Success has a weird way of a disappointing us. You finally get what you hungered for, but the joy doesn’t last or you feel even worse than you did before you got it, like when you eat a brownie and suddenly crave ice cream or else when you have that last hushpuppy only to realize you should have stopped eating a dozen hushpuppies ago. We are always chasing something that is just beyond our reach, and we keep pushing and pushing until we’ve gone so far that we realize we were running in the wrong direction. Time to start running again. But we’ll never get there, because success is concrete while happiness is relative.
There’s always more to achieve, always another season to play, another test to take, another promotion to get, a better vacation to go on, a more attractive or compliant partner, a more enriching book to read or entertaining show to watch. Whatever it is, more is out there. If you feed the poor, there are always more mouths to serve. You can teach a man to fish, but you can’t teach all men to fish. You can give more, be holier, humbler—yes, even more content. Then there is always the possibility of slipping backward, of losing what progress you’ve made. And of course, staying where you are is just another form of regression, since the goal is always running away from you.
Not to say you can’t be reasonably happy or relatively satisfied at times, only that you can never be happy enough, never completely satisfied. As human beings, we are terrible at knowing what we want, and it is one of the central paradoxes of life that you can’t know whether you want something until you get it. It is not until you achieve a goal that you realize the posts have moved, and what you really, really wanted was not the success you just attained but the one just in front of you. So the new house is bigger than the last, but more work too, and still smaller than the neighbors’. The new job is more stressful and consuming than the one you left, and the money disappears just as quickly. The new spouse is just as frustrating as the first. But the next one, well, that will be different, right?. Repeat as necessary.
The hidden thread here is that everything really is getting better in an objective sense. You upgrade your house, your job, your salary, your car, your computer, and your relationships, your maturity, your tastes, your service, your character. The economy grows each cycle. Technology advances exponentially. You have a new phone every year, but rarely does it feel any different. So when everything is getting better, how come nothing ever changes?
You can apply this fundamental disappointment of human existence to just about any part of life and society, but the one which strikes me as the most relevant to today’s world is that of racial equality. Think about how society has changed in the last 50 years, since 1964. The Civil Rights movement was an unqualified success and achieved nearly all its goals. We’ve moved from a nation of open, proud, self-justified racists and legal, rationalized segregation to one where all segregation and public discrimination is illegal and morally abhorred, to the point where we now argue over whether society should be completely colorblind or give minorities a compensatory advantage. We have literally achieved Martin Luther King Jr’s dream of white and black children holding hands as brothers and sisters—I see it at my children’s school every day. We elected a black president. If all of that isn’t resounding success, I don’t know what is. So if race relations have gotten infinitely better in the last 50 years (and it’s undeniable they have), then how come nothing seems to have changed? Why are we still having the same arguments and disconentments and protests and disappointments in a new form? Why do people think race relations are worse than ever?
I don’t argue in the slightest that there isn’t more work to be done, that the taint of racism doesn’t still reside in people’s hearts or that the legacy of the old racist regimes doesn’t still linger in the institutions they’ve built. I can’t say that any minority group should be satisfied with the current state of things. Of course we can and should be better. I can only say that in the current formulation of the problem, the work will never be done and no one will ever be satisfied. I think it’s because we, as a society, don’t know what we want, and until we do, we will keep pointing to new (ever more obscure) sources of resentment as reasons for our incurable disappointment.
In our multicultural society, what we say we want is tolerance. You shouldn’t be jailed simply because you’re a Communist or a Nazi (or even if you’re a Republican), nor should you be beaten because of the color of your skin nor sent to a separate school because of where your ancestors were born nor evicted from your apartment for your sex life. We want everyone to live peaceably with people who aren’t like them. Then we got that. Now what? Anger, protests, backlash, enmity, division. That’s the thing about tolerance: you can be a racist and tolerant at the same time. Some level of racism is a necessary condition for racial tolerance. Tolerance implies disapproval. If you don’t despise your neighbor’s lawn ornaments, there is no sense in saying you tolerate them. And if you enjoy a good opera (however unlikely) you cannot at the same time be tolerating it.
That’s why no one aspires to tolerance. No man longs for a merely tolerant wife or for children who tolerate his presence. So while tolerance of behavior, of opinions and preferences, is a good, even necessary, virtue, we desire something greater in our relations with people. That desire is, of course, love. We don’t want to be tolerated; we want to be loved. But loving someone is hard, and being loved even more so.
Tolerance doesn’t ask you to change, nor must you give up anything to be tolerated. But love requires a sacrifice. What you sacrifice—all you really have to give that matters to anyone—is yourself. Your desires, your preferences, your time, your resources, your life, in favor and in service to those of you love. You cannot hold on to your own grievances and your claims against those you love. You have to forgive and bear the burden of that forgiveness. The relationship is reciprocal. The lover gives herself to the beloved and receives a new self in return. The result is a always a merging of selves. Two become one flesh.
What is true of people is true of societies. For this reason, our whole multicultural experiment is doomed to fail. We want to be loved, but we aren’t willing to give up part of our personal identities or take on parts of other cultures. We aren’t willing to become one people. The very idea of it is forbidden. But you can’t love or be loved while you cling to your self. So we chase after mere tolerance in our widening isolation. We’ve been running toward it for a long time. Things keep getting better and better, but nothing has really changed, and it never will. If tolerance is all you want, then tolerance is all you’re going to get.
Aim higher. Aim for love. We won’t get there, in the same way that we don’t always love our spouse or our children, but striving for it will open up the possibility that we can join together in life to form a new family, a new country, where there is no sense in talking about a White America and a Black America and a Latino America. We won’t have to erase our differences, but we will have to relinquish our personal claims on them, so that each person’s heritage becomes the heritage of all people and each member’s interests become the interests of the whole body. Only then will we be able to look at each other and see a unity and equality that goes beyond the legal, beyond tolerance, to see a love that penetrates the human heart.