Avram Alpert teaches writing at Princeton and is the author of the forthcoming Global Origins of the Modern Self. He is working on a screenplay about the life of the activist and writer Saul Alinsky.
Ideals of greatness cut across the American political spectrum. Supporters of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and believers in Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again,” for instance, may find themselves at odds, but their differences lie in the vision of what constitutes greatness, not whether greatness itself is a worthy goal. In both cases — and in most any iteration of America’s idea of itself — it is.
The desire for greatness also unites the diverse philosophical camps of Western ethics. Aristotle called for practicing the highest virtue. Kant believed in an ethical rule so stringent not even he thought it was achievable by mortals. Bentham’s utilitarianism is about maximizing happiness. Marx sought the great world for all. Modern-day libertarians will stop at nothing to increase personal freedom and profit. These differences surely matter, but while the definition of greatness changes, greatness itself is sought by each in his own way.
Swimming against the tide of greatness is a counter-history of ethics embodied by schools of thought as diverse as Buddhism, Romanticism, and psychoanalysis. It is by borrowing from D.W. Winnicott, an important figure in the development of psychoanalysis, that we get perhaps the best name for this other ethics: “the good-enough life.” In his book Playing and Reality, Winnicott wrote about what he called “the good-enough mother.” This mother is good enough not in the sense that she is adequate or average, but that she manages a difficult task: initiating the infant into a world in which he or she will feel both cared for and ready to deal with life’s endless frustrations. To fully become good enough is to grow up into
a world that is itself good enough, that is as full of care and love as it is suffering and frustration.
From Buddhism and Romanticism we can get a fuller picture of what such a good-enough world could be like. Buddhism offers a criticism of the caste system and the idea that some people have to live lives of servitude in order to ensure the greatness of others. It posits instead the idea of the “middle path,” a life that is neither excessively materialistic nor too ascetic. And some Buddhist thinkers, such as the sixth-century Persian-Chinese monk Jizang, even insist that this middle life, this good-enough life, is the birthright of not only all humans, but also all of nature as well. In this radical vision of the good-enough life, our task is not to make the perfect human society, but rather a good-enough world in which each of us has sufficient (but never too many) resources to handle our encounters with the inevitable sufferings of a world full of chance and complexity.
The Romantic poets and philosophers extend this vision of good-enoughness to embrace what they would call “the ordinary” or “the everyday.” This does not refer to the everyday annoyances or anxieties we experience, but the fact that within what is most ordinary, most basic, and most familiar, we might find a delight unimaginable if we find meaning only in greatness. The antiheroic sentiment is well expressed by George Eliot at the end of her novel Middlemarch: “that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.” And its legacy is attested to in the poem “Famous” by Naomi Shihab Nye: “I want to be famous to shuffling men / who smile while crossing streets, / sticky children in grocery lines, / famous as the one who smiled back.”
Being good enough is not easy. It takes a tremendous amount of work to smile purely while waiting, exhausted, in a grocery line. Or to be good enough to loved ones to both support them and allow them to experience frustration. And it remains to be seen if we as a society can establish a good-enough relation to one another, where individuals and nations do not strive for their unique greatness, but rather work together to create the conditions of decency necessary for all.
Achieving this will also require us to develop a good-enough relation to our natural world, one in which we recognize both the abundance and the limitations of the planet we share with infinite other life forms, each seeking its own path toward good-enoughness. If we do manage any of these things, it will not be because we have achieved greatness, but because we have recognized that none of them are achievable until greatness itself is forgotten.
“The Good-Enough Life” by Avram Alpert originally appeared in The New York Times Feb. 20, 2019. Reprinted with permission.