Ever since reading the book better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande, M.D., I have been asking myself the question expressed in the title of this post.
On the one hand, I am deeply moved by the stories in the book where people (mainly in the medical field) refused to settle for the status quo and kept pushing themselves and those around them to do and be better.
On the other hand, I have seen people do harm to themselves and others because they are so driven to betterment–always striving, never satisfied.
Depending on which way you look at it “Always striving, never satisfied” can be a compliment or a criticism.
Is there a place for both approaches to life? Are we wired differently? Some of us who can’t help but strive, while others seem gifted in settling into the space and context where they are, content in embracing their own realities, including limitations, without any urge to “rise above”?
I think about this, because as I mentioned in another post where I quoted extensively from this book, I saw many parallels with the author’s philosophy and how I often approach my vocation as a parent. As a parent, I feel the weight of how I parent. I feel the consequences of my parenting mistakes and also experience an earnest desire to do better. Yet, somewhere along the way, I have come up against a weariness in trying to better my parenting skills. I read a lot, I talk to a lot of people, I take in what I observe other people doing. The list of ways I could improve and do “better” is endless. But, so it seems, are my limitations.
What I have to offer to my children is me–as is, strengths, weaknesses, weakness. I do want to become better as a parent, but I think my fingers have been loosening their grip on “better” as a goal. For me, when “better” is the goal, I seem to miss too many opportunities to be “okay” or “good enough”.
At the same time, while I’m learning to settle for okay and good enough, I can’t seem to justify a solid, one-size-fits-all philosophy of “good enough”. There’s a place for it. But there’s also a place for better. Even for perpetual striving for better. I think where I’m at is being able to embrace my “good enough” tendencies without having to feel so pressured or less than when I’m surrounded by people who are “strivers for better”.
I’ve seen (and read biographies of) people who have sacrificed everything–money, reputation, health–to do and be better. And I have incredible admiration and often personal gratitude for them (as their sacrifices have often made my life and life in general on planet earth better). I couldn’t be or do that, I don’t think. But neither can I condemn them in a blanket way, because I see the value and the gift and the large scale contributions they have made. Is it worth it? I guess one can never answer that question for another person.
Another question would be, “Is it worth it to NOT strive to be or do better?” As an American, it almost sounds blasphemous to answer that in the affirmative. But I want to say that sometimes I think it IS worth it.
I suppose it sounds waffly and very postmodern to say both perspectives are equally valuable and have their place. Both perspectives are good. Can they both be right?
Answering that with a “yes” makes me feel (yet again) the cognitive dissonance that is a regular companion of mine these days.