Living with Imperfection

People live in imperfect situations. Albert Otto Hirschman wrote about the daily choice of exit, voice and loyalty. We can leave, act to improve or find the advantage in staying. None of these options is better or worse than another. People with partial views may prefer one or other options and make claims for the virtue of one or other option.

I have written about the virtue of leaving. Many leaders have left their communities for a while to spend time in “the wilderness”, the university or outside their usual comfort zone and cultural context where they may gain wisdom and skills. If they return to their communities, they can use their new perspectives to help others or at least to live more gracefully with imperfection. Leaving can also be about safety. Sometimes staying in an imperfect situation can lead to greater harm than staying. Sometimes a strong person leaving the situation means the weaker ones are left vulnerable.

Acting to improve a situation, is about assuming responsibility. We can negotiate, mediate, passively resist and suggest appropriate alternatives. This can be an unpopular path and usually quite political. Socially engaged Buddhists have taken this path. Greenpeace, Amnesty International and others also choose the ‘voice’ option. This path requires a lot of strength and determination. The effectiveness of this option depends on right view, knowing how to apply effort in the right place. The middle path avoids extremes and travels deep beneath appearances. Some ill informed interventions can be harmful and make situations worse rather than better.

Finding the advantage in staying is about having a positive perspective. In a Buddhist context, this means practicing the four Brahmavihaara – divine abodes of metta-loving-kindness, karunaa-compassion, muditaa-sympathetic joy and upekkhaa-equanimity. Sometimes staying in a challenging situation can provide an opportunity for development. It depends on what we want to learn. All situations are subject to change.

Starting with right view all three options are viable. With right view a person will know what to do and when to act.

Parents and children

Today was more hard physical work moving furniture and boxes of things out of the house for friends to take away. This evening my daughter and I ate noodles at a local restaurant and then went to parent-teacher night at Hawker College I met 4 teachers who all praised my daughter for her enthusiasm and good work. I felt touched and sentimental. A few tears rolled down. I have no concerns about my daughter’s performance at school. I know she will do well in life. She has a good base, good values and clearly has a direction.

Some people may wonder how is it possible I could leave teenage children to pursue my path. This is a common concern since the time of Lord Buddha. The Jataka story of the bodhisatta’s perfection of generosity, Prince Vessantara, is one example in Buddhist culture. I might discuss that issue in more detail another time. In referencing Prince Vessantara I don’t mean to imply I am perfecting generosity, I refer to the Prince’s ability to give away his children. There are many other instances in the Pali Canon.

My children have their Mum and step father to care for them too. They have e-mail and phone contact with their Grandma, Aunties and Uncles. They have been over to Perth to see them twice this year. My children have told me they want me to do this. I know that to some extent they want to please me.

I will be in e-mail and phone contact. They may possibly visit me in Asia. Their Mum is thinking of moving to Singapore to work for a few years at the end of next year. So many things are possible.

As parents we make many choices that may hurt and or help our children. Eventually they make their own choices and take responsibility. I hope my children will view my current project as an inspiration and see the many positive aspects.

Sometimes parents are in a no-win situation. It is very difficult to be perfect as a parent (or sibling, child, teacher, work colleague etc.).

All anyone can reasonably ask is that we try our best with good intentions and the best way that we know. I recall that when I was a newly ordained novice monk in 1982, I began vipassana meditation and many memories of childhood came up. I was very restless and wrote a series of letters to my parents criticising them for the mistakes they made in raising me and my siblings. My parents were shocked. Much later, after more meditation and after becoming a parent myself, I realised that my parents did the best they could at the time. They were actually very good parents. They both taught me to be a gentle man and gave me good values of loyalty, generosity and consideration for others. I asked their forgiveness. The wounds were still sore though. I won’t be surprised if one day my own children may confront me for my failures as a parent too. I hope I shall have some degree of equanimity and loving kindness. Maybe I can smile and tell myself I saw that coming.