Idealism and the Real World
"If you know these things, happy are you if you do them" (John 13:17)
It's lovely to have ideals. It's good to believe that there is a God in heaven who cares for you, who has infinite mercy and the wisdom to lead and protect and whose laws are completely reliable. There is comfort in knowing that there is a heaven waiting for those who follow Him, a world beautiful beyond our imagining, peopled by those who on earth have learned to be permanently unselfish and loving.
It is exciting also to believe in ideals which will build a better world right here. The Lord's laws apply to life on earth. He can make people on earth kind and loving, He can give them the power to get rid of selfishness. We can take His truths and live complete, rewarding lives. The dream of perfect love; the vision of unselfish service the idea of human relationships without destructive temper or tragic misunderstandings: these things can happen.
What adolescent raised in a good Christian home doesn't start life believing in ideals like these?
Many of those same people have a very different outlook ten or twenty years later. We hear people say things like, "I was very idealistic when I was young. Now I know better." Or, "I had strong principles when I started adult life. I thought you would never have to lie to succeed or run down your fellow-workers or deceive your customers. Then I got into the real world and it doesn't work that way." Or even worse, "I used to believe in unselfish love; but I don't any more. That's just not the way people are."
How often have you heard this latter-day piece of wisdom: "When money problems come into a marriage, love flies out the window?" Concerned parents will even warn their idealistic young people to expect protracted periods of cold in marriage because "all marriages go through things like these."
No one wants to abandon beautiful ideals. Why do we? It isn't possible in one short address to explain how to make ideals work. That is the wisdom of life. But surely we don't abandon ideals because we have found something better! It cannot be because we no longer like the idea of a better world and a loving God and a perfect heaven.
There are two attitudes which destroy ideals. The one is disillusionment, the other cynicism. If you are disillusioned, you are a casualty of life, it seems. You want to believe but circumstances force you to lose faith. You seem to be a victim. on the other hand a cynic may be a victim covering over his disappointment, but usually he is an aggressor. He has chosen to reject ideals, and is active in attacking the things he once held dear.
Why do people become disillusioned? If you ask them, they will probably say that their ideals didn't hold up in the "real world." They went out with high hopes of putting into practice
the things they had learned, and found that they "didn't work." They tried: they held onto their principles for a while, and found themselves so out of step with others, so unable to defend what they believed in that they reluctantly abandoned them.
There is a beautiful article in the Fall, 1988 Theta Alpha Journal (pages 4-7), which speaks of the misuse of ideals. For example a young married couple may expect that if they approach their marriage properly then everything will be plain sailing from the wedding on. Their disillusionment will come because, as the author illustrates, their idealism is mistaken, founded on only a part of the truth the Lord has revealed. They are ignoring the teachings about human growth and development on earth, about the need to face their weaknesses on an ongoing basis.
Given, however, that a person is pursuing a true ideal - one the Lord has described in the Writings - disillusionment may still follow, and for another reason. It may arise because our faith was very weak in the first place.
Everyone has had the experience of setting a goal for himself without truly believing in or understanding it. A young boy thinks it would be good if he ran ten miles a day. He sees the end benefit - how fit he would be. What he doesn't see is two other things. First, can he stand the means to that end - can he take the time it needs, will he put up with the sore muscles and the tired feeling each evening? Second, is his goal of being fit really an exciting one? Without those two ingredients he will probably abandon his project after two disastrous outings!
We are all in danger of not reflecting deeply enough on our ideals. We are taught them as young people, and they sound attractive, so we say, "I believe in them." In fact, what we are really saying is, "These ideas sound reasonable; I will store them up in my mind along with the vague wish to be a wealthy man or the head of a large company or a tennis star."
There is no such thing as believing in a truth without positive intellectual effort of our own - sometimes a lot of effort. Lightly held ideals are easily abandoned because we have no mental investment in them! We long for them in a half-hearted way, but we haven't believed in them.
The Lord knows this. That is one of the reasons that He allows, even at times encourages us to doubt the truth. It is of providence that if we believe an ideal right away He will allow something to come up which makes us doubt it - because He knows that instant faith is very, very fragile (AC 7298).
Faith is a deep and certain conviction in the truth. It's not just the feeling that these truths sound wonderful. It comes after reflection on them,` seeing their implications, knowing what pursuing them will cost us, and believing that they can be made to work.
Notice how often Jesus upbraided His followers for not having enough faith. Probably when He did so they were surprised, and a little hurt. They thought that they believed in Him, yet He seemed to mistrust their faith. "If you have faith as a mustardseed," He said, "you can say to this mulberry tree, 'Be pulled up by the roots and be planted in the sea,' and it will obey you" (Luke 17:6).
Didn't they have faith? Not yet. Do you remember how Peter and the other disciples swore they would never abandon Him? That same night they all ran away and Peter denied Him. They were scared, so they abandoned their dream of a better world and locked themselves up in a room for fear of being killed. There He found them, and He taught them again, and eventually they did get faith, and they were willing to die for it. At first, you see, their faith was a fragile, superficial thing. It could be easily and terribly shaken.
