I have known many people (including myself) who at times have despaired at the impossibility of being morally or ethically perfect. For people who follow the Ten Commandments or other specific sets of guidelines, they may seem very concrete, but fulfilling them all is still a challenge–and then there are all the situations that those commandments and rules don’t cover. People who follow a single moral precept–whether it is “Love one another” or “Harm none” or some other overarching principle of ethical conduct–can have an even more frustrating time. How, after all, is it possible to go through life without ever causing any harm of any kind?
Some years ago, I finally found an answer to this question that made sense to me. More importantly, it relieved me of a tremendous burden of guilt, and without the weight of shame and self-reproach, my heart became more open, making me better able to follow the path of doing good rather than harm in the world. This is the answer as I first encountered it, in Thich Nhat Hanh’s Being Peace:
The problem is whether we are determined to go in the direction of compassion or not. If we are, then can we reduce the suffering to a minimum? If I lose my direction, I have to look for the North Star, and I go to the north. That does not mean I expect to arrive at the North Star. I just want to go in that direction.
I recently came across another elaboration of this analogy on the website of Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace & World Affairs (which is quoting Thich Nhat Hanh’s For a Future to Be Possible):
To practice nonviolence, first of all we have to practice it within ourselves. In each of us, there is a certain amount of violence and a certain amount of nonviolence. Depending on our state of being, our response to things will be more or less nonviolent. Even if we take pride in being vegetarian, for example, we have to acknowledge that the water in which we boil our vegetables contains many tiny microorganisms. We cannot be completely nonviolent, but by being vegetarian, we are going in the direction of nonviolence. If we want to head north, we can use the North Star to guide us, but it is impossible to arrive at the North Star. Our effort is only to proceed in that direction.
Will I ever reach the North Star? No, I won’t–but it will always show me the right path to take, even if I temporarily stray or lose my way. And so the ideal of nonharming, of perfect love, ceases to be a self-defeating absolute imperative but becomes an inspiring vision, a gentle push to keep going in the right direction.