[ Essay ] Strength = Limitation

A friend of mine asked me this question: “What do you think is the shortfall of Western civilization?”

I replied: The unquestionable assumption that progress is good. You may also call it moving on, going forward, taking a step, etc.

The “forward is good” idea reminds me of the story in Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, about the difference between a manager and a leader. A manager is the guy who walks through the bush with machetes in his hands. A leader is the guy on top of the tree, yelling “Wrong jungle!” A similar variation appears in the story of a radio conversation between the US and Canadian officers off the coast.

Americans: Please divert your course 15 degrees to the North to avoid a Collision.
Canadians: Recommend you divert YOUR course 15 degrees to the South to avoid a collision.
Americans: This is the Captain of a US Navy ship. I say again, divert YOUR course.
Canadians: No. I say again, you divert YOUR course.
Americans: This is the aircraft carrier USS Lincoln, the second largest ship in the United States’ Atlantic fleet. We are accompanied by three destroyers, three cruisers and numerous support vessels. I demand that YOU change your course 15 degrees north, that’s one five degrees north, or countermeasures will be undertaken to ensure the safety of this ship.
Canadians: This is a lighthouse. Your call.

History is full of tragedies caused by the “moving forward” attitude. After Columbus “found” India, Europe conquered much of the rest of the world, bringing famine, slavery, exploitation along. Similar situation happened in North America. Or take capitalism, in which eternal growth of money (and ego) is considered a virtue.

…Yet these examples also highlight the biggest contribution of so-called Western societies to the world: frontier spirit and liberation of mankind. Limitations and strengths come together.

“Let’s fix the shortcomings and we’ll be perfect” doesn’t work. I used to think of shortcomings as cancer: cut it out, and I’ll be fine. But in reality, shortcomings are more like pests: a vital part of my eco-sysem which happened to be harmful to my other (and more valuable, at the moment) aspects. We cut one part out, and we lose our balance.

Probably what’s more important is to realize that one thing can be considered either good or bad, depending on the point of view and overall situation.