This American Life episode #483, “Self-Improvement Kick” aired on Public Radio on January 4th, 2013. The opening sequence of the episode follows a young woman, Julia Lurie, who is teaching English at an all-girls high school in South Korea. Through Julia’s interview with Ira Glass and from recordings in her classroom, we learn that South Korea is one of the world leaders in cosmetic surgery and that her South Korean students face significant social pressure to alter their appearance towards a Korean ideal of physical features. Eyelids, cheekbones, breasts, skin color; all are fair game for alterations in Korean culture. Julia’s discussion with her class turned towards the debate over whether beauty lies in the natural or in conforming to an ideal.
In our well-developed societies, we feel an inevitable pull towards nature despite our constant progress (sea-spray scented shampoo, yule log TV program, organic food). But do we also have an obligation as a species to push ourselves to the absolute brink of progress? It was thought that the four minute mile was a milestone that would never be crossed. Athletes have been using performance enhancing drugs for years, trying to gain an edge on their competition, but weren’t they also pushing the envelope of what we could accomplish as humans? We have schools because we are not content to wander this world in a state of perfect discovery. We have division of labor so that we can dedicate ourselves most efficiently to a job in our best skillset. There is no rest to be found in progress, because progress is kinetic, it’s momentum, it’s evolving. So much as we are pulled into this world of constant achievement, many of us hold back and lean towards a life that strives to commune with and be a part of nature. The question that inevitably follows this line of thinking is, aren’t we natural? This debate doesn’t come to a division of whether one way of life is natural or not. This is a question of values. Can we be satisfied with anything less than the best? Can we appreciate the satisfaction we find in accepting less than an ideal? This is the great question. For me, I’ll take my progress in steps and look for satisfaction in the pauses.
(that’s Henry David Thoreau…I never read Walden, but there he is nontheless)