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On Settling

Thomas Merton said: "The biggest human temptation is to settle for too little." And if one fights the temptation? According to W. Somerset Maugham, "if you refuse to accept anything but the best, you very often get it."

How do we square this with the knowledge that the world is flawed, capricious, and limited? That we cannot have the best, the perfect, all the time – or ever?

We must give up artificially inflated and idealized dreams of what the world ought to do to meet our own desires. When we give up unrealistic, unfair expectations, we are better positioned to treat others more fairly and to love and accept more of what, and who, comes our way. This does not mean, however, that we should give up dreams for our own happiness and fail to set goals for bettering and improving our conditions. To do so breeds resentment. The question over whether people should "settle" for a career, marriage, or anything else in life often involves a confusion of these two principles or else a recognition of the difficulty of enacting both simultaneously. How can we be realistic and idealistic at the same time? How can we live in the world, accepting its inherent flaws and pain, and be joyful in doing so, whether we are attempting make it a more compassionate, beautiful place or simply experiencing it as it is?

To make things more complicated, it's hard to explain to others what we are doing. We are coming to terms with the world around us. We are saying "yes" and "no" to it. We are trying to change it. We are living in it, living with ourselves, living with others. And sometimes, when we say "yes," we say "yes" to something that is imperfect. No one – not your coworkers, not your lover, not anyone around you, really – wants to think they are being "settled" for, with all the negative connotations of that word, the way one "settles" for food that is improperly cooked because one needs to eat something and simply lacks initiative to cook something better or get the salt shaker. They may be willing to believe that you've negotiated a sort of deal with them. Even if that's true, however, it places a burden on them to fulfill their end of the bargain, which may be the unspecific and large task of somehow compensating you for whatever you feel you've given them or given up. It's even worse if there isn't the sense of a mutual give-and-take, but simply the intimation that you've lowered your expectations and given up the hope of ever getting what you really want. The resentment will always be there from all sides.

"Settling" is sometimes defined as choosing an option about which one does not feel passionate. This is a questionable definition, since passion does not always lead us to make the best decisions anyway. Sometimes the heart feels that it is settling, but what the heart wanted would have been disastrous, and the choice to "settle" is subsequently revealed as the all-around best choice. This is part of the reason why people feel anxious over the question of settling. No one wants to make a bad choice. The problem is that we don't always know what the best choice is, and whether to go with the heart, the head, a friend's advice, or a coin flip.

We are bad at predicting what will make us happy. (Refer to the 2002 Nobel Prize-winning work of Princeton psychologist Daniel Kahneman.) Often we believe it's more money, more stuff, that will do the trick. This keeps us on the so-called "hedonic treadmill." We are afraid that getting off the treadmill represents "settling," giving up on the goal of happiness. We don't see that getting off the treadmill might be the beginning of a new, truer way of being happy.

Wendy Plump wrote in Vow about the process – or, rather, the event – of choosing a lover:
This is a person, after all, whom we pluck out of a crowd of possibilities. Magic attends that choice. Or if that word belongs too irrevocably to the World of Disney, then use the word mystery. At any rate, it's a remarkable kind of calculus that makes you look at a field of men or women and quickly zero in on the one person who turns you on most. He could be standing next to someone better looking, smarter, more athletic, richer, in possession of a more interesting physiognomy or at least better hair. And yet it's a rare day that you spend much time on the question "Which one?"
You have already decided. Through some mysterious alchemy, you want this one and not another. Why? I think a definitive answer would ruin it.

Happiness, love and passion are feelings we have in the present moment. We can't store them up or schedule them for the future. When we feel them in the present moment, they are, nonetheless, often related to a sense of fulfillment, which is a consequence of many choices we have made in the past. Carl McCoy wrote in the Wall Street Journal:
This month, commencement speakers across the country are exhorting graduates not to settle. They are urged instead to find their passion – to 'do what you love.' But it's unwise to build a career on the notion that we should all be paid for our passions. Does the doctor love going into the hospital to see a patient in the middle of the night? Does the teacher love trying to control a classroom full of disrespectful children? Not likely. But the work is performed with a sense of purpose that 'love' doesn't capture. Commencement speakers would send more young people into the world likelier to be happy in their jobs if they talked about love as a consequence of meaningful work instead of as the motivation for it.

So, one relevant question is not just how we can feel passionate, but how we can feel fulfilled. We may have to make some carefully negotiated, analyzed choices, apart from the whims of passion, to fulfill our goals. Is this "settling"? It doesn't sound like it.

And, in the final analysis, we don't control the world. The world gives us what it will. We always settle for whatever we get. We have no other choice. Follow your passion, but your lover will die someday, you'll eventually have to retire from your brilliant career, and termites will eat your dream house. Whether it is now or in five hundred years is not the point. It will all eventually get away from us. The question of whether we ought to settle for it is not even posed.

In which case, the question is not about the ultimate and final outcome, but about all the little outcomes – passionate, rational, desired, compromised, loved, settled for – that constitute the journey. Jeanette Winterson wrote in her novel The PowerBook:
My search for you, your search for me, is a search after something that cannot be found. Only the impossible is worth the effort. What we seek is love itself, revealed now and again in human form, but pushing us beyond our humanity into animal instinct and god-like success. The love we seek overrules human nature. It has a wildness in it and a glory that we want more than life itself. Love never counts the cost, to itself or others, and nothing is as cruel as love. There is no love that does not pierce the hands and feet.

Merely human love does not satisfy us, though we settle for it. It is an encampment on the edge of the wilderness, and we light the fire and turn up the lamp, and tell stories until late at night of those great loves lost and won. The wilderness is not tamed. It waits – beautiful and terrible – beyond the reach of the campfire. Now and again someone gets up to leave, forced to read the map of themselves, hoping that the treasure is really there. A record of their journey comes back to us in note form, sometimes just a letter in a dead man's pocket.

Love is worth death. Love is worth life. My search for you, your search for me, goes beyond life and death into one long call in the wilderness. I do not know if what I hear is an answer or an echo. Perhaps I will hear nothing. It doesn't matter. The journey must be made.

Thomas Merton, quoted in, quoted in The Week, June 3, 2011. p. 19.
W. Somerset Maugham. Quoted in Anthony Robbins, Unlimited Power. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1986. p. 22.
Carl McCoy in the Wall Street Journal, quoted in The Week magazine, June 7, 2013, p. 12.
Jeanette Winterson. The PowerBook. London: Vintage, 2001. pp. 78-79.

"Ніжний ранковий світло" by Balkhovitin - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.


  1. In the classic film THELMA AND LOUISE, Louise wisely said to Thelma, "You get what you settle for."
    If you quiet down and follow your gut you cannot go wrong. Your intuition knows you better than anyone. There is no need to "settle". People settle out of fear. Your gut beliefs never lie and will never let you down.


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