Peace and justice are two words that are increasingly uneasy bedfellows as stoicism and activism have always been. In a time of mass social movements towards social inequality, the Black Lives Matter movement, the pressing for the recognition of LGBTQ folk, and a war in Ukraine, rising inflation, we certainly have noticed a lack of justice, and the retreat of peace. Personally, I come from an Anabaptist pacifist tradition, and I work in a university that thinks about justice. I encounter social justice advocates daily, and their striving for justice is to transform situations into ideas of perfection. Such striving assumes we know what is best and we ought to try hard to bring it about. I often feel that such justice is forced. And I know many an Anabaptist to be passive, i.e., not peace-practicing. The moral ideals of peace and justice need to be aspired to simultaneously or we will have neither peace nor justice. If we look at each ideal on its own, doing our best in our striving for either will often have disastrous consequences. 

Yet, we constantly are at odds with the best. We see this when we hear the advice “Be the best; but if you can’t do that, do your best.” This advice is everywhere – but especially in the minds of a person trying to save a fraught relationship or lead a group that is saddled by disconnection: can I transform this dynamic through my own determination? If you have ever believed that you can, you will, sooner or later, experience the double-failure of both failing in your effort and in losing the relationship or the group.

The equating of moral striving with “hard work” runs counter to the Taoist concept of Wu Wei – the striving of no effort. Paradoxically, this concept urges us to consider the place of flow in our lives and implores us to be aware of and accept the given situation before transformation can occur. We must be in the flow of a situation before acting within it. 

I study conceptions of moral self-development, both as a person and as an academic. I teach a course in educational strategies which is filled with all kinds of useful tricks to prepare for tests, for note-taking, and for reading effectively. The course covers time management techniques: chunking moments of time, daily scheduling, taking regular reflective breaks, and four-month planning.  Both personally and academically, ‘doing your best’ has started to seem wrong as a way of thinking about progress in life’s central endeavours. Talk of doing our ‘best’ usually describes short-term or one-dimensional exertion, whereas the work of moral self-development – like that of any close relationship – requires iterative learning (i.e., effort sustained and renewed over long periods of time) and forms of respect and reciprocity that simply are not well described in terms of effort. The failure to properly value oneself, with which I am too familiar, is not a failure of effort and cannot be corrected by force of will.

The very idea of doing your best invites myopic thinking as we focus on some narrowly defined goal. Moral development is something multidimensional that involves both doings and non-doings. And development itself constantly changes the self’s possibilities such that what would count as one’s ‘best’ transforms in ways that are at once real and out of view. We should let go of the imperative to do our best. Instead, we should do better.

Before you sit back and put your feet up, and begin coasting, consider this: trying better is certainly no less difficult than trying your best.

We commonly understand ‘doing our ‘best’ to mean that you tried in the way you knew how, and with the energy that you had at the time. Maybe no one could reasonably expect more from you. Maybe you screamed when no one was around, bit your lip until it bled, and couldn’t sleep at night. I clenched my whole being in a fist to keep a huge work project together, but my movement toward the better required me to give up the effort that separated me from my own good.

Trying our best has an industrial character to it. For most mechanical tasks we do have a try our physical and mental best. The harder you work, the more will get done. When I tree planted in my late teen years, I was motivated by the thought that every tree was worth 10 cents. I would plant a certain number of trees and then work harder the next day to break that mark. 

Yet, all of our most important problems require us to give effort wisely, patiently, truthfully, trustingly, and creatively. These modes of striving may be as emotionally painful, and in that sense as ‘hard’, as our ‘best effort’, but they are different in that they admit the truth that both the self and its situations are fundamentally in progress and cannot be understood in terms of generic superlatives.

