|I 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:
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