Can a 'good enough' life fix what ails us?

Life is imperfect, and most quests for high achievement are destined to fail. Those truths have led some to advocate for a "good enough" future, prioritizing greater decency and sufficiency for the majority, rather than a select few.

Author Avram Alpert says the goal is 'to make a world that really works for everyone.'

Avi Alpert is the author of a number of books and essays about 'trying to understand what values we can live by in a world as connected, chaotic, and potentially catastrophic as this one.' His book The Good-Enough Life will be published in April of 2022. (Princeton University Press/Anthea Behm)

*Originally published on January 12, 2020.

From individual troubles to collective failures, this era of COVID loss and climate change disaster has left few people unaffected.

For Avram Alpert, it's more evidence that "life is imperfect. And given that fact, the most meaningful way for us to proceed is together." 

The American educator and writer has authored a new book called The Good-Enough Life

Accepting "good enough" is not about passively giving in, said Alpert. 

Instead, he sees it as an ongoing process of "aligning and progressing" to "ensure that everyone has goodness and enoughness, that everyone has a life that is decent and meaningful and purposive."

The origins of good enough

CBC IDEAS checked in with Alpert and several other participants from a pre-pandemic episode, The Joy of Mediocrity, to see how the "good enough" approach relates to our current situation.

The idea has been gaining popularity in recent years, and grows out of mid-20th century research by psychologist Donald Winnicott. 

Winnicott concluded that it takes only the meeting of basic needs, and one average parent, to arm a child with the means to handle the complications and crises of adult life.   

Accepting and resisting failure

Such challenges are not individual bad luck, but are, in fact, features of our existence, according to The School of Life. The UK-based international organization uses a "good enough" lens to teach "how to live a more fulfilled life" through its classes, as well as books such as A Simpler Life

Content lead Sarah Stein Lubrano notes that their class on accepting failure is not receiving as much pushback as when it was taught prior to the pandemic.

"People get it more, because all of our lives have been, in lots of ways, outside of our control for a very long time."

The School of Life’s content lead Sarah Stein Lubrano suggests that reshaping ambitions and accepting failure is all part of life. The School’s latest book advocates for A Simpler Life. (The School of Life/Melissa Barber)

At the same time, Lubrano sees a collective problem.

"Because we're so uncomfortable with failure in general, we build societies for people who are winners."

Such societies become, in her view, "only accessible and survivable for certain kinds of people. We really don't have a good social net, and that's never been clearer, I think, than during this pandemic."

A better future

We are inspired by the uniquely talented, and excited by the very successful. But writer Avi Alpert says it is time to recognize that such people are the exception, not the rule.

He thinks that we will do better across the board in society if we can choose "cooperation and sharing and working together to promote well-being for everyone."

That's a point of view put into practice by Zahra Dhanani.

The passionate advocate of "good enough" is co-owner of Old's Cool, an east end Toronto convenience store that acts as a hub in its diverse, mixed income neighbourhood. 

More than 400 residents in an east end Toronto neighbourhood mounted artwork at a local construction site in June of 2020, after anti-Black symbols ⁠— nooses ⁠— were discovered there. Business owner and community organizer Zahra Dhanani says neighbours wanted to both comfort affected workers, and promote dignity, justice, and equality as community standards. (Michael Charles Cole/CBC)

During the first summer of the pandemic, following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests, several anti-Black hate crimes occurred nearby. 

Dhanani and neighbours organized 400 residents of all ages and backgrounds to mount anti-racist artwork on the hoarding around a construction site that had been the setting of threats in the form of nooses.

"People just came out with so much love and care and conviction," she said, noting that Black construction workers were moved by the effort. 

She calls the event "lifegiving" for all involved. 

Coming together

Such impacts are proof to Dhanani that even small, local actions matter, and that everyone can get involved to help make conditions better.

"This concept that it's one person who makes all the contributions, and the rest of us don't matter — I think it's a poisonous concept to society," she said.

It disempowers "ordinary people from actually feeling like we're capable of doing something that is meaningful and important." 

For Alpert, making a better society for more people goes beyond any one political ideology, and is not hopeless.

"We've seen communities, social movements, (and) individuals who work to make a world that really works for everyone. I think that is something we can keep pushing on, and developing, and growing."

Guests in this episode:

Avram (Avi) Alpert is the author of books including The Good-Enough Life, forthcoming in April 2022 from Princeton University Press. A teacher in the writing program at Princeton, he is now a fellow at the New Institute in Hamburg, Germany.     

Zahra Dhanani is a Toronto community organizer and co-owner of Old's Cool General Store. She works as an EDI and conflict transformation specialist.

Sarah Stein Lubrano is content lead for The School of Life, as well as a doctoral student and researcher in psychology and politics at Oxford University. The School of Life book mentioned in this episode is A Simpler Life.

Archival clips of philosopher Daniel Milo, author of Good Enough: The Tolerance for Mediocrity in Nature and Society.

*This episode was produced by Lisa Godfrey.

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