No period of history has ever been great or ever can be that does not act on some sort of high, idealistic motives, and idealism in our time has been shoved aside, and we are paying the penalty for it.–Alfred North Whitehead
I used to bristle at the idea of being called an idealist. I thought this label was akin to being called naive, gullible, or immature. I thought I was much too cool to ever be an idealist. I was a misanthrope, a cynic, a world-weary traveler. Idealists were the enemy of serious thought. They were the shiny, happy people that the deep, critical thinkers of the world mocked for their lack of depression. In short, they weren’t cool.
It wasn’t cool to care about anything and idealists cared about everything. Idealists didn’t look at the world and see it as a hopeless place. They looked at the world and saw nothing but possibilities. Frankly, idealists were the cheesy, sappy bastards that existed in romantic comedies and on family television shows where they never had to deal with the cold, hard facts of life in middle-class American society.
I’m guessing that, this being the internet, this is a pretty apt description of how a fair number of you look at idealists and idealism. I’m not judging you if you feel this way. You notice that I’ve used first-person throughout the description above because this is how I always thought of idealists, from the time I was young until only the last few years or so.
However, as you may have noticed, this post is entitled “My Case For Idealism” which doesn’t exactly jibe with the picture I just painted. Well, that’s because when I was younger, more immature, and, frankly, less intelligent, I believed everything I said above. However, now, with more years, experience, and intellect behind me, I can honestly say that everything I listed above is complete and utter bullshit(except for the Whitehead quotation).
Allow me to explain.
Perhaps, first and foremost, I should offer a definition of what an idealist is. I’ve given the definition of idealism and an idealist as I had looked at them when I was “too cool” to ever call myself one. But why don’t we let dictionary.com give us a better definition:
Idealist (noun)-a person who cherishes or pursues high or noble principles,purposes, goals, etc.
Wow, that doesn’t sound anything like the sad, pathetic, ignorant buffoon that I had defined an idealist as earlier in my life. In fact, “a person who cherishes or pursues high or noble principles” sounds like somebody that pretty much any thinking human would want to be. An idealist sounds like a pretty great thing to strive to be, in fact.
I know that there are those of you thinking “Sure, being an idealist is great in theory but it fails in practice.” But does it? In fact, is it even possible to truly fail at being an idealist if you continue to “cherish or pursue high or noble principles”? True, you may not achieve the goals that are set before you by following this course but that doesn’t mean that you are no longer an idealist. It just means that you are an idealist that has fallen short of your goals. You have shot for the metaphorical stars and came up just short. How does that make you a failure as an idealist? If anything it makes you more successful as an idealist than people who sacrifice what they believe in in the interest of pragmatism.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that there is no place for pragmatists in the world today. Pragmatic solutions to issues is something that needs to be able to be found. I also think that it is possible to be both a pragmatist and an idealist but that is a topic for a completely different discussion. However, I think that in the rush to be pragmatic and “level-headed” we have lost a great deal of the idealism that has made our society what it is.
We must rekindle the fire of idealism in our society.—Vice President Joe Biden
Idealism is not something to be mocked. I realize that it is “cooler” to not give a shit about anything than to sincerely care about something. It isn’t hip to hold to ideals. It isn’t hip to think that you can accomplish whatever you want if you put your mind to it. Hell, it isn’t even hip to think that helping out your fellow human is a worthwhile use of your time.
But I ask you this question: Who decides what is hip or cool?
If every person who truly cared about something proudly proclaimed that they cared, there would be nobody to stand up and say that it isn’t cool to care about stuff. If every person stood up and admitted that they cared about what happened to their fellow human being, which I think the vast majority of us do, then idealism would no longer be considered “unhip”, it would just be considered the way the world is.
I call myself an idealist because I choose to hold to and pursue principles that I consider to be noble. I choose to look out for my fellow humans. I choose to volunteer my time to attempt to make the world a better place. I choose to donate as much time and money as I can to causes that I believe in. I choose to believe that by doing this I can make the world a better place.
Does this make me naive? Maybe.
Does it make me a better person? Even that is arguable.
But does it allow me to sleep better at night, knowing that I’ve done everything I can to change the world into the world I want it to be? Absolutely.
Mahatma Ghandi is often misquoted as saying “Be the change you wish to see in the world”. According to Elephant Journal, the closest thing he said to it is:
If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.
Why this has been misappropriated into the other form is beyond me(except for it is much more soundbitish) because I think that Ghandi’s actual quotation is much more powerful. This is, to me, exactly why it is so important to be an idealist. “We need not wait to see what others do” in order to change the world. We can change the world just by changing the way we interact with it. It is truly as simple as that.
So, the next time somebody calls you an idealist don’t get huffy and try to explain away the label. Smile at them and respond simply “Thank you” because there is no higher compliment that can be paid from one person to another than to tell them that they hold themselves and those around them to a higher standard than the average person.
Just imagine all the social change we can accomplish if we all just acted like the ideals we hold. Idealists of the world unite!
Until next time.