Zen and The Art of Settling

Zen and The Art of Settling April 25, 2016

Image via Pixabay

Through a few high school friends who were really into the music of the Christian band Project 86, I got my introduction to Andrew Schwab, the band’s lead vocalist. In addition to being the driving force between that band, Schwab is also a writer with several books under his belt. (He also has a Patheos blog, as it happens.)

The first exposure I had to Schwab’s non-Project 86 writing was through his 2001 collection We Caught You Plotting Murder, in particular the poem “Scissors to Suburbia” from that work. Fifteen years later, I could still recall parts of that poem from memory, and like many memories, it doesn’t hold up as well a decade and a half later.

Three lines especially stand out to me even now:

If they tell me to settle
for one who is less than ideal,
I will always, always be alone.

And like so many things that I thought were amazingly profound when I was 17, I find this sentiment hopelessly naive.

If there’s one strong belief that I have about life, it’s that living it well is about trying to make the best decisions based on the limited range of actual choices that are available. It may be true from a theoretical perspective that our choices are virtually infinite at most points, but it isn’t true on a practical level.

After all, I could think of a million different options I have at this moment other than writing this piece: reading a novel, eating a second dinner, running around the block, robbing the convenience store down the street, driving our family car into the lake, hitchhiking to Tulsa, reading Confucius’ Analects in traditional Chinese, writing a program in Fortran, praying to Asherah. It should be clear that not all of these are really live choices.

We like to think of our lives as open stories, ones which we could rewrite by sheer force of will. And that may be true to a limited degree, but I think the reality is more complicated than that.

Let’s say that we took Schwab’s verse to heart. Is there any chance that someone will meet our ideal? (Maybe, if our ideal is sufficiently un-idealized, but at that point the ideal hardly even matters.) If not, is it better to consign ourselves to a solitary existence? Few of us would probably say so.

With very few exceptions, we all settle. The only difference is on what terms.

I do understand the resistance to this notion. What Schwab is pushing back against is the idea that it’s someone else’s standard that you should conform to, that what you are striving to achieve doesn’t really matter. Just give in. Give up. Settle for less.

That’s clearly not the answer. But neither does it make any sense to deny altogether the notion that we live in a world of imperfect realities, among which we must at least sometimes choose the most optimal path, even if that path is not our ideal one.

This is true of relationships and politics and career paths and educational tracks and reproductive planning and a number of consequential choices we have to make over the course of our lifetimes. Sometimes these choices are easier than others; we fall in love with a partner or candidate or field of study or vocation that works out just right for us, no questions asked. That isn’t true for most of us, I would wager. We have to mentally grapple with these choices, weighing the costs and benefits.

Which is why I tend to have a relatively short fuse for people who criticize others for compromise.

I don’t think this is an absolute position either way: Compromise is not in and of itself illegitimate, but not every compromise is rational. If we agree on the goals or the goods being sought, then we can have a rational discussion about which decisions most effectively achieve those goals or goods, and that includes discussing which options are the best compromises among our range of imperfect choices or if there might be other better possibilities that have been dismissed too quickly.

But yet I still hear people railing not against certain compromises but against the very idea of compromise itself. This is where idealism goes off the rails.

Again, I think idealism has its place. “If not now, then when?” is a cry that has motivated many to fight for more radical action now rather than deferred success or small victories. When this works, it works because it pushes people to see beyond what appears to be possible in the moment. Idealism pushes us to hope for more than what seems to be realistic, which is a useful tool. But like most tools, it can’t be the only one we use.

To temper the worst impulses of idealism — namely, pushing us to focus so zealously on the higher goal we hope to achieve that we ignore the routes by which we might be able to win more realistically — we need to seek compromise and coalitions. Dismissing these as live options is tantamount to walking a highwire without a net. If you can do what you set out to do without it, then its presence is superfluous; if you can’t, its absence is sorely felt.

Idealism is alluring. Hope is alluring. Compromise is negotiation, and that’s, well, not. At all.

At least some of the time, though, that negotiation must happen, and it does happen even with those who decry it in others. All that we’re disagreeing on are the specific non-negotiables, not the principle.

And disagreement is fine. Ultimately, we’re the ones who have to be at peace with our decisions, even those that affect other people. But if we can’t even agree about the basis of our disagreement, then it’s hard to see how we’ll accomplish what common goals we have, no matter how realistic or lofty they might be.

Image via Pixabay

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