamer. He takes his family to the Mosquito Coast in Central America. He works to make things better for the “natives.” He makes better houses, he tries to improve farming and food preparation, and he introduces civilization in the form of ice and refrigeration. Somewhere along the way, things start to go awry. What at first looks like selfless exercise in improving his family’s and other’s lives starts to slowly slip into a dangerous ego-trip that endangers the lives of many people and destroys the natural environment. As Allie Fox lies wounded in the bottom of a boat, asking his family, “are we still heading up stream,” his family lies to him and says, yes, as they head downstream and back to civilization. A cautionary tale about the restless desire to make the world a better place.

I remember a random psychotic man I met at a library in Edwardsville Illinois. He came up to me and asked, “Would you change the world if you knew how?” It was an interesting start to a conversation that had many interesting elements about John Stuart Mill’s philosophy, before it started to devolve into a paranoid rant in which this guy seemed to think he knew how to change the world, but that he would be the “child genius” and he needed a bunch of workers to do the heavy lifting of changing the world.

Many spiritual disciplines focus on acceptance. Sometimes Buddhism and Hinduism are critiqued as being passive and fatalistic. Classical Taoists, like Chuang Tzu and Lao Tzu teach that you are better off enjoying your life (running around like a weasel or a wildcat until you drop dead or are caught in a trap) than trying to improve your life or improve others or even to participate in the courtly society of China at that time. Better to be happy and alive, like a gnarled old oak, than useful and dead, like a sturdy, straight tree that would be great for lumber.

How do you really know when to accept something and when to try to change it? What if the “thing” you are contemplating is your self? I have definitely gotten too caught up in self-improvement schemes at times. Isn’t it ok to just be yourself sometimes, or do you have to constantly be striving to become better in some way?

I came to New Zealand to have an adventure, to learn something different, to see a beautiful part of the world, and to have some intensive cross-cultural experience. I am definitely accomplishing all those goals. What I struggle with on a daily basis is this constant questioning and doubting of myself, my desire to make things better, my desire to try something different and accept things as they are, my desire to just be who I am, and my desire to fit in and be accepted. If you have been reading along wondering how I will resolve this tension, I have to apologize; you will just have to live with it….

The Up Side of Burn Out

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