The most prominent cheerleaders of moral self-development in the Western tradition use language that can obscure the more subtle dimensions of moral striving. Aristotle wrote, in the Nicomachean Ethics, that we should ‘strain every nerve to live in accordance with the best thing in us’. Likewise, Immanuel Kant argued that we have a duty of moral self-perfection, endorsing Philippians 4:8: ‘If there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, strive for it.’ He even instructed us to ‘be holy’, although a holy will is, by Kant’s own admission, a will that a human cannot have. Holiness functions here as an ideal, a concept that sets a task that can never be completely realized. Like the rest of us, Kant believed that no one is or can be perfect, but he thought we can make progress toward perfection.

However, the inner work of self-perfection is so tricky to conceptualize that it can even confound Kant scholars. The advice to do your best or more good flattens out Kant’s rich conception of moral striving, which combines exertion and receptivity. Further, moral striving requires many inner acts that are not visible to others and hence do not fit our typical notion of doing.

For an approach to self-development that prioritizes the inner work on one’s attitudes, which largely remains implicit in Kant’s moral philosophy, readers should consult the ancient Chinese text the I Ching (or Book of Changes). The sage of the I Ching often warns the student that her ‘inferiors’ – meaning the inferior parts of herself – may arrogantly try to force an outcome, stir up conflict or misjudge others. Other recurrent themes include the need to correct one’s attitude, relinquish doubt, and bide one’s time trustfully. There are certainly times for a dramatic change of course through, say, an overdue difficult conversation, the start of a new relationship, or a change of careers. Still, such a monumental decision without adequate inner preparation can be perilous.

The picture of attunement to processes as they unfold, presented in the I Ching, swaps out trying one’s best for trying completely differently. Acceptance, although not an action per se, is emotionally strenuous. It is not relaxing, and it is not passive. In fact, it can be so difficult that many people would prefer to do their best at almost anything else. In my experience, it’s much easier to escape into work projects or find someone to meet up with a friend than it is to relate to your own grief and loneliness with acceptance.

When I am caught in a loop of misguided striving, I am most often exhausted – like my battery ran out. The sage of the I Ching knows that sometimes a person finds herself in a dangerous pit and anything that she tries to do will make the situation worse. Anyone who takes one of my courses knows that, by the end, they will never be able to say, “Living my best life!” How could anyone have a grasp on all the possible unfoldings of their practical, moral and spiritual potentialities? It would seem that one’s ‘best’ is unknowable, or perhaps a contradiction, since the developing self is a dynamic process and not a fixed state that could hover at a maximum. My own self-transformation will be barely noticeable to the naked eye. But such a transformation is infinitely more valuable than habitual modes of trying my best. Now, I am no longer embarrassed by what would seem appalling in my youth. I don’t mind if people see me eating alone in a cafeteria.

Whenever we think of ourselves as doing or trying to do our moral best, we could envision the rising of a cloud in the sky. Like the Hexagram of the I Ching, we may have no other choice than to wait for the rain. The inner working of peace and the outer working of justice are simultaneous.

3 thoughts on “Moral Ideals and the Pathology of “Doing Your Best”

  1. Interesting. Sometimes it seems the whole self-improvement, doing better or being the best, is a sham–or at least–misleading. I hope to explore synergy, grace and effort, in an upcoming blog. As an Eastern Orthodox believer, we are usually accused of being too interior and ignorant of social justice issues. Probably a fair criticism. But if the interior doesn’t change, neither will the exterior. Good post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! Thomas Merton has been a HUGE influence on how to approach this as a follower and pursuer of Christ. I am currently in the process of redesigning my website for a guest author section and, having read your writing, you would be especially welcome to contribute! In case others are looking, Let me recommend your most recent post: https://thesefragment.wordpress.com/2022/08/17/windshield-reflections-2/?fbclid=IwAR3_3h5Z17HPdwqmYR-L3ht-vasDK_i6ywVAYwWFn66fTduflQwkZivs6vA

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That would be great. Please feel free to post it. Let me know when/if you do, so that I can post the link on FB. Thanks!

        Like

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