The Curse of Idealism

BLOG The Curse of Idealism

idealismI have always been an idealist. Even as a young child I imagined worlds that were, in every way, perfect and simple. I had a paper cutout dial pasted on my bed’s headboard that, in my imagination, could give me anything I wanted with the push of a button, instantly — long before Star Trek came up with the idea. While the other kids were playing games of conflict and competition, I was encouraging them to play collaborative games that everyone ‘won’, or playing, quite happily, by myself.

As I learned (mostly in school, outside the classroom) about greed, pettiness, jealousy, vindictiveness, anger, and power politics, I retreated more and more into my head, dreaming of worlds of peace, happiness, balance, beauty and generosity. In my poetry and short stories, there was no grief, no violence, no suffering, no unhappiness. An idealist was born.

There is a problem with idealism, though. In fact, the contemporary ideas of ‘ideal’ and ‘perfection’ seem to be relatively new inventions. Ideal originally meant merely something imagined, and perfect originally meant merely made complete. When Thomas Moore conjured up the word Utopia in the 16th century he quite deliberately chose a combination of two Greek words meaning no place. An idealist, then, has always been someone who deals with the unreal, the impossible. And Voltaire told us “the perfect is the enemy of the good”.

In the face of criticism (such as accusations that an ideal is, tautologically, ‘unrealistic’) the idealist can quickly become an ideologue (in the modern sense of someone who espouses a set of inflexible doctrines, regardless of their logic). And with ideology, too often, comes a willingness to defend or confront conflicting ideals with violence. The result has been religious wars, political and economic oppression and suppression, brutal authoritarianism, and countless acts of murder, theft, assault and cruelty. To the idealist, what is real is never good enough.

So the idealist dreams of living in a perfect place, where everyone is always and forever happy, safe and beautiful, and lives in perfect harmony, doing only and always things that are blissful. Even in my youth, my impossible romantic and sexual fantasies, for example, would put even the most well-crafted romances and erotica to shame. And today I’m searching the world for a perfect place that cannot possibly exist, full of a diverse and stunningly beautiful and talented multiplicity of people and creatures who cannot possibly exist, except in my imagination. 

As long as it’s kept in its place — the worlds of art and fiction and dreaming — there is nothing wrong with idealism. We live, as I am so fond of saying, in a world of terrible imaginative poverty, and much of the complacency of our world in the face of so much violence, waste, corruption, misery and poverty, is due to most people’s inability to imagine any other, better, way to live or make a living than the ‘real’ one they see all around them. Ironically, many of these ills were perpetrated by idealists, who imagined the impossible and tried, insanely, to realize it.

Because as soon as we imagine something better, it is in our nature to aspire to make it real. And there’s the rub. Einstein, who asserted that imagination was more important than knowledge, also observed that the more the people of his acquaintance knew, the more pessimistic they became. Is that because they realized the hopelessness of achieving anything close to the ideal, precisely as they were discovering just how ghastly the real really was?

Is it because they came to understand, by studying history, that humans (and any creatures) are incapable of radical change without slaughter? Social and political change only occur as the generation with old ideas dies off and the younger generation, infused or propagandized with new ideas, new knowledge, takes its place. Even in business, we discover, the only way to bring about comprehensive organizational change in less than a generation is by firing everyone and hiring all new people.

As an idealist and as a student of history and human behaviour, I am increasingly convinced that only an impossibly radical change will be enough to save our planet from the sixth great extinction that is now nearing its point of no return, its tipping point. My instinctive, visceral response is an unbearable grief for Gaia, an anxiety and sense of hopelessness that is beyond reason or logical explanation, a disconnection from this terrible ‘real’ world. And an affection for those who have chosen to fight, no matter what the risk or consequence, no matter how impossible, with every bone in their body in every waking moment, for the type of better world I can imagine (and abhorrence for those fighting, with equal vigour, for equally impossible ideals opposed to my own). And, finally, affection for those who live stoicly with the sadness or blackness of the noonday demon, or who cannot bear to do so and simply and quietly give up, and end their lives.

Had I been a bit more foolish, a bit more ambitious, a bit more damaged by this modern culture, I might today be doing something much more dangerous than searching for the impossible ideal in a terrible real world. I might be leading a political or social movement, working to force my ideals on others, or on the whole world. Instead of a pathology born of disengagement and withdrawal from an unacceptable, unbearable real world, I might be afflicted with a pathology born of anger and fury and megalomania and self-adulation or self-loathing, and trying as a result to impose my particular brand of perfection on everyone else.

