The Importance of Focusing on the Ideal. A Lesson Learned from G. K. Chesterton’s WHAT’S WRONG WITH THE WORLD
I recently had a conversation with a friend at my cottage about one of the injustices that occurred in our past in Canada and the inevitable question came up: “What do we do about it now?” As various potential answers to this question were proposed, they seemed unsatisfactory. Indeed often they seem to propose a new injustice visited on people who were, of course, not alive one hundred or two hundred years ago to redress wrongs in which they had no direct part.
I was just reading G. K. Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World at the time, and it struck how illuminating and helpful his work was for enabling me personally sort through this puzzle of separating good solutions from bad ones.
Chesterton made the point that so often when we try to fix what is wrong with the world, we pay insufficient attention to defining what the ideal is or should be (the picture of flower reminds me of an ideal). He uses the metaphor of a medical doctor. If a doctor is to heal a patient, he has to have an accurate notion of what a healthy person looks like. If he just focuses on defects or things that are wrong, then the remedial action may actually make things worse rather than better for the patient.
To use an extreme example to make a point, a doctor distressed by the lack symmetry in a one legged patient, may decide to restore the symmetry by removing the other leg, rather than enabling some walking capability by providing the patient with a prosthetic.
Similarly for the injustices in our past that face us now, I need to ask “What kind of society do I want to live in? What would make it fair and just? For me, asking this question, removes from consideration many options which simply implement new injustices to make up for old ones.
If you haven’t read Chesterton’s What’s Wrong with the World, I suggest you give it a try. I think it was first published in 1910 (some say 1900 but I think that’s too early since Chesterton first began writing books in 1900) yet it seems prophetic and anticipates so many questions facing us today.