In Book Eight of his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote:
The cucumber is bitter? Then throw it out.
There are brambles in the path? Then go around them.
That’s all you need to know. Nothing more. Don’t demand to know “why such things exist.” Anyone who understands the world will laugh at you, just as a carpenter would if you seemed shocked at finding sawdust in his workshop, or a shoemaker at scraps of leather left over from work. (Med. 8:50; trans. by Gregory Hays)
This passage highlights how important it is for us to apply our energies not to bemoaning the state of things, but to doing something about it. However, we can only do so much. Just go around the brambles, don’t get your machete and try to hack them all away.
It also stresses that life is full of imperfections. In fact, it seems likely that perfection does not exist apart from our idealized thoughts. It’s fine to have ideals, but we also need to accept the world for what it is: a messy laboratory where life is created and destroyed every second of every day. Marcus notes that the carpenter and shoemaker “have a place to dispose of [sawdust and leather scraps]; nature has no door to sweep things out of.” We cannot send our refuse to Mars (yet). It’s all around us. Just as the carpenter’s work yields sawdust, something not terribly useful, the work of nature likewise yields some things that nobody would particularly want. Inedible food, dangerous weather conditions, viruses, bad smells, nasty people.
This passage reminded me of the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi. It is apparently not translatable, but there are those who have tried to explain it (see this article from Utne Reader; from 2001, it has a fitting patina of age on it). In a nutshell, it is the notion of finding beauty in imperfection and “revering authenticity”: “To discover wabi-sabi is to see the singular beauty in something that may first look decrepit and ugly.”
As often happens, several things I have read in the last week have ended up being complementary. There was recently an opinion piece in the New York Times by Alain de Botton about “Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” Everyone is the wrong person, in short. There is no one on the planet who will not occasionally annoy or even enrage you. De Botton ends with this: “We should learn to accommodate ourselves to ‘wrongness,’ striving always to adopt a more forgiving, humorous and kindly perspective on its multiple examples in ourselves and in our partners.” The whole piece is worth reading if you have a few moments.
Finally, I’ve just started reading Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I have seen his name a thousand times, and have probably read articles by him, but I didn’t realize this dramatically-titled book was his “landmark work.” I can already tell it will be in my, say, top-twenty list in terms of the value it will add to my life, as long as it spurs a more diligent meditation practice. In terms of this blog post, I just read this in the chapter titled “The Foundations of Mindfulness Practice: Attitudes and Commitment”:
Seven attitudinal factors constitute the major pillars of mindfulness practice as we teach it . . . They are non-judging, patience, a beginner’s mind, trust, non-striving, acceptance, and letting go. . . .
Acceptance. Acceptance means seeing things as they actually are in the present. If you have a headache, accept that you have a headache. . . . In fact, my working definition of healing is coming to terms with things as they are. . . . [I]n the course of our daily lives we often waste a lot of energy denying and resisting what is already fact. . . . We may be so busy denying and forcing and struggling that we have little energy left for healing and growing.
All of these writings have made me more aware of my perfectionist tendencies and more willing to abandon them as mere folly. Otherwise I am a silly person who would rather complain about bitter cucumbers than throw them away.