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Between progress and regression

by on Friday, 24 February 2012 Comments

We have a clear-cut idea of what the words “progress” and “regression” point to: a student’s marks are showing academic progress, or they indicate that he is regressing in his class ranking; economic indexes measure how much a country is growing or if it is entering recession; after a certain age, our physical and intellectual abilities are regressing… And so, we grade ourselves as we move up or down the ladder, and we measure accordingly other people, institutions and societies.

Grades, indexes and measurements are certainly useful tools. Still, they cut into reality in ways that sometimes make us blind to the complexity of the phenomena we try to assess. The very fact that my abilities are regressing can actually be a factor of maturation, of reconciliation with my personal history, my limits and my achievements if I peacefully come to terms with the transformations that age or illness impose on me. A country’s economic growth often goes with cultural and humane regression when it destroys social structure and community values. Academic tests are rarely able to assess the whole process of intellectual, moral and emotional growth that a student is undergoing. Life mixes into a whole progress and regression, as the chaff and the wheat grow together on the field. Better not to try to separate them before the time of the harvest…

Progress and regression only make sense within dynamic processes that change the one into the other - and conversely. A short-time regression often triggers long-term progress. This is the case when it comes to affective and emotional maturation: an affective setback often comes with a period of regression - the mind closes on itself, closes on its wounds. However, when and if subsumed, setbacks become a force for greater self-understanding as well as for nurturing empathy. The one who ignores setbacks and does not experience regressions runs the risk of seeing one’s success end up as one’s ultimate failure, as he has most probably lived an existence estranged from his true self.

Does it mean that progress and regression just equate? No. Ultimately, we are meant to strive for success. But the texture of success is much richer and subtler than we usually imagine. It is interwoven with the threads of our setbacks, failures and regressions, which also serve to compose the shades and nuances of one’s personal achievement. When life seems to be going downhill, let us take solace in the fact that we progress towards the realization of our true self in a way that is uniquely ours – and our ultimate triumph is the uniqueness we achieve throughout the struggles that will have shaped our life.

Illustration by Bendu

 

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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