Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Perils of Idealism

Starr 031007-0039 Danger - Unexploded Ordnance - Restricted Area - signIt's probably safe to say that I'm something of an idealist. Not only that, but I'm surrounded by people who probably could (and should!) be considered idealists, as well. To some degree, at least, I imagine that this is part and parcel of what it is the be a Christian. Certainly, if the primary definition in my office dictionary ("a person whose behavior or thought is based on ideals") is at all accurate, how could a person who desires to live as Christ would have us to live be anything other than an idealist?

Lately, I've been starting to reflect on what might ironically be called the "down-sides" of idealism. At least one of these might be quickly demonstrated by the "b" definition of "idealist" in that same dictionary:
one who follows his ideals to the point of impracticality
I'm a bit on fence about whether or not I agree with this definition. I certainly don't like it. On one hand, it suggests that people who live by strong ideals, but who manage to avoid being "impractical" about them, aren't really idealists at all. On the other hand, just what kind of ideals are we talking about if they don't hold sway even when things get rough? Ultimately, there's something there that I have to affirm, even if I don't want to. Perhaps idealism is impractical.

The other thing that I can't ignore is the fact that the world around me (to say nothing of I, myself) often fails to live up to the ideals that I would wish the world to live up to. While I'm quick to recognize that this only requires the "thought" part of that primary definition of "idealism," it's a truth that I continually find frustrating. People don't live as I wish they would. And here, I'm not talking about just one particular set of ideals. A lot of people aren't Christians. A lot of people cannot be reasoned with in a debate or argument (by the way, although I don't mean to equate being intelligent with "idealism," there was a lot about this post "11 Reasons It's Hard Being Intelligent" that I would apply to this particular frustration). A lot of people think lying is a totally appropriate way to get what they want. A lot of people think that a government that raises taxes (even on a very small number of people who can most likely afford such) to fund programs to help people who need help is a bad thing. I could go on and on....

So, what's a frustrated idealist to do? While a part of me knows that the right answer is supposed to be "accept it," I cannot help but feel that to "accept" things as they are is diametrically opposed to being an "idealist" in the first place. So do we stand up for what we think is right? Probably to at least some extent, but of course, so are many other people, whose ideas are (again) in diametric opposition to one's own. Some days, even small, fleeting, victories seem impossible to hope for.

David LaMotte (an idealist if ever there was one) is fond of pointing out that the conventional wisdom that tells people that one person can't change the world is not only wrong, but that in fact a person (any person) cannot help but change the world as a result of their being in it. This means that we all have a responsibility to make sure that those changes (which, again, we cannot help but make) are positive ones. Perhaps we idealists often set our sights too big all at once (and thus behave and think to the point of impracticality?). Perhaps we need to pay more attention to those small changes we've been intentional about making, those small victories that often seem fleeting. Perhaps if we pay more attention to them, we might come to realize that they have lasting repercussions after all.

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