As I was sitting in the reading room at the library, a man got up and left, commenting, “It could be a whole lot better.” I wasn’t sure whether he was referring to the reading room, the world he was reading about, or something else. I replied without thinking, “That’s always true, and always false.” What I meant was that it is always possible to make little changes to improve things. But it isn’t clear ahead of time that these changes will make a big overall improvement in a library, in the world, or in anything else. Years ago, literary critics used to examine great writers very closely to find bad phrasing or ungrammatical sentences. They would look at a play by Shakespeare and identify lines that they didn’t think were very good. Sometimes, they would suggest that these lines were added by another writer, or that Shakespeare had written this part quickly without much consideration. Sometimes, they would omit or improve on the lines. It is doubtful that any of Shakespeare’s plays were actually improved by these critics. An entire play needs high points and low points, poetry and prose.
The whole thing is greater than all its individual parts. And changing a couple of these parts may not improve the whole thing. It is the same in many other areas – music, athletics, scholarship, and probably everyday living. It is not always the singer or musician who is flawless that we admire most. Sometimes, it is the person whose performance is not perfect, but who puts a special energy, feeling, or enthusiasm into their work that we admire. It is true that little things can sometimes add up to a big difference. Changing a bad habit can make a difference in your life, and in the lives of people around you. Giving up smoking, for example, or ceasing to criticize a family member can make an important difference. Sometimes, however, we are only looking at the symptoms of a larger problem. For example, nearly everyone would agree that giving up smoking is a good idea. But if our smoking is related to emotional problems or stress in our lives, then giving up smoking may make us feel even worse. It may be necessary to deal with the root problem. It can happen too that being always on the look-out for ways to improve things may become a problem in itself. “Perfectionism” means never being satisfied with things as they are. Especially if we are always criticizing people around us for not being good enough, this can become a bad thing.
A popular saying in North America is, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This is a warning to people who feel that their role or position involves making continuous changes in policies, procedures, products or personnel. Sometimes, the drive for change can be more of a personality problem than a genuine concern to make things better. Real problems are often clearly apparent. Problems like world hunger, personality conflicts, policies that don’t work, poor levels of service, bad manners, and all kinds of troubles are hard to ignore. They are also difficult to resolve. Perhaps that’s one reason why some people identify things as problems which are of concern to hardly anyone except themselves. Yes, we can make the world, and the reading room, better. But, we can also make them worse. It takes a lot of discernment and usually some experience to know how to make a particular thing better. There are so many things that could use improvement that it is difficult to know where to start. This too requires some thought, not to mention prayer and study. We can start by asking whether the thing we see as a problem is also a problem for other people. If it isn’t, then maybe our energy and attention might be better employed elsewhere.