Tuesday, March 27, 2007

You can only do what you can do

This being my mantra against perfectionism. I saw it reflected this morning in a NY Times editorial on our policies in Iraq, written by Rory Stewart. A friend of mine raves about his book "The Prince of the Marshes and Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq," but at the moment I'm still catching up on the Best Political Writing of 2006.

Stewart's article begins "We must acknowledge the limits of our power and knowledge in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere and concentrate on what is achievable. The question is not 'What ought we to do?' but 'What can we do?'" That seems eminently sensible.

But it is his closing sentence that blew my mind: "We have no moral obligation to do what we cannot do."

Of course, all of this begs the question of what is possible and what is achievable. That requires a great deal of self-knowledge--both humility to accept that I may not be able to do as much as I think, and also courage to accept that I may be able to do more than I would like. But it is still a revelation to take the moral obligation out of achieving what is not possible.

Along the same lines of a William Stafford poem I read in a literary magazine and have not found elsewhere that ends this way (or close to it):

After you've done what you can, you just have to wait. That's the way the trees do it, and the rocks and the stars.

I'll need to think about all this some more as I drink some overdone jasmine tea.

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