Some paradigms disappoint because they turn out to be simply dysfunctional, while others seem to work immediately upon adoption, fulfilling our vision for them in a most satisfactory way. But then there is a third kind of paradigm. This sort is not flawed, but will not work well without one or more complementary paradigms also in play. This is the type I’ll be describing in this article.
I imagine a seven-year-old at a buffet line being presented with one salad tong as a utensil with which he is to serve himself a salad. At first blush, that tong might promise to be a useful utensil, but just a bit of effort with it will likely convince the seven-year-old that using his fingers would be a more serviceable solution! What he does not know, of course, is that the tong is but one of a pair and that the other one is missing. Let us hope he does not develop a low opinion of tongs having never used a full set!
This article is about how one indispensable paradigm in my life has proved not to be enough without its mate, and how my epiphany that its mate even exists!
Some years ago, I had a profound moment when I first chanced upon this famous axiom from Henry David Thoreau:
“There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root.”
~Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Chapter 1, Page 98. Published in 1854.
“Aha!” I thought. He had put it so succinctly that it had now become perfectly clear to me: if one is going to fix a problem, one ought to focus on its source and not on its peripherals or its symptoms. I knew this already, of course, through mere common sense, but I had never adopted the idea through and through as a systematic and fundamental strategy of life. Thoreau’s passage was pure genius and it helped me to realize that root hacking was truly worthy of a fundamental position on my philosophical “bookshelf”.
Thus did I experience my first “hacking” epiphany:
“When hacking at evil, always hack at the root.”
From there, I built up speed quickly as a deliberate root hacker and quickly realized, to my great frustration, that our world is awash with millions of careless branch hackers who don’t seem to understand Thoreau’s point, or either don’t understand the difference between a root and a branch. There was so much to be set straight. So much to be corrected. So many people to be redirected. So many “workers” who weren’t even seeming to pay any attention to the outcome of their own volunteer initiatives. The work before me was endless. Endless, thankless, and grueling. Yet the importance of it was self-evident. Obviously, “it is better to repair a wrong than to persist in it.” [i]
I foraged through multiple fields of human endeavor—politics, religion, health, history, and some of the sciences, in particular—looking now especially for sources and causes and fundamental principles. It was a fascinating and challenging time of personal discovery that persists to this day. Though I had no idea that such would happen at the onset, I ended up overturning a great number of my previous assumptions, understandings, and beliefs about all manner of things. And while this was rewarding and exciting, it was, at the same time, a frustrating, disappointing, and eye-opening lesson in what time it is on Planet Earth. That is to say that I found countless “evils” in need of correction, and yet only a few others who seemed even to care. (That’s a clue, by the way, so we’ll come back to this later.)
I studied and read and debated and discussed. I wrote and wrote and wrote some more. I designed various initiatives to implement corrections or improvements upon our society. I found people to be sometimes agreeable in principle but generally deficient in energy for putting improvements into practice. I also found that a few seemed capable and even mildly interested in discussing evils in general, but that they were so highly-charged with divisive conditioning that the conversation would fall apart the moment any particular example of an evil was named. And yet others were all for fighting the evils of the other camp, even while defending the evils of their own!
I think I’m fairly talented at root hacking, but it simply doesn’t seem to work very well. In fact, while Thoreau has a thousand hacking somehow uselessly up in the branches somewhere, he didn’t mention in this particular passage anything about the millions who are busy watering and fertilizing this tree of evils!
So there I sat with a multitude of root-hacking articles already written and an endless number slated to be written in the future, and yet no indication that any of it was doing any good whatsoever.
What was I to do from this point? I couldn’t very well put the genie back into the bottle and pretend that I had not just discovered a thousand things wrong with the world, along with viable solutions for at least a few of them. And there was no reason to believe that if only I could find the time to document a few more needful issues, people would finally start to join in the work.
Was I doomed to be the sort who goes about for the rest of his life bitterly pointing out what is wrong with everything? Or was I rather to become the sort who goes around pretending that things really aren’t that bad? Or perhaps the type who admits that things are bad but pretends that our efforts on earth ought not involve fixing anything? No, I think I’d rather someone shoot me than for me to try to strain against reality for the remainder of my life, pretending that reality does not matter. But even so, no fault could be found with my first hacking epiphany, for it is self evident and needful. Indeed, if evils are to be put away, it must be done deliberately.
If I was not wrong about the hacking, therefore, was I simply missing some other needful paradigm, without which the hacking at the roots simply isn’t very effective?
There simply must be an alternative, I reasoned—some third option that might actually be serviceable. And that’s when the pieces fell into place comprising my more recent “hacking” epiphany, which came in the form of a rhetorical question:
If I spend all my time hacking at the tree of evil, how will any good tree ever be planted?
I could hack and hack away, and even if I became the world’s best-ever root hacker, not one bit of all that effort could ever in a million years create a good tree; it would simply dispense with a bad one. Trees of evil to not need to be destroyed simply because they are evil, but because they are planted where good trees belong.
I realized that what I was doing was patently negative business. It was destructive by design, contrary to society, and relentlessly consuming my creative energies.
I had unwittingly snagged myself by way of Thoreau’s matter-of-fact observation, as if he had written that the key to life itself was to hack away at evil. But he wrote no such thing. I suppose now that I was a victim of my own negativity bias. And to date, it has been quite convenient for me to confirm that bias over and over, as not only do a great many evils abound, but an even-greater number of fallacious defenses for those evils. Hacking away at their roots has been an endeavor for which the goodness is easy to prove. Yet it simply does not work. After all these years, I simply cannot produce any horde of converts having left their branch-hacking days in favor of hacking at the roots.
And thus have I proved to my satisfaction by experimentation that hacking at the roots of evil is insufficient if one is not also building something good. Interestingly, there’s a one-liner in the Bible that may well have been penned in agreement with this epiphany:
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
This doesn’t seem to have been penned under the spirit of “fighting fire with fire”, but rather, with some more powerful option in mind. Is it indeed possible that good is powerful enough to overcome evil? Well, if that’s the case, there are going to be a lot of disappointed people in our society, for they are forever going about tisk-tisking and sighing as if it simply is not possible to right wrongs. The seem to take solace in the fact that they would like to see it done, but they are not generally seen attempting to go about it. Rather, they seem to have given up, as if it simply is not truly possible.
British educational philosopher Charlotte Mason penned this brilliant thought:
The question is not,––how much does the youth know? when he has finished his education––but how much does he care? and about how many orders of things does he care?
This “care” is what needs to be built, and along with it, the small amount of “mindware” necessary for operating in Reality-Based Thinking. People can fix anything if they care to do the work and to find out how to do it. Thus am I suspending my “hacking” operations at present to stop and build. The best hacking will come when many, having realized for themselves the merits of Reality-Based Thinking, begin to hack the roots of evil for themselves. Hence the end of my hacking epiphanies:
Attempting to rid the world of evil without building the good is a fool’s errand.
[i] Remarks to the Cherokee Chiefs, 10 January 1806 http://millercenter.org/scripps/archive/speeches/detail/3494