I used to laugh with friends about the unfortunate consequences of being a 50-something idealist. It hasn’t been easy. Yet, with conviction that is rare in my life, I believe in the power of idealism as the core of what is best in us all. When I have used my idealism well, it has reliably served personally and professionally. For me, it as an open system of dynamic wisdom – a flexible space that can stretch to nurture the development of any idea or enterprise. Idealism is full of hope for something better. Whether mature or naive, it allows for challenges to be transformed into solutions.
In an Aha! midlife moment, I realized that I often confuse idealism with idealizing and recognized just how different the two are. Idealism and idealizing are as unlike as a sprig of mistletoe and a Sparrow missile. While the first fosters courage and promise, the second is merely treacherous.
Although well-intentioned, an ideal suffers from its own perfection – immutable and absolute. Even cherished ideals such as beauty, truth, or peace, are narrow-minded things, mired in arrogance and intolerance. When we idealize, we separate the good, the right, and the acceptable from all other possibilities. We draw the hard line. Youth alone is beautiful. Jehovah is the one true god. Peace can happen only by sacrificing Jerusalem.
Idealism, on the other hand, flexes to linger at the waypoints along the twisted road to getting there, wherever “there” might prove to be. It values the journey, and demands tolerance. It has patience for the unfolding of possibilities over time.
I’ve noticed how quickly life starts to break down for me when I idealize. The danger begins when I stir up trouble in a relationship that suddenly isn’t the perfection I’d envisioned or when I fail to take the first step toward a goal that seems too pathetically distant from what I want to achieve. Although my inner talk sounds like idealism, (“things could be better, this should be easier, I can do more”) really, it is the tyranny of idealizing that is at play and I am destined for failure and disappointment.
If such poor outcomes were limited to my personal experiences, I could also claim a belief in the viability of all our futures. Institutions, communities, and nations also get it wrong, but on a larger and more perilous scale. When radical Muslim sects declare all non-believers as infidels, or when one-size-fits-all democracy is idealized as the only acceptable model for Iraq, the probabilities for problem solving collapse. This leaves little room for creativity, serendipity, or for finding higher ground. If we bring our fluid idealism to the table rather than rigid idealizing, we draw on meaningful tools for the work of crafting good solutions to the enormously urgent issues we face.
No doubt, I’ll continue to suffer with my 50-something idealism. And, I have to believe that if I can at last distinguish between this and the treachery of idealizing, there is hope yet for the future.
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