Thursday, June 15, 2017



As a good diet can maintain a healthy body, our ideals can maintain a healthy society. While our diet is important, it is probably unreasonable to expect that a superior diet can grow us wings so that we can fly. Diet has its limits. However, we often fail to recognize that our ideals also have their limits. They can even turn destructive when we expect too much from them.

In “White Nights and Other Stories,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky illustrated the dangers of runaway ideals:

·       “For, after all, you do grow up, you do outgrow your ideals, which turn to dust and ashes, which are shattered into fragments; and if you have no other life, you just have to build one up out of these fragments. And all the time your soul is craving and longing for something else. And in vain does the dreamer rummage about in his old dreams, raking them over as though they were a heap of cinders, looking in these cinders for some spark, however tiny, to fan it into a flame so as to warm his chilled blood by it and revive in it all that he held so dear before, all that touched his heart, that made his blood course through his veins, that drew tears from his eyes, and that so splendidly deceived him!”

Idealism can be intoxicating. However, as with other intoxicants, it can also produce self-deception, and this always comes with its price-tag.

Why does idealism tend towards self-deception? Idealism feels good; it energizes, empowers, and provides hope. Holocaust victim, Anne Frank, gravitated towards an idealistic view of humanity because this belief imparted the hope she needed:

·       It's really a wonder that I haven't dropped all my ideals because they seem so absurd and impossible to carry out. Yet, I keep them, because in spite of everything I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can't build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death.

Hope is good, however if it is a false hope, it is costly. It was because of a triumph of hope over reason that kept the Jews in Nazi Germany.

Winston Churchill was also concerned about the likely costs of idealism: “No folly is more costly than the folly of intolerant idealism.” Why intolerant? Idealism can be so seductive that it has the power to blind us. It counsels us that if we just removed just a few wrong people or wrong institutions, we can create a utopia. We begin to see ourselves as “good” people and the others who oppose us as the “bad.”

In this way, idealism can be very self-elevating. This helps to explain its seduction. We are seduced into believing that we are on the vanguard of creating a new world. It is so seductive that we begin to believe that a revolution can bring a utopia and that death and destruction can bring joy and peace.

The late poet T.S. Elliot had been understandably suspicious of idealists:

·       Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don't mean to do harm-- but the harm does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves. 

Idealism will make us think and feel well about ourselves. It takes us captive and tells us that we are better than others. After all, we are revolutionaries who are willing to endure hardship for our ideal.

As youth requires the wisdom of gray hairs, idealism must be accompanied by wisdom or it will destroy whatever it touches. However, wisdom without idealism is barren, Machiavellian, and self-serving.

The Bible offers us a test to tell if we have successfully married these two qualities:

·       Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace. (James 3:13-18)

It is the calm of true wisdom that enables us to light a torch to expose our inner self-serving motivations. Wisdom is therefore painful but painfully necessary.

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