Perfection or Nothing?

The French philosopher Voltaire warned that “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”

Pursuit of “perfect” but impossible goals makes us reject possible goals because they’re imperfect. And we often make things even worse than they were in the first place.

That spotlights one of our basic disagreements: Can we accept a society that is good but imperfect? Or should we insist on “perfection or nothing,” and end up with nothing?

It’s not really a dispute between left and right. It’s between realism and magical thinking.

History shows that utopian fantasies have failed every time they’ve been tried. We can’t create a perfect society with imperfect people. The only question is whether or not we’re willing to accept the fact.

But some people are so intolerant of any imperfection (in others) that they can’t accept the fact. Their attitude reflects a famous quote from the Vietnam War of the 1960s: “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.”1

Norman Podhoretz, who for 35 years was editor of Commentary magazine, explained:

“The Left of the 1930s had a positive alternative in mind — what they thought was positive — namely, the Soviet Union. So America was bad; Soviet Union, good. Turn America into the Soviet Union and everything is fine.

The Left of the 1960s knew that the Soviet Union was flawed because its crimes had been exposed, so they never had a well-defined alternative … Their real passion was to destroy America and the assumption was that anything that came out of the ruins would be better than the existing evil.”

Some people demand “perfection or nothing.” Whether in politics or personal life, it’s unwise and destructive.


  1. The quote is disputed and probably apocryphal.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Why Is This A Banana?

In today’s media landscape, you can throw a rock in any direction and hit something that’s partisan and biased.

Whether you believe that “Trump Is Literally Hitler,” or you call him “the god-emperor,” or you’re somewhere in between, there’s a site for you.

But even biased partisans occasionally get things right. For example, CNN wants you to know that a banana is a banana.

And I agree with CNN.

In other news, Hell froze over, there’s peace in the Middle East, and it rained frogs.

But still. A banana is a banana.

Did you ever wonder why a banana is a banana?

Why don’t we consider it two things instead of one? Why not think of it as a peel with a banana inside?

And why couldn’t a banana be a special kind of rabbit? It would be just like all other rabbits, except for being a yellow fruit that’s nothing like a rabbit.

The answer is that we can define words any way we want. We could think of a banana as either of those things. But it would be clumsy, confusing, and impractical.

That’s why a banana is just one thing, and is a fruit instead of a rabbit: it’s useful to think of it in the way that we do.

And that’s why humanity has the general concepts that it does. Millennia of human history have proven that they are useful for the normal purposes of life.

Of course, we’re free to re-define the word “banana” so it applies to anything that’s fruit-related. A banana could then be:

  • An actual banana
  • An apple
  • A tangerine
  • A bunch of grapes
  • A quart of orange juice
  • A fruit smoothie
  • A box of Froot Loops
  • A fruit delivery truck
  • Anything else related to fruit

But then if you asked for a banana, you’d never know what you were going to get.

Of course, such an objection would be made only by banana-phobes who are full of hate. There couldn’t be any other reason. Right?

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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What If You Have No Answer?

In my previous blog post, I said you should always have an answer to the question, “What am I doing here?”

But what if you don’t have an answer?

The glory and the misery of being human is that we want to know the answer. We need to know the answer.

Lower animals can’t even ask the question, so it doesn’t bother them.

But we can see connections between our past, present, and future.

If we can’t see the connections — or if the connections all seem unpleasant — then we feel adrift and hopeless.

In past eras, people could turn to organized religion. It offered both a reassuring belief system and a social support network of fellow believers.

And in point of fact, nobody’s disproven religion. It’s just as true as it’s always been. But Western countries’ dominant institutions have taken it away from most people.

So what can you do if you don’t have an answer?

Everyone gets sad or feels adrift at times. That’s normal. But if the feeling lasts a long time, interferes with life, or — worst of all — makes you think there’s no point in living, then you should talk to someone. A therapist is the obvious choice, but a pastor, rabbi, or counselor often works just as well. Simply being heard and being seen by another person can help.

You should also know about yourself. My biological mother suffered from bipolar disorder, with alternating euphoria and depression. To a lesser degree, so do I. But I know it. So when I feel depressed, I realize that there’s no objective reason to be sad; I just need to get a good night’s sleep. And then I feel better.

But if you don’t have a psychological problem and you just need an answer, then how can you find it?

As long as the answer is possible, socially helpful, and fits your abilities, then it almost doesn’t matter what it is.

If you fully commit to it, then your commitment starts pulling you forward in life. It gets you moving again. It gives you an answer.

Will it be the right answer?

If it’s a reasonable answer, then don’t worry about that.

Commit to your answer, and by your actions and attitude, make it the right answer.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Always Have A Purpose

What’s “the most dangerous poison of life” — the greatest source of unhappiness?

You might think it’s hatred, and that would be a sensible choice.

But according to American Founder Thomas Jefferson, it’s boredom.

For an intelligent person, being alive means more than just having a heartbeat. It means to be doing something, going somewhere, pursuing goals that matter.

If you don’t have those, then you’re not fully alive: you’re just taking up space. Boredom is poison. Worthwhile activity is the antidote.

That’s what Jefferson told his daughter Martha in a 1787 letter from Paris. He advised:

“A mind always employed is always happy. This is the true secret, the grand recipe for felicity. The idle are the only wretched. In a world which furnishes so many useful employments, it is our own fault if we ever [get bored].”

You should always have at least one major purpose in life, an important goal toward which you are working.

If you achieve a goal, then feel free to take a celebratory vacation. But don’t stay on vacation too long.

Just as your muscles need rest after exercise but weaken if they rest too long, so you, your mind, and your character need occasional rest but weaken if you rest too long.

One reason that retired people sometimes age rapidly, get sick, and die before their time is that they don’t see the point of living anymore. They’ve lost their sense of purpose. “What am I doing here?” they ask themselves, and they have no good answer.

Make sure that you always have an answer. Always have a purpose.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Find Your Life’s Meaning

Does your life have meaning?

If so, how? The answer helps you appreciate your blessings and seize your opportunities.

Having a clear idea of the answer is in itself a blessing. Most people have no idea.

They trudge through life, day after day, not knowing why they do it. Sometimes they feel happy. Often they feel miserable. And then it’s over.

Is that all there is? Can that be all there is?

Here’s the good news: It isn’t and it can’t.1

Meaning is connection. We give meaning to words by connecting them to things in the world.

We give meaning to our lives in the same way, but we connect them to different kinds of things:

  • Beliefs and moral ideals
  • Relationships with people
  • Participation in communities
  • Working for important goals

If your life feels meaningless, it’s because you haven’t yet found the meaning.

You can find it, but there’s a catch.

There’s a time limit. You know what it is, but not when it is.

The time limit might seem like a bad thing, but it really isn’t.

Consider the painting shown at the top of this blog post: “School of Athens” by Raphael (1483-1520). It’s one of humanity’s greatest artworks. But it’s limited in space: 16 feet wide by 25 feet tall. If it were unlimited, people would see it everywhere they looked. They’d want it to go away. It would lose its beauty.

Or think about your favorite song (here’s mine). It’s limited in time. It starts and it ends. You enjoy it. But if it went on forever, you’d get so sick of hearing it that you wouldn’t want to listen to it anymore. It would lose its beauty.

Just like the painting and the song, your life is limited, both in space and in time. It is within those limits that you can find meaning and create something beautiful.

Whether it’s faith, relationships, communities, or goals, the meaning is something beyond yourself. Somehow, it speaks to your heart. It makes everything worthwhile.

So find it and do it. Connect. Act now. It’s a limited-time offer.


  1. Different religious faiths have their own answers. I’m not addressing those here.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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The One Where I Told a Little Lie


Can you go through life and never tell a lie?

Honesty is the best policy. But it’s a policy — not an unbreakable rule.

If most of us weren’t honest most of the time, social life would be impossible. Nobody would ever believe anyone else. We couldn’t cooperate, have relationships, or depend on anyone for anything.

But I’ll be honest: I think that lying is occasionally okay:

  • When you’ve got a clear reason to do it.
  • When you’re unbiased because it doesn’t promote your own interests.
  • When it contributes to the welfare and/or happiness of others.

Here’s an example. It’s the one where I told a little lie.

When I was in graduate school, I taught several undergraduate classes as an associate instructor. And like all teachers, I liked some students better than others.

To avoid biased grading of term papers, I told my students to put their names only on the title page. They put their student ID numbers on the title page and on all the other pages.

Before grading the papers, I tore off the title pages so that I wouldn’t know whose work I was grading. Afterward, I used the student ID numbers to match the term papers with the title pages and the names of the students.

So all the grading was completely blind. No favoritism.

That’s what I told the students. But I lied. And I make no apologies for it.

It’s true that I did the first pass without knowing whose papers I was grading. But after I matched up the title pages and got the names, I made a second pass through the papers.

If I knew that a student was working very hard, I often added notes of encouragement or explanation. Once or twice, I raised a grade slightly. Nobody ever got downgraded. But if some students were doing their best and just needed extra help, I gave it to them.

So I stand by my belief that honesty is the best policy. And like most policies, it has exceptions.

What do you think about it?

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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Forgiveness Can Mean Freedom


When people have deceived or manipulated us, it’s difficult to forgive them.

I’ve worked for some terrific bosses over the years. One of them is Jim Grey, whose luck with his own bosses hasn’t been quite as good as mine.

Jim recently ran into a bad one, and he’s now wrestling with how to forgive.

Yes, yes, the Bible says we should forgive not just once, but seventy times seven. That doesn’t make it easy.

But we do need to forgive. Not just because the Bible said so, or for any cosmic reasons, but for our own sake.

As long as we hold onto our anger, we chain ourselves to the past. We can’t move forward. We can’t be happy. We can’t be at peace.

And even though we’re making ourselves suffer, our anger does no harm at all to the people who wronged us.

Just like Jim, I’ve had a few bad bosses. And if they stepped in front of my car on the highway, I might hesitate for a split-second before I braked. But I would brake, for three important reasons.

First, if I hit them, I’d get points on my driver license. My insurance rates would go up, and I’ve got a spotless driving record that I don’t want to blemish.

Second, if I decided to get even with everyone who’d ever taken a dump on my head, I wouldn’t have time to do anything else. I want to devote my time to positive goals.

Third, for some of them, just being the people they are is a worse punishment than anything I could do to them.

Forgiveness doesn’t mean we have to feel warmly toward life’s malefactors — only that we can’t free ourselves from them unless we forgive them.

Unless we forgive them, they will be our life-long companions. And we deserve a better class of friends.

Check out my book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

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