What I have learned is that the energies and imagination of idealists are best exhibited and discharged in art and story, and, infused with a bit of humility, in self-examination and self-change. So I have given up on politics, which has never succeeded in making anything better anyway, and now focus my imaginative energies on writing that incites nothing more lethal than understanding, recognition, appreciation, and perhaps a smile.

For disenchanted idealists, there are two ways forward. The first, and most tempting, is to live with one foot in each world. One foot in the real world, whenever and wherever we can find beauty, love, hope, peace and joy; the other foot in our own ideal, imagined, impossible world of fantastic perfection — a world of dreams. The artist in me is content with this schizophrenic way — when the real world disappoints, or hurts, or the grief becomes too great to bear, there is always safety and refuge (and creativity!) in this other, imaginary place. That is, as long as I don’t hope, or try, to make the imaginary real.

The other way is to let go of the ideal and live fully in the real world — to let yourself change and accept what is, immerse yourself and revel in it. Evelyn has embraced this second way, and she recently tweeted:

My innate idealism is imploding (as no ideas, ideals, deals big enough to contain truth); aha.. innate innocence is surfacing under debris.

and then elaborated:

i went to meditate by a big lumbering live oak and realized that having my innate idealism destroyed was not such a bad thing…
when and if i don’t have so many notions and ideas about what is preferable, i am finding that under those mental skyscrapers (metaphorically–) once they imploded, under that debris was this shimmering intelligent innate innocence — the ground that had been built over with constructs — that is intricately life itself and it does know how to evolve “heaven on earth” or whatever our wildest grandest ideals are….so i feel more like i am getting out of my own way, and letting it lead, and i mean lead as in dancing more than lead as in politics!

When I read this I was reminded of the advice of the Indian philosopher — that, in order to be authentically ourselves, we must first rid ourselves of all the gunk we have accumulated over our lifetimes, stuff that we have attached to ourselves or allowed others to attach to us. And I thought about how my own life has been “built over with constructs”.

I was also struck by Evelyn’s implication that the opposite of idealism isn’t realism, but rather innocence (from the Latin words meaning harmlessness) — seeing the world through unclouded, non-judgemental eyes. Seeing and accepting the world for just what it really is.

But how do we do this? How do we “get out of our own way”, and let go of our ideals and pretenses to knowledge and control? How does “just being a space through which stuff passes“, and living in Now Time, become more than an ideal, an intention, and instead become a way of living, of being?

How do we become innocent again?

Recently I wrote, optimistically, that I was ready to “start over”, and that starting over would entail:

  1. Letting go of my beliefs, my stuff, my responsibilities and obligations and expectations and all sense of control and power over people and situations.
  2. Giving up on the illusion that language conveys any precise meaning, and using it instead as a purely creative and imaginative tool.
  3. Being fearless. There is however a tension here between fearlessness (being free from insecurity), which is liberating, and recklessness, which can be hurtful.
  4. Not belonging anywhere. This doesn’t preclude a reverence for place, but rather acknowledges I can be a part of any place that can naturally sustain me.
  5. Trusting my instincts and my senses as much as my emotions and intellect, and relearning when to be guided by each. Jung love.
  6. Understanding that we are all, even in crowds, even in the company of those we imagine we love and who we imagine love us, utterly alone.
  7. Understanding that no one is in control.
  8. Realizing that freedom to be nobody-but-myself is more important than anything else, even health. Even love.
  9. Appreciating that time is chimera; it doesn’t exist. Animals live in ‘now time’, a time that stretches out forever, except in moments of stress. Time to be wild.
  10. Giving up my ‘wants’, while being skeptical about my ‘free will’. Stewart and Cohen in Figments of Reality:
Living species, including humans, are emergent properties of the ‘pandemonium’ of the body’s semi-autonomous processes — We are a complicity of the separately-evolved creatures in our bodies organized for their mutual benefit i.e. we are an organism. And our brains, our intelligence, awareness, consciousness and free-will, are nothing more than an evolved, shared, feature-detection system jointly developed to advise these creatures’ actions for their mutual benefit. Our brains, and our minds (the processes that our neurons, senses and motility organs carry out collectively) are their information-processing system, not ‘ours’.

Conceptually, I can see doing these ten things, but it’s hard for me to see who/what I would become if I did. Is letting go of our ideals really as simple as that? Is it even possible? Or are our ideals like addictive drugs, and do they need to be shattered before we can let them go?

I’ve said before that we are each the author of our own story, and that, as Thomas King tells us, our story is all we are. I’m convinced that human idealism is one of the root causes of many of the ills that afflict our society. Perhaps idealism is also the key to our own personal affliction, the fictional story that casts a shadow over our lives and prevents us from being who we really are. Perhaps it’s time to rewrite our story, and, this time, make it true.

Category: Human Nature

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to The Curse of Idealism

  1. prad says:

    dave, there is nothing so practical as idealism.

  2. Sagefool says:

    Living completely in the now, or being innocent seems like a worthy ideal…but there lies the rub again. The ideal of retreating from ideals.As a mystic once related, “The great way is easy for those who hold no preferences.”It sounds like you prefer the great way…but there lies the rub again.The hardest thing about the calculus of our logical minds, similar to all mathematics perhaps, is that it seems so useful – once one accepts the underlying assumptions. But it is all based on underlying assumptions, and all of its truth is frustratingly subjective to those assumptions.So how do we capture that elusive beast of happiness which we all seem to compulsively pursue?Perhaps like a hunter, we must quiet ourselves and stop stomping through the forest so loud that the beast can’t help but be scared off. Being quiet, attentive to the environment, using our logic to track, and our feelings to make in-the-moment adjustments, might help to properly position ourselves. Now some, in that moment, use their accumulated power and attempt to blow the beast away. Others, make a sport of it, testing themselves to discover their own limits, enjoying the skills they learn in “the hunt”, and others go to great lengths to lay a trap in hopes of keeping all of their options open.So it is with all pursuits, I suppose. We want to own the right to control that which we desire. We want to make a possession of something which is only truly amazing if it comes of its own accord.If so, how would one know what to do, or not to do, choices must be made, paths must be taken, don’t they?I wonder if we don’t all know in that last, most final, of moments in our life. From that perspective can we make a final analysis as to where our true happiness was. Was it that which we pursued? Or was it so elusive that we never noticed it licking our heels while we tracked its reflection through a forest of mirrors. Perhaps if we all could experience that moment – spend the time to experience our own ideal death, if you will – so that we could have its wisdom, and eat it too – in the now, years before it occurred. What would it be like to exhale our very last breath, whether that breath is torn from us, or whether it eases out in a final peaceful surrender? What is the quality of that moment?**A stray memory intrudes — someone once asked me if I have ever held my breath. I proudly told him of my prowess at swimming great lengths, completely underwater, handling immense amounts of pressure, going further that any other kid could.He said, no… that’s not what I meant. Have you ever exhaled every last bit of air out of your lungs — and then held your breath? You face your fear much quicker that way… **What if people fear their death because, on some level, they can project their dissatisfaction with their current life into their final moment and they, correspondingly, fear their regrets? Hmmm… It makes me wonder — I hear in the movies about good deaths and bad deaths, what if there was more to that then I had thought before? What if? What if we all got to chose our deaths, the way we fill our carts with the things we hunger for while in some huge spiritual grocery store? What would go in my life’s shopping cart? What would I exactly want to feel, to remember, who would I want to be with, under what circumstances? What should my last moment be like — seeing as how it is the last moment/memory/feeling/thought I will ever experience? The more I know who I want to be, and what situation I want to be in – in that final moment, the more I realize how I wanted to have lived my life. In that reflection of my mind, cast forward to death and back to this moment I begin to understand that I can only dance with happiness. Perhaps if I stop trying to put a chain on it, it will trust me enough to learn to enjoy my company. Ahh, I think… that makes sense – I never liked when myhappiness tried to control me (“You’ll be happy if you do this, own that, accomplish these things” and all those other “you oughts”). Perhaps I too have been chained by happiness all of this time and never noticed it.Ahhh, but if it is a dance, then we can do together what we could not accomplish alone. We can become one, moving in ways that are controlled by neither of us, yet also by both of us.Then I slip, thinking that I maybe should lead, that I have control… and then she spins away. It takes me a long time to realize that the only control I have — which only comes after I begin to see things from her point of view — is that she will allow me to lead her to where she didn’t even realize that she always wanted to go, she is intrigued by the mysteriousness of another revealing herself to herself. Unexpectedly, she in turn, takes me to places I couldn’t have asked for, because they are things that have no value if I have to ask for them. Then I understand what was meant when I once heard, “There is nowhere you(r logical mind) can stand. But you can stand nowhere.” I had always seemed to get tripped up looking for footing until I realize that there is no destination, or static spot in the dance. There is no “solid footing” only solid footwork. The real fun is after my long practice allows me to forget my awkwardness and begin to really enjoy flowing with my partner. Fortunately, she forgives my clumsiness with the same grace as I accept hers, each of us covering for each other, during the many missteps each of us needs to make in the process of learning how to just let the other move freely.A part of me is sad thinking that I can never seem to experience happiness for myself, but I take solace in knowing that I can give it – and feel her experience it – through the connection that only close dancers seem to form. Then, flowing out of my new understanding of her do I realize that she isn’t fully happy unless I am, and I finally become free to experience that which I once so desperately hunted, because I no longer am seeking it for myself. I have surrendered myself, and find through her grace that I have in my possession, for lack of a more accurate term, that which I could not ever possess on my own.- Boy, there sure seems to be a lot of clarity when I can hear the echos of my last moments in the now. If I were to once again try to pursue my happiness again, I would probably try to make everyone experience this. But, I relax, and remember not to focus on my own feet so much. Sure, perhaps it is a misstep for our society to run from ever considering its own last moments, constantly in its own pursuits, or escape from its fears. I for one, am trying to take it all in stride, to keep our dance flowing, so that when I die I can feel good about what steps, and what dances, I did learn. Perhaps, if I am lucky, and I practice well enough that I might understand well enough to teach, with patience, a new dance that my society and I both might find to be more entertaining. More enchanting perhaps…That’s the amazing thing, there are always new, and ever more intricate dances to play with.But it’s not knowing the most dances… it’s being is into my partner that brings me joy.**…funny — just when dance begins to become routine, I stop, and I dip her deeply – to her fear and excitement at this new turn. But now that she knows that she can trust me not to drop her, she surrenders to my lead, and I understand that I have regained the control I thought I surrendered. Except now, I understand in the core of my being that dancing is much more fulfilling than controlling, so I never overstep my bounds again.Well, I do, occasionally, but that is what practice is all about.**Of course, isn’t all of that what you really mean when you refer to let-self-change? Isn’t it a kind of losing one’s ideas of what we think we are so that we can (finally) actually experience who we are?Either way, thanks for the dance, I, for one, had a lovely time.-thesagefool

