"You see the world as it is, and ask 'why?' I see the world as it could be, and ask 'why not?'"
You've heard it before. It's an old saw. But it does speak to an interesting conundrum -- is it better to see clearly, to know truth and reality as it is, regardless of the emotional cost, or is it better to see through rosy glasses if it promotes health and happiness?
A recent Time Magazine cover article investigated the mystery of optimism. Why are people, generally speaking, more unreasonably optimistic than not? What evolutionary benefit could there be in perceiving one's environment inaccurately?
In particular, the following quote jumped out at me:
"While healthy people expect the future to be slightly better than it ends up being, people with severe depression tend to be pessimistically biased: they expect things to be worse than they end up being. People with mild depression are relatively accurate when predicting future events. They see the world as it is. In other words, in the absence of a neural mechanism that generates unrealistic optimism, it is possible all humans would be mildly depressed."
As someone who self-identifies as mildly chronic depressive, I find this flattering. It appeals to my inner artiste. It appeals to my outer rational, empirical, scientific-oriented researcher and explorer. It vindicates that persistently nagging feeling that others just don't get it.
I tend to agree with the bumper stickers that say, "If you're not outraged (horrified, frightened), you're not paying attention." I feel sympathy and understanding when Shirley Manson sings "I'm only happy when it rains."
Yet however much we creatures of the night love our own dark souls, we also like laughter without cruelty. We want goodness for everyone. It does feel good to feel good, to be in love, and to be overwhelmed by beauty.
Indeed I often think that the measure of depression is the perceived distance between reality and happiness. Maybe it's not that depressives just see how rotten things are... maybe it's that they have a much clearer picture than most just how phenomenally good things could be, and should be.
So there you have it. If the current thinking among psychologists is right (always a dubious assumption), then we are faced with an eternal Faustian choice:
Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?
I'm going to propose a solution to this puzzle, but first I want to state a case for the suspicion of happiness. It's hardly novel, but it goes something like this:
There are some things that people should not tolerate. However noble our capacity for suffering and resilience, some things should simply not be acceptable. A habit of finding silver linings does nothing to alleviate a world full of dark clouds. Does singing the blues really relieve the blues, or does it simply celebrate sadness?
There is a point at which happiness leads to stupidity and indifference. Among the wealthy, there is a strong tendency to not want to look beyond what is comfortable. Among the downtrodden, there is a strong tendency to persevere fatalistically rather than risk jostling the homeostatic social order.
I also want to say this about evolution, just as a reminder: a successful species has absolutely no requirement to be either right or happy. If it serves the agenda of survival and reproduction, then anything will do. Doest the eye of the cockroach need to be high fidelity? Do sharks need a spiritual life? If evolution has produced a capacity for pleasure and clear-seeing, it is only because these incidentally further the propagation game. Evolution cares not for comfort or wisdom. There is only the persistent furthering of mindless matter animating matter.
Unless of course, we change the rules. When animated matter acquires a mind, then new rules become possible.
Humans tend to see the world rather anthropocentrically, so it's easy to think that we are the crown of creation. We think that our capacity for invention and humor and compassion and justice and beauty and imagination is exactly what evolution has been striving for all along. This is quite wrong-headed, but it may inadvertently wind up being rather right-minded.
We stand a chance of not only being more evolved, but of becoming evolvers ourselves. Already we are seeing how we see, and learning to improve our vision. Already we are learning why we feel the way we do, and increasing our capacity for a sense of well-being that is justified. Already we are deciphering nature's code, and becoming programmers ourselves.
In scientific circles, the idea of Intelligent Design is met with derision. Yet when we've become the designers, we have the obligation and responsibility to be both intelligent and wise.
So how can we use aikido wisely as an intelligent design tool?
When I teach aikido these days, I teach according to the notion of zones. I'm less interested in centering and perfect posture and grounded stances, and more interested in areas of attractors and boundaries. In my view, zones offer a greater range of liberty and rightness, a greater diversity of postures and potential for coherent action.
So, what is our optimal zone -- to be happy or to be right?
Rather than choosing one or the other as the best zone, it seems to me that these may be delimiters defining a zone of optimal well-being. If we take the middle path between these two dogs at the door, then we actually can have it both ways.
If we insist on seeing things only as they are, then perforce we can never see things as they might be. Any improvement on the human condition could not come except through accident. But if we constantly conjure our dreams, if we populate our fantasies and live in some sort of hallucinogenic hologram, then we are equally crippled. We cannot engage the forces of reality.
To go forward, we must have regular access to accurate data, and we must be willing to analyze it without bias or prejudice. We have to be ruthlessly unsentimental as investigators. But once armed with a better grasp of reality, we should avail ourselves of our marvelous imaginations and change reality.
When we say someone is a "realist," we usually mean that they see things the way they are. And this realism has an unfortunate association with cynicism. But actually, a realist should be someone who realizes things. Someone who has insights and who has the capacity to make an idea real.
Within the right zone, there is the possibility of the visionary and the realist being one and the same.
Unsurprisingly, I want it all. I want to perceive reality accurately AND I want to be happy. I want "joy beyond all reason for it," and at the same time I want a world full of reasons for gladness.
In his book "The Age of Unreason" Charles Handy makes the case that rational people are not the ones who make great changes in our society. It takes a certain kind of perverse unwillingness to accept things as they are. I can agree with the general thrust of this argument, but I might take exception to the hyperbolic premise.
Rather, I think the idea that "reasonable" and "rational" and "realistic" equate with "stodgy" is wrong. A reasonable person is someone who sees problems and fixes them. A rational person is someone who imagines a variety of possibilities and chooses among the most favorable, the most realistic.
What this whole question of seeing comes down to is one of actuality versus potential. It's great to be able to see things as they are, but this is not the whole of reality. The world is full of probabilities, and if we cannot see these, then we are functionally blind. Moreover, if we cannot act in such a way as to influence probabilities favorably, then we are impotent as well.
This dynamic is played out on the mat regularly. If we focus more on the technique than on our partners, ourselves, our environment, then we will experience a fundamental disconnect. If we only see our partners, ourselves, our environment, without seeing multiple arrangements, manifold conduits of flow, then we are stuck within walls of our own perceptions.
Aikido happens when these come together in a zone of functional balance. We see what is real. We see what is possible. We let go, and then we go where the going is best.
So if you see the world as it is and ask "why," I'd say that's a good start. If I see the world as it could be and ask "why not," then we have the basis for a productive collaboration. We need each other, whether it's really you and me or just different parts of our brains talking to each other. We need to know the truth in order to create the truth. We need to blend with our partner in order to move our partner. We also need the confidence to know when to be moved by our partner.
It seems to me that a philosophy of realism should include some latitude for both pessimism and optimism. We should see how it is, soberly contemplate worst-case scenarios, and best outcomes.
This, to me, would be true-seeing.
June 1, 2011
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA
For the online version of the Time article, go here: