Sometimes it is difficult to identify idealists, because they wear such pessimistic clothing that all we can see are the patterns of a sardonic nature, or of irony. On the other hand, many who speak most glowingly, in the most idealistic fashions, underneath are filled with the darkest aspects of pessimism and despair. If we are idealists, and if we feel relatively powerless in the world at the same time, and if our idealism is general and grandiose, unrelated to any practical plans for its expression, then we can find ourselves in difficulties indeed. Here are a few specific examples of what I mean.
One man from another part of the country, begins to speak about the state of the nation, largely condemning all of his countrymen and countrywomen for their greed and stupidity. People would do anything at all for money, he/she said. He/she expresses his opinion that the species itself would almost inevitably bring about its own destruction.
He/she cites many instances of nefarious acts committed for money’s sake. A lively discussion results, but no countering opinion could enter this man’s mind or woman’s. Paul, let us call him, is an idealist at heart, but he believes that the individual has little power in the world, and so he did not pursue his personal idealism in the events of his own life. “Everyone is a slave to the system.” That is his line of belief. He took a routine job in a local business and stayed with it for over 20 years, all of the time hating to go to work, or saying that he did, and at the same time refusing to try other areas of activity that were open to him — because he was afraid to try.
He feels he has betrayed himself, and he projects that betrayal outward until betrayal is all that he sees in the social-political world. Had he begun the work of actualizing his ideals through his own private life, he would not be in such a situation. The expression of ideals brings about satisfaction, which then of course promotes the further expression of practical idealism.
Paul speaks the same way in any social group, and therefore to extent spreads a negative and despairing aura. I do not want to define his existence by those attitudes alone, however, for when he forgets the great gulf between his idealism and practical life, and speaks about other activities, then he is full of charming energy. That energy could have sustained him far more than it has, however, had he counted on his natural interests and chosen one of those for his life’s work. He could have been an excellent teacher. He had offers of other jobs that would have pleased him more, but he is so convinced of his lack of power that he did not dare take advantage of the opportunities. There are satisfactions in his life that prevent him from narrowing his focus even further.
If we want to change the world for the better, then we are an idealist. If we want to change the world for the better, but we believe it cannot be changed one whit, then we are a pessimist, and our idealism will only haunt us. If we want to change the world for the better, but we believe that it will grow worse, despite everyone’s efforts, then we are a truly despondent, perhaps misguided idealist. If we want to change the world for the better, and if we are determined to do so, no matter at what cost to oneself or others, no matter what the risk, and if we believe that those ends justify any means at our disposal, then we are a fanatic.
Fanatics are inverted idealists. Usually they are vague grandiose dreamers, whose plans almost completely ignore the full dimensions of normal living. They are unfulfilled idealists who are not content to express idealism in steps, one at a time, or indeed to wait for the practical workings of active expression. They demand immediate action. They want to make the world over in their own images. They cannot bear the expression of tolerance or opposing ideas. They are the most self-righteous of the self-righteous, and they will sacrifice almost anything — their own lives or the lives of others. They will justify almost any crime for the pursuit of those ends.
Another example: Two young women. They are exuberant, energetic, and filled with youthful idealism. They want to change the world. Working with the Ouija board, they received messages telling them that they could indeed have a part in a great mission. One young lady wants to quit her job, stay at home, and immerse herself in “psychic work,” hoping that her part in changing the world could be accomplished in that manner. The other is an office worker.
There is nothing more stimulating, more worthy of actualization, than the desire to change the world for the better. That is indeed each person’s mission. We begin by working in that area of activity that is our own unique one, with our own life and activities. We begin in the corner of an office, or on the assembly line, or in the advertising agency, or in the kitchen. We begin where we are.
If Paul, mentioned earlier, had begun where he was, he would be a different, happier, more fulfilled person today. And to some extent or other, his effect on all the other people he has met would have been far more beneficial.
When we fulfill our own abilities, when we express our personal idealism through acting it out to the best of our ability in our daily life, then we are changing the world for the better.
My friend Sophia has abilities , and she is banking on them, developing them in a practical way. She believes that she forms her own reality. She quenched doubts that she was not good enough to succeed, or that it was too difficult to get ahead in the fitness business. The satisfaction of performance leads her to more expansive creativity, and to her natural sense of personal power. Through developing those abilities personally, she will contribute to the enjoyment of others. She is an idealist. She will try to bring a greater sense of values to the fitness/health industry, for example, and she is willing to do the work necessary.
Youth is full of strength, however, so she find a way to give her own abilities greater expression, and hence to increase her own sense of power. Though sometimes she is dealing with dark periods of despair.
Idealism also presupposes “the good” as opposed to “the bad,” so how can the pursuit of “the good” often lead to the expression of “the bad?” For that we will have to look further.
There is one commandment above all, in practical terms — a Christian commandment that can be used as a yardstick. It is good because it is something we can understand practically: “Thou shalt not kill.” That is clear enough. Under most conditions we know when we have killed. That Commandment is a much better road to follow, for example than: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” for many of us do not love ourselves to begin with, and can scarcely love our neighbor as well. The idea is that is we love our neighbor we will not treat him/her poorly, much less kill him/her — but the commandment: “Thou shalt not kill,” says we shall not kill our neighbor no matter how we feel about him/her. So let us say in a new commandment: “Thou shalt not kill even in the pursuit of our ideals.”
What does that mean? In practical terms it would mean that we would not wage war for the sake of peace. It would mean that we did not kill animals in experiments, taking their lives in order to protect the sacredness of human life. That would be a prime directive: “Thou shalt not kill even in the pursuit of our ideals” — for man and woman has killed for the sake of his/her ideals as much as he/she ever killed for greed, or lust, or even the pursuit of power on its own merits.
We are a fanatic of we consider possