Cartoon courtesy of American Hell
I’m going to go out on a limb here and I may alienate some folks, but I’m getting used to that. So here goes: What scares me are people who wake up every morning determined to “make a difference.” This probably sounds incredibly cynical, but I don’t think it is. Let me illustrate. One of my favorite bumper stickers of all time reads:
FORGET WORLD PEACE. VISUALIZE USING YOUR TURN SIGNAL
It’s not that world peace is something to be avoided (although I think it’s proven to be amazingly easy to avoid), but that world peace begins — and may actually end — with all of us using our turn signals.
One of the great lessons of negative theology is the smallness — even the nothingness — of the human being. Each of us has an amazingly (distressingly?) small circle of control. What can I, Paul Wallace, actually control? My destiny? Hardly. My children? Absolutely not. Anything or anyone outside of myself? Emphatically no. Okay, how about my thoughts? Not really. My words? Not always. My actions? Only on really good days. The point is, once you set yourself up a goal, even a “good” goal, even a really good (but admittedly vague) one like “making a difference,” you run a high risk of becoming beholden to some outcome. Why is this bad? Because there is a very fine line between desire and control. And if there’s anything we should know, it is: Our drive to control our world is folly. Not because we can’t act in the world according to our desire, and not that we can’t make a difference, but because (1) we may not make a difference — in fact we may wreck everything — so what then?; (2) we may make an enormous difference but never know it; and (3) what we really want to control, and what we may think we’re controlling, just won’t be controlled.
In fact, we don’t even really want to make a difference. And we don’t really want control. We want something else, but it’s tough to say what it is.
Goals are necessary. Without them nothing would get done. Some say that by setting goals and working for them you can do anything you want in this world. Although this is not true, it is not a new idea for anyone. We all know the line, the standard graduation-speech, pull-yourself-up-by-your-shoelaces, Jeffersonian-democracy, conventional human-spirit brand of thinking. It’s the air we breathe and it can be a little stifling. So I’m offering a tiny corrective to the view that making a difference, even successfully, will actually satisfy anyone. Human beings are more than that, and less than that. So it may be your best move to drop your ambition of making a difference and start using your turn signal.