  3. Honey says:

    There is no such thing as “the whole truth and nothing but the truth” that can be experienced by a human in one lifetime. Just enjoy your chunk of the truth. Then peak over someone’s shoulder and see what chunk of the truth they ended up with.

  4. Steve Bean says:

    You could do all those 10 things, Dave, or you could just do The Work: I’ve suggested it before.Honey, check it out. You might learn the truth about the truth.

  5. Steve Bean says:

    In particular, you might enjoy her book, Question Your Thinking, Change the World.

  6. vera says:

    Dave, you sound down. How was western Oz? Were you disappointed with what you found, overall? I mean, not more lists… but from the heart. ?

  7. Paul says:

    Good to see idealism get the thrashing it deserves. I’m not a fan of the positivism that makes excuses for a fucked up reality, nor am I interested in nihilistic resignation, but I’ve been an idealist for far too much of my life and I can see that’s leading nowhere as well.You say, “Perhaps it’s time to rewrite our story, and, this time, make it true.” Dave, I know how much you like storytelling, but beware the dangers of that path! You must really challenge yourself to see if the story you write is true–because it can so easily be just another artificial construction that distorts your vision of reality. Following up on Steve Bean’s suggestion above, I notice that Byron Katie suggests that you ask, “Can you absolutely know that it

  8. Jon Husband says:

    My opinion … go back and read your blog from the beginning.Dave is who you are, Dave is the name you are growing into, and Dave is all you will ever be .. and Dave is good. I’m blown away by the depth and the amount of self-examination you do, and as someone external to your head and soul I notice a fair amount of repetition, which I suspect your analytic side would agree is no longer necessary.At your age, living in the present and being Dave, with all you do that is useful in one way or another, and given the assumption (which I share) that the change necessarily radical enough is not coming save a collapse from which some humans emerge .. the “living (wherever you may be) in the present and being Dave” is probably already excellent enough.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. Some excellent advice and profound wisdom in these comments. Paul has turned me on to Richard Moss’ “The Mandala of Being”, which I’ll be blogging about soon. Paul is right about stories — we can limit and stress ourselves out with the stories that we are told about our world, or which we tell ourselves, and there is great danger that any story we try to ‘control’ will be just another fiction. Our true story needs to tell itself through us, and will do so if we are authentically here, now, ourselves.For regular readers who are frustrated about the fact I seem to be repeating myself here, I apologize and beg your indulgence — I’m a slow learner, and sometimes I have to teach/tell myself something three or four times before I get it. :-)

  10. Doug Hayman says:

    Hey Dave,I love your honesty and the way you articulate your thoughts and experience. Your ten points seem to exactly replicate the understandings that Jed McKenna talks about in his three books on enlightenment. Seems like a completely non intuitive approach to freedom, but he claims enlightenment and talks about what it’s like once you’ve finished the process you’ve outlined.keep on keeping on…, Doug

  11. Thanks Dave,Great story, thanks for leading me and my thoughts along your path for a little while.I like the concept of innocence. I find humility and thankfulness don’t get much of a run nowadays, but they work well for me.Thanks for being open. Stu French.

Comments are closed.