As a teen, I bowed to each member of the nerds’ triumvirate: Rush music, X-Men comics, and Dungeons & Dragons games. For the uninitiated, Dungeons & Dragons is a tabletop role-playing game which has elements of collaborative storytelling and improvisational theater, with oddly shaped dice to settle disputes. In a game, you create a character, through whom you act out adventures in a fantastic scenario. A quirky aspect of character creation was the concept of alignment: each avatar, or character, had an inherent moral code: good or evil, law-abiding or anarchic. You can see a schema here. The black-and-white moral system appealed to my sense of romantic adventure (consider Star Wars).
As an adult returning to the hobby, it’s my least favorite aspect of the game. Today, the characters I want to play in stories are morally ambiguous rogues, like Omar Little of the HBO program The Wire, who set their own standards and live by their own sense of rough justice. There’s not much room for that within fixed polarities and moral codes. Like most teens, I had an acute distaste for hypocrisy. But as an adult, I don’t think of inconsistency as any hypocrisy, but as maturity. Messiness is life.
Most things don’t fit into neat categories: as Chris Rock would say, I’m liberal on some things, and conservative on others. In fact, the most destructive sort of policies are often those that posit a unambiguous human moral compass. Consider the injunctions against poverty in Deuteronomy: “There shall be no poor among you!” (Deuteronomy 15:4) It’s a noble ideal, but one that admits no trade-offs between equity and productivity, or grasps that debt is a necessary precondition for shared wealth.
We might imagine that we can solve the problems of the world from a bedroom, a podium, or glass-paneled office, all without getting dirty. We can not. Simply put, ideals are good guides, but an inflexible ideal can paralyze us in the real world of trade-offs and compromises. If you wait for perfect moral conditions, you’re not going to get much done. As Voltaire said, “The best is the enemy of the good.”
Rather, be inspired by Nobel Peace laureate Muhammad Yunus, who decided, “I wanted to find out, is there anything I can do as a human being to delay it [starvation], to stop it, even for one single person? I would go around and sit down with people in the village, talking, and all my arrogance, my academic arrogance, didn’t exist any more. I was no longer trying to solve global problems. I was no longer trying to solve even national problems. I abandoned the bird’s-eye view that lets you see everything from above, from the sky. I assumed a worm’s-eye view – trying to find whatever comes right in front of you, smell it, touch it, see if you can do something about it.” (Fighting Poverty from the Bottom Up)
Let’s all abandon the bird’s-eye view, the ivory tower, the intransigence of youth. Let us dive into the mud and muck of a worm’s life. Nothing is perfect – no idea nor thing nor person – if it were, how could it exist? Maybe those were not noble ideals in the first place, just youthful folly. I close with a stanza from a contemporary Jewish sage, Leonard Cohen: “Ring the bells that still can ring. / Forget your perfect offering. / There is a crack in everything. / That’s how the light gets in.”email print