The Paradox of Pragmatism


It doesn’t take much to observe that people have a strained relationship with the concept of pragmatism, at least as far as the pressures of onsetting adulthood are concerned. How many aging, mediocre athletes/musicians/artists have struggled with societal pressure to ground themselves in the conventions of a 9-to-5 reality?

Granted, such pressure may have merit, to the extent that these pursuits of passion interfere with one’s ability to provide for themselves (or dependents, as applicable). I mean, if you can’t pay rent then maybe there’s a case to be made for taking a break from band practice to put together a cover letter. But I would argue that societal pressure extends beyond this most basic level of pragmatism-as-survival-mechanism. It would seem (to me at least) that there’s a common tendency to perceive, as pointless, pursuits that consume an inordinate amount of time or energy without yielding some tangible benefit.

Admittedly, this is an issue that’s near to my heart. Amateur sports have figured prominently into my life, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t heard the voices (most of which have been in my own head, truth be told) questioning the worth of expending so much energy on them. I’m in my mid-30s now; I’d say it’s been about a decade since my more sensible peers started ribbing me about my pursuit of amateur athletic glory. Of course, I’ve never really listened to those voices – I know exactly what I get out the energy I devote to sports – but I’ve certainly heard them.

The case of amateur sporting endeavors is just one arena in which this juggernaut of pragmatism stares us all down as we enter into adulthood. As it relates to the journey I’ve chronicled in this blog, the juggernaut strongly disapproves of my ditching an ultra secure, comfortable livelihood in pursuit of some ostensibly grander purpose. Without presupposing my importance to anyone, I would wager that I’ve been the subject of some whispered conversations – at least in passing – among people who know me, wondering if I’ve lost my mind. I get it.

But I’d like to suggest there’s another kind of pragmatism that never really gets talked about…at least not explicitly. To make the point, consider the massive body of saccharine, stargazing drivel that parades the internet as ‘inspirational’ content. Don’t know what I mean? Here you go. Anyway, this garden-variety motivational crap rings hollow, right? It does to me, at least. But why? Is it that it’s inherently lame to aspire to some higher-order level of fulfillment or purpose? I don’t think so.

I think the fact that we tend to find these ‘inspiring’ soundbites so trite is only a function of the fact that they carry no weight when simply shouted from a rooftop. The mind is pretty good at compartmentalizing and discarding the countless bits of inconsequential information that are heaved at it daily. Good thing. But I bet that when you watch a documentary about someone who’s lived out the exact sentiment that was expressed in the latest morsel of Facebook wisdom that you scrolled past, you feel pretty differently. It’s quite possible to be moved by real-life instances of people pursuing higher-order values and, by extension, that must mean that we perceive some real value in such pursuit. The ideal, itself, is not the problem.

But what of the person who’s actually pursuing the ideal? What’s driving them? Has Bill Gates pledged most of his fortune to humanitarian causes because someone’s making him do so? Or is he simply out of ideas as to what else he might spend it on? Doubtful. I don’t know the guy, but it seems to me that he’s probably driven by some internal value system that’s telling him what he needs to do to feel fulfilled at the end of his life. And (here’s where I’m going with this)… what could be more pragmatic than that?

If Bill Gates knows that dying with his entire fortune intact will leave him miserable on his deathbed, then isn’t the choice of a different course about the purely pragmatic matter of avoiding such misery? I know that’s a weird way to look at it; to be sure, I’m certain he feels a great degree of fulfillment in these vibrant, living years, doing the work that he does. But I would argue that that pleasure is not the driving force behind his actions. Humanitarian work to Bill Gates is not what drugs, shiny things or other ephemeral pleasures are to your average hedonist. Pleasure, to people dedicating themselves to a grander ideal, is only a byproduct of that deeper objective: to leave the earth at peace with how one used his or her lot in life.

This presents a paradox, then, doesn’t it? On the one hand, the rat race of adulthood is characterized by the pragmatic matters of providing for self and family, etc. On the other, what could be more pragmatic than looking beyond the rat race and considering what needs to be done to feel fulfilled on our deathbed?

To recognize this paradox is not to suggest that everyone needs to drop what they’re doing and spend the rest of their days meditating on a mountaintop. It’s simply to acknowledge that these grander ideals – the ones we roll our eyes at as they’re shouted at us by a billboard – may in fact have some pragmatic value. Whether or not (and in what way) we’re able to devote any energy to them depends on a lot of things, but mostly – to sum it up neatly – on our degree of privilege. There is no greater fortune than to be able to take personal security as a given.

Think about it. What if your personal security was guaranteed? Would the pursuit of some grander purpose seem so radical and utopian?…

Or could you see it as a matter of cold, hard pragmatism?


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