Ideals, Idealism, and Responsibility
Ideals are completely natural. For example, consider when someone uses a cell phone and then they say something like “Ideally, my cell phone would have excellent reception no matter where I am.” That is stating an ideal.
An ideal is just an idea of a possible attractive outcome or circumstance. “Ideally, I would have fully charged my cell phone’s battery last night, but I did not charge it at all.”
So, ideals are natural and useful. If I conclude that it would be ideal to have a fully charged battery every morning, I can then take actions that corespond to that outcome (that ideal).
That is not idealism. That is just recognizing some ideas and some priorities and some preferences and some ideals.
So what is idealism? Idealism is a particular way of relating to ideals.
Imagine that I expect my battery charger for my cell phone to last forever. If it stops working, then what do I do? Do I get embarrassed and then blame someone for causing my embarrassment?
I might say: “Can’t these people just make a cell phone battery that lasts forever? Why do I even need to use a charger? Seriously, why didn’t you pack my other charger? WHY?!”
The frightened embarrassment can lead to frustration, which can lead to blaming and that can lead to resentment and contempt. We can blame the scientists for not inventing a battery that never loses it’s charge. We can blame the government or the neighbor or the foreignors or the devil.
If all of them fulfilled my ideals for me, then I would not be responsible for fulfilling them myself, right? I can resent them for blocking me, for failing me, for not doing what they should and for doing what they should not.
That resenting is based on idealism, not on the ideals themselves. Resenting is not responsibility. Resenting is not being responsible for recognizing my ideals (or priorities) and then exploring methods that fulfill the ideals.
We all can understand that it can be frustrating when life does not go how we might think it would be ideal. Some people might respond to that frustration by saying “just think positive and be grateful for what you do have. Maybe it is for the best that you just accept that your ideals do not fit with what has been happening. Just abandon your ideals. Just pretend to be happy while you are resigned and cynical and hopeless.”
Okay, people may not say all of that, but people often say some of those things. All of those things are still idealism. Anything except being responsible for fulfilling ideals is not being responsible for fulfilling on ideals.
There is a special form of idealism that many people experience: the ideal of having no ideals. That is a natural ideal like any other ideal. I may recognize that ideals are somehow connected to frustration and contempt, and then I recognize that, ideally, I would minimize or avoid frustration and contempt, so why not just remove all ideals?
Of course, that form of idealism may be the most frustrating of all. However, the intensity of the frustration can lead to the recognition of the function of ideals. Ideals organize our activity. Ideals organize our activities, which produce our results. So, we could say that ideals inform our results.
If someone recognizes the ideal of minimizing or avoiding frustration and contempt, one experiment in fulfilling on that ideal is the idea of suppressing or reversing all ideals (or at least all other ideals except for the ideal of having no frustration or contempt). That may not ever work, but people may keep trying it and then keep hoping for it to start working- thinking positively (“malignant optimism”) and so on.
But having ideals is not the source of frustration and resentment and contempt. The source of frustration and resentment and contempt is the activity of relating to ideals as if they should aready be fulfilled- relating to them idealistically rather than realistically.
Some ideals are realized, if only temporarily. Some may never get fulfilled. Some may only get fulfilled through exploration of innovative methods.
“But I should not have to change methods. The methods that are most familiar to me used to work just fine for me. It’s that one political party that is to blame for my old familiar method no longer working for me!”
That is a perfectly natural conclusion to make, right, which may be why it is so popular? However, sometimes it is simply easier to change one’s own methods than to change the activities of hundreds or millions of ther people. Even if one changes the activities of hundreds or millions of other people, it may be best to occasionally change one’s own methods, like getting a new cell phone occasionally, like once every ten years.
Idealism is basically the ideal that “I should not have to be responsible for producing the results that I value.” It is a perfectly natural ideal, right? What could be more convenient than if your parents did everything for you for your whole life, or if your government did everything for you, or if your employer did everything for you, or if your customers did not pay so much attention to your competitors? What if your life was already exactly a perfect fit for your ideals? What if your ideals were already a perfect fit for your life? Wouldn’t that be ideal?
Maybe…. Maybe it is natural to have the ideal that someone else (a group or an individual) should be solely responsible for producing the results you value. Maybe it is natural to expect other people to already know exactly what you value most and also to know when your values change. It may be natural, but is it ideal?
What if the person or people who have been resposible for your life are eventually no longer available? What if they die? What if their cell phone battery dies? What if their cell phone reception suddenly falters?
Consider a new ideal. Consider that idealism is required to produce the recogniton of the ideal of responsiblity. The ideal of responsibility does not exclude other people’s responsibility, but it includes me as the primary author of responsibility for the results produced by the methods active in my life (as my life). If I am responsible for my life, then perhaps I can contribute to the lives of others responsibly as well.
Idealism mght include an idea like “I should contribute to others.” That is not required. Ideally, my life already is contributing to the lives of other people.
My influence on other people may include perpetuating experiences of frustration and resentment and contempt. Or, I may inspire them. Or, I may challenge them. Or, I may inspire them and then challenge them.
Mahatma Gandhi is reported to have said “Be the change that you want to see in the world.” I do not know whether he also said “You and the world are overlapping, not two isolated objects. When you change, the whole world is changing too because you are part of the whole world. When you notice a change in any part of the world, that is already you changing within it. It is impossible for you not to change the world. You are already changing the world. Also, you are the world changing. When you change, that is the world changing through you. When you perceive an ideal, that is the world perceiving an ideal through you. When you experience frustration, that is the world experiencing frustration through you. When you resent anything, that is the world resenting through you. When you have contempt for anything, that is the world having contempt through you. When you are responsible, that is the world being responsible through you.”
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