If we pursue any ideal without positively, definitely believing in it we run the risk of disillusionment. others who don't agree with us will oppose us, and we'll feel overwhelmed by their arguments even as Peter felt himself sinking beneath the storm-tossed waters of the Galilean sea. The things we could lose by following it will loom large in our minds. The path to attaining it might seem endlessly long and fraught with problems. How can we face these things if we have a tentative, half-formed conviction? "Most truly I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father" (John 14:12). Yes, the power to do what the Lord does - His power over all obstacles will be ours: but we must believe.
The person who thinks himself a victim of disillusionment is indeed a victim. He loses his ideals because perhaps he never truly had them.
Cynicism is a different thing. It is a feeling which wells up inside of us and pokes fun at what we believe. That is far harder to counter, and it seems to destroy our resolve. Where does it come from?
The trouble is that the first time we see an ideal it is in the understanding. Up there, in the lofty reaches of human thought it is perfect. We can see how it ought to be. Our minds can see perfection in a moment. You can imagine the beauty of heaven, the wonder of pure love, the comfort of true friendship, the value of charity. We don't believe in any of these things until they are of our wills - until we personally make them real!
There is no faith, no idealism, unless we have lived it. That is the continual teaching of the Writings. "Faith is formed by a person's living according to truths. Truths do not actually live until they are in deeds" (TCR 347:3). The real battle with idealism isn't with hostile forces outside of us. In fact the world is full of deeply committed people who long for the friendship of others who feel as they do. The world is full of people who will support us and care for us if we are fighting for a vision of what is truly good.
It's not that some other set of values is beating down our resistance. It's not that the pressure of opinion is breaking our resolve. It's not that disillusionment is forcing us to have lower expectations in life. The test of our idealism is simply this: "How badly do we want to make our ideals work?"
There is no such thing as idealism that is of the understanding alone. A dream in the mind is not real - not yet. It's not real because it's not yet alive. It's not real until it comes down from its lofty perch into the realm of human feeling and goes to work.
There it meets the enemy from within. It meets the feelings that we have to give up if we want this ideal. If you want unselfish love you have to battle selfishness. If you want the joy of heaven you have to stop doing all sorts of things that people in heaven simply don't do. If you want to be a gentle person you will have to fight the tendency to hurt people when your wishes are opposed. And if you want love truly conjugial you have to work on loving that person more than you love yourself.
Therefore the Writings teach that there is no faith with anyone until he has started to shun evils as sins. The reason is simple: until idealism starts by changing something in us which opposes it, it cannot work.
That's what idealism is: It is taking the pure vision, and having it come down into the arena of human endeavor where the enemies of truth reside - selfishness or callousness or anger - and using that vision to confront our weaknesses and slowly drive them back. It is taking the most precious tools that have ever been given to mankind - the Lord's own truths - and putting them to use: first to clean up what is wrong, and then to build the dream world we long for so much.
There's no idealism that isn't also practical. By the same token the only practical way of life is the idealistic one. For what are our alternatives?
We can give up on the vision the Lord has given us, reject the notion of God, and depend for our happiness on other people and on whatever happens.
Or we can become like those whom the Lord calls "Men of little faith". We can half believe. We can say that we believe in God, and drift through life, never using our precious freedom to work at changing our lives for the better, just hoping that somehow at the end of it the Lord will make things good for us. If we do that we accept tarnished ideals. Instead of climbing to the top of the mountain we whittle the mountain down until it is small enough that it takes no great effort to climb it. We become resigned to merely human standards - like love that comes to an end, and friendship that can never be fully trusted, and happiness that depends on the state of the stock-market.
The faltering of idealism often comes to a young person who is confronted by a serious challenge to his or her naive beliefs. It can come to one who has tried to follow a dream and seemed to fail. It can assail a person in middle age who looks back and realizes that in place of the beautiful visions of youth he or she now has much lower, maybe even cynical expectations of life.
In each case the twin challenges have to be faced. First, how deeply do we hold our ideals? How much do we believe that there is a God in heaven who can make them work, how clearly do we see the path to their realization? Secondly, how much of our personal choice will we invest in them? Are we committed to making them work in us? Never mind the past: are we committed today to a revitalization of the dreams we hold dear?
For there is a God, and His ideals do work. Unselfish love is not a hopeless dream - it is the first kind of love, it existed before ever the "me-generation" was conceived.
Everlasting marriage love is possible for every person who turns to the Lord, and for many it is possible here on earth. Friendship can be based on unbreakable rules, and charity that expects no reward can be born in your heart. And the day can come when you walk through the gate of death into a world beyond and live in a heaven whose beauty is beyond all your dreams. It is so: the Lord has said it.
People talk about idealism and reality as though they are different. They are just another way of describing the same thing. It is fantasy to reject ideals: it is realism to make them work. "If you know these things, [if you truly know and understand them] you are happy if you do them."