“Conservatives are chastened by their principle of IMPERFECTABILITY.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
The Book of Proverbs tells us that “where there is no vision, the people perish.” Pick up nearly any self-help book from your local bookstore and there will doubtless be some call to cultivating your vision as a key ingredient on your journey to “success”. Self-help guru and motivational speaker John Graham is certainly no exception:
“A vision is a mental picture of the result you want to achieve—a picture so clear and strong it will help make that result real. A vision is not a vague wish or dream or hope. It’s a picture of the real results of real efforts. It comes from the future and informs and energizes the present. Visioning is the most powerful tool I’ve witnessed in over twenty years of helping organizations and individuals get the results they want.”
It should be duly noted that there is an enormous array of potential benefits promised to those who visualize their goals strongly enough, or in just the right way, or with adequate frequency. This can range from hard science studying the impact of visualizing a goal on actual outcomes to charlatans peddling the latest seductive “think positive” scheme for overcoming all of life’s challenges.
The (Underwhelming) Secret
The Secret has received much well-deserved ridicule for its audacious claims that we can attain what we want in life simply by tapping our thoughts into the great cosmological energies that surround us and The Universe will gladly oblige us any desire. There’s a bit of depressing fatalistic determinism to much of the ludicrously positive-minded philosophy. For those who suffer from a naturally non-optimistic disposition, it can be quite frustrating to be told The Universe itself has destined our deepest fears or joys to come to fruition if we—you know—just stop being so non-optimistic. As the parody site SatireWire observed, research showing that pessimists will die sooner than optimists rarely comes as a surprise to pessimists.
To a cynical realist such as myself, much of this sounds like a bunch of feelgoodery psychobabble. And yet, I recognize that once one gets past the snake oil elixir of just-believe-in-yourself-to-become-a-millionaire-while-you-shed-those-pounds, there is a healthy dose of research to back up the benefits of maintaining a positive vision.
When the goal is something you’re actively working towards that’s limited and specific, visualization can be powerful. Visualization has been shown to modify biochemistry, develop muscle, and improve psychomotor skill development. On an antidotal note, when I was training for marathons I found it very helpful to envision myself crossing the finish line—particularly when every muscle in my body was screaming for me to not take another step. Running—or for that matter, any physical exertion—is as much a mental game as it is physical, and keeping your thoughts on the goal, rather than the pain, can be the difference between success or failure.
Playing by the Rules
However, we should be careful to distinguish between the hopeful expectation of reasonable success and a mere outlandish fantasy of success. Positive thinking is great, so long as it’s anchored in reality, not delusion. I was able to run marathons by keeping a positive outlook on a challenging, yet achievable, goal. It is doubtful I would have been as successful had I convinced myself I would best Usain Bolt’s record. A healthy, positive vision combined with a strong work ethic is more likely to make you rich than simply declaring to The Universe that you’re a millionaire. The latter may be even more likely to ensure failure than doing nothing at all.
I’m hardly an expert in the discipline of positive thinking, so I shan’t dwell on the specifics. I only wish to point out what appears to be generally true—envisioning the ideal can increase the likelihood of a positive outcome—HOWEVER—one must be willing to play by the rules so to speak. And one of those “rules” is that a vision of success is only helpful if it corresponds to reality, no matter how badly you may hope for your wildest dreams to come true.
“Vision divorced from context can produce very erratic and unpredictable results.” Noted a Harvard Business Review article, “The irrationality of the 1920s and again in the Internet-crazed 1990s demonstrated vision that was not grounded in reality.” And yet, we often attribute the success of famous CEO’s and business leaders to their unique and powerful vision. Often, that is what we perceive sets them apart from the rest.
Many companies develop a vision statement: a statement intended express the company’s goals and inspire and motivate the employees to keep their eyes on the ball. By documenting the company’s vision, employees may gain a sense of the larger purpose their company serves and management may ensure their strategies align with the company’s ultimate aims.
A Vision of Perfection Makes us Human
There’s something hardwired in us to need a vision. Without it runners don’t finish their marathon and managers may fail to develop strategic objectives in accordance with the original mission of their company. We don’t do well as a species left in a bleak reality of mindlessly performing the work assigned to us with no concept of how our work or efforts are somehow contributing to some larger purpose. And what’s true for the vision of an individual or a company is even truer for a political vision on a grander scale.
“We know of no human community whose members do not have a vision of perfection—a vision in which the frustrations inherent in our human condition are annulled and transcended,” wrote journalist Irving Kristol, “The existence of such dreaming visions is not, in itself, a problem. They are, on the contrary, a testament to the creativity of man which flows from the fact that he is a creature uniquely endowed with imaginative powers as an essential aspect of his self-consciousness.” This imaginative envisioning of perfection is part of what makes us human. We don’t merely exist in this reality, we are self-aware of our existence and self-aware of there being something very imperfect with this reality.
There’s hardly any disagreement that there is something fundamentally wrong with things as they stand now. For some that may mean it’s a pity how far of a drive it is to the cleaners while for others it may be a desperate struggle for survival against disease or famine or genocide. Regardless, we all have some sense of the injustice or inconvenience or imperfection or—dare I say—evil present in our reality. And we all have the capacity—even the yearning—to envision a reality made right. A place, or a future, where all things are made new in perfection.
But what’s true of the visualization of individuals or companies is still true of our vision of a perfect reality: this vision must play by the rules. This vision of perfect reality must be anchored in actual reality or it will likely cause us more harm than good.
Where’s Our Vision Taking Us?
I opened this post by quoting the proverb “where there is no vision, the people perish”. But that’s only half of the proverb. The full verse reads: “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.” In the context of the ancient Book of Proverbs—replete with admonitions about obeying God and humbling yourself before Him—not just any vision will do; the Law of God is what provides for a nourishing vision. This vision that provides us with happiness is rooted in a very specific religious tradition and not in the flimsy cult of believing in yourself.
A vision is necessary. But not just any vision. It’s not a simple matter of pointing our vision wherever it feels best, but a meticulous examination of where we’re pointed. Progress is important. But we must always be willing to ask the age-old question what are we progressing towards? The Book of Proverbs instructs us to keep the law of God. Science instructs us to keep the vision limited and specific. Examining human nature would appear to instruct us to tether our vision to reality. The human capacity to construct a vision of perfection is a powerful tool and a harmful weapon, depending on how it’s used and in whose hands it falls.
In this series we’ll explore the inherent limitations of our vision of perfection. Is perfection achievable in this life or in this reality? Should our political philosophy be based on our vision of perfection, or is our vision of perfection merely a tool we can use to examine where practical politics may improve? Those are the questions we’ll explore in the weeks ahead.