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March 21st, 2020
Seneca once wrote that “Only the wise man is content with what is his. All foolishness suffers the burden of dissatisfaction with itself.”
And yet he was a very accomplished statesman, philosopher, orator and he was wealthy. You’d think someone who wrote a line like the one above would be a humble monk with nearly nothing.
George Bernard Shaw once wrote “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.”
Taking the ideas of these two thinkers hand in hand would have us reason that all progress depends on the fool who is unwisely dissatisfied with what he has.
Both thinkers have good points, but they don’t seem to align. It’s easy to read each and find ourselves nodding in agreement. But there’s clear dissonance.
How do we make sense of that?
People have a funny sense when it comes to continuity, especially continuity of character. It’s inherent to the large majority of us to try and remain stable in who we are, even if that continuity is only really evident to our perspective. This is the reason why social accountability works. One way to get yourself to stick to a new and difficult habit is to tell everyone you know that you’re doing it. Then there’s social pressure to remain consistent with your word.
This continuity is, ironically, not entirely consistent. We are quite literally riddled with contradictions, from which we operate.
There’s a phrase that comes to mind in order to solve this paradox of inconsistent continuity:
There’s a time and a place.
John Steinbeck once wrote: “When two people meet, each one is changed by the other so you’ve got two new people.”
The same applies to situations. When you put a person in a new situation, you get a new person. And the key to understanding the incongruence between the ideas we began with is to realize that there’s a time and a place for each.
It’s good to be a little foolish and suppose you can make progress, by being unreasonable, and pushing the world to change in line with what you imagine.
But it’s also good to practice the ability of being content with what you have. They are not mutually exclusive, each is a tool depending on the moment. If we find ourselves in a situation where we really are powerless, then calling up a well-oiled practice of being content with what one has is immensely useful. In fact it primes a person to act affectively when the situation finally does change, when the gates once again open and the race is back on.
Continuity of character portrays a concept of human behavior that is too simplistic. Yes, it’s incredibly important to have continuity of truth and honesty, especially in relationships. Again, that is the time and place for an incredible adherence to continuity of character. But it is provincial to push one’s entire way of being through this processor.
You don’t drive around in just first gear, you have to switch gears depending on the circumstance, and sometimes, you have to throw it into high gear. This does not mean we abandon first gear forever.
Adaptation is a matter of being able to switch gears to fit the circumstance, and sometimes that means running on a gear that allows you to change the circumstance.