Idealism should be classified as a clinical mental disorder.
When we imagine an idealistic person, we get a little rosy-cheeked. We envision a character who has positively high standards and is willing to pursue them. They truly want what’s best for a group of people or a project. They have an image of how things should be and push relentlessly in that direction. They are winners.
But the reality of idealism is that, like other clinical mental disorders, it leaves a trail of broken relationships, broken spirits and destroyed lives in its wake. Think I’m being too dramatic? Ask yourself the following questions.
- Have you ever encountered a boss who punishes you for one mistake?
- Have you ever had a lover who expects perfection, and if he doesn’t get it, threatens you?
- Have you ever had a parent who had to have things “just so” or they would withhold their love?
- Have you ever disappointed a friend once, and they disappeared forever?
The above are signs of idealism in other people, but what about you?
- Have you ever spent years and years on a project in an OCD attempt to perfect it before it goes into the world?
- Have you ever sensed one thing is wrong and so abandoned a relationship or project?
- Have you ever judged and condemned another person based on your ideals of moral virtue?
- Have you ever quit something because you could not make it right?
- Have you ever stopped frequenting an establishment because they made one error?
There are a few features of idealism that we can mine to understand it a little better.
IDEALS ARE ATTEMPTS TO CONTROL AND PREDICT OUTCOMES
To put simply, our success as a species relies on our ability to predict the future outcomes of what we try to do. When we imagine a project, we analyze the necessary utility of that project and then create an ideal.
The ideal is modeled as the “perfect system for prediction of outcomes.” We imagine the system as always working with no hiccups or troubles. We imagine the thing to be perfectly functional, to look perfectly wonderful and always work forever.
A great example of this is found in religion. A “commandment” is a mode of operation designed to prevent poor outcomes. If you steal sheep from your neighbor in ancient Jerusalem, the likely result is retaliation, even death at the hands of your neighbor. Fast forward a few thousand years and we have the same ideal. No one should steal from anyone, ever!
But people do steal. In some circumstances, the theft is justified (think, Les Miserables). Thus, the ideal, as nice as it is, will never be fully achieved.
The picture in our mind of a perfectly clean desk is bound to be much different than our cubicle mate. Our idea of how a child should act in polite company is different than our children’s, or even the polite company.
This phenomenon is especially noticeable in group projects. How often have you attempted to wrestle a project out from under a group who had a different vision of it?
With so many differing opinions, it’s hard to know who is right. We can waste an enormous amount of effort trying.
IDEALS ARE EXCUSES FOR ABUSE, CRUELTY, AND AGGRESSION
Again, let’s sojourn back to biblical times. If a commandment (ideal) is established, the breaking of the commandment should therefore result in harsh punishments with no room for gray area or circumstance. A hand is cut off. Ouch.
Back to modern times. If we come home and our roommate has left chip crumbs all over the table with no intention to clean them up, we feel justified in a host of cruel and passive aggressive behaviors. We may kick our roommate out after so many of these infractions. We may embarrass and shame him in front of his friends. We may talk badly about him to our mothers. We may seek revenge and “lose” his prized concert tickets.
Retribution of the ideal is well documented throughout history (see, Crusades)
IDEALS ARE USUALLY WILDLY UNREALISTIC
It would be wonderful if we behaved like machines upon request. It would be great if we could be 100% consistent with our efforts. It would be fantastic if our family could be this way too.
But to err is human.
It isn’t only humans that err. Our plans, based on assumptions, fail all the time. Our schemes come to naught, our dreams fail to reach the heights of splendor.
STRIVE FOR WHAT’S POSSIBLE
The possible is preferred to the ideal. While I am all for dreaming the impossible dream, I can’t get it. It lies somewhere in the ephemeral distance. What I can do, what is possible, is to take a tiny action now. One step toward the mountain.
In your life, watch for ideals. They are usually obscuring the possible.
For a treat, check out this Impossible Dream on Youtube.
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