At the beginning of a new year, many of us reflect and set goals or make resolutions. We think about making changes which hopefully will be an improvement or progress toward something better. Real progress involves processes, is based on sound, true principles, stays true to purposes and truly improves.
C. S. Lewis said, “We all want progress, but if you’re on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; in that case, the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive.” (Mere Christianity)
In our world and our lives, things are constantly changing. But change does not always mean progress. If change does not improve us or something, it is not progress at all. Progress implies forward and upward movement toward something better, higher, more noble. Thinking that anything new is positive or progressive implies that everything from the past has been somehow inferior. Anything new is better than the old. The reality is that much change in the name of progress can actually take us in the wrong direction. Too often changes proposed as progress are more of an attempt by a person or a group to change things to suit themselves, merely because they are in a position of power to do so. Pride can play a part in assuming that “my way is the better way”.
An Attitude of Improvement
As I have read things written by nineteenth century folk, I have seen frequent use of the term “improvement.” Those people worked hard to “improve” their farms, their homes, and their communities. They “improved” their minds through study and education. Some even sought to “improve their leisure.” Improvement is a much better goal than change. Even as far back as my own youth, there was focus on improvement. I belonged to the “Mutual Improvement Association” – MIA – of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Something must be inherently good or based on good principles in order for it to be improved. Improvement does not mean changing it into something else, but rather increasing, expanding or improving quality. If something is negative, then eliminating or reducing it would seem an improvement. Increasing something inherently bad or detrimental is never real improvement, though it may see so to some.
In looking at progress and improvement it is important to keep in mind the differences between processes or procedures and purposes and principles.
Circumstances change through time and it often becomes necessary to make changes in processes and procedures. Technological advances, scientific studies, and simple reviews of ways things are done can result in new processes that are actually an improvement over past ways of doing things. Sometimes changes in procedures are simply the result of personal preferences – this is the way I do things as opposed to the way you would do them. The hardest thing may be to get out of your comfort zone and try to do something a new way.
Initiative and innovation have resulted in making life easier and better in many ways. Sometimes however, such “improvements” bring unintended not-so-positive consequences along with improvements. For example, smart phone technology allows us to have instant contact with others and access to unlimited information, but it also seems to be having negative effects on interpersonal interactions and relationships.
I have noticed some cycles during my decades long life. I have seen organizations make significant changes in “procedures” to make their processes more efficient. Then after a few years, and possibly after some serious review of the results, changes are made again. Sometimes these changing “procedures” eventually return to previous ways of doing things that were at one time considered outdated, but now are the greatest new thing.
When “progress” causes a change in the purpose of an activity or an organization, it is not really an improvement so much as it is just different. One purpose is not necessarily “better”, “newer” or “improved”, it is a different thing altogether. Some purposes may be inherently better than others, such as what truly benefits people as opposed to what might make them “happy” for the moment. It is important to stay true to the purpose, Mission or “why” when looking to make changes or assessing progress. Positive purposes are based on true principles. It is possible to make progress toward purposes that are actually negative or hurtful, maybe in ways that aren’t obvious. What may seem progressive actually takes us further from more noble purposes.
True progress, prosperity and growth on an individual, organizational or societal level happens only when based on true principles. The Constitution of the United States was based on certain principles, considered by those then and many now to be constant, eternal, truths. Man cannot really change truth or true principles. There can be much variety and flexibility in application of principles – in processes. Different groups may have limited understanding or conflicting interpretations of principles. Some may reject or abandon standards based on true principles. Some may ignore, disregard or reject principles. But underlying true principles remain constant.
If the principles upon which anything is based are true, correct, or sound, then any change to them would not be “progress” at all. It would be a change in a negative direction. Even attempting to re-define “old principles” as outdated or even wrong, does not change the nature of true principles. Public opinion and popularity do not make principles right.
There may be multiple principles involved with certain issues. They may be interconnected and may sometimes seem to conflict. Some groups are very selective about principles – some principles are valued, validated, and promoted, while others are discounted and considered unimportant, irrelevant or negative. There is not so much an attempt to understand which principles are true as to insist on the truth or relativity or value of certain ones. For example personal choice seems a more important principle to some than sanctity of life. So rather than seeking a balance between them, one supersedes.
Principles should be the foundation of efforts toward improvement and progress in our personal lives. As we look to make personal improvements in our lives, it is helpful to have a framework of valued principles. Changes based on principles of honesty, integrity and hard work will improve not only our lives, but will make us better people. Personal relationships are improved based on sound principles such as love, respect, forgiveness, compassion.
“Successful marriages and families are established and maintained on principles of faith, prayer, repentance, forgiveness, respect, love, compassion, work, and wholesome recreational activities.” (The Family: A Proclamation to the World)
Working to improve relationships based on these principles actually improves us personally. With practice they become part of our character.
Progress rarely occurs in a constant upward straight line. There may be spurts of improvement with varying periods of stagnation. And because we are human, we have frequent stumbles and setbacks. We are inconsistent, easily distracted and have a tendency to revert to what is comfortable. We mess up. Rather than discourage, these can be seen as opportunities for self-evaluation. We can honestly assess what processes work well and which don’t. We can reflect on what principles are important and how we can better apply them. And always we should keep our focus on the why – the purposes of our lives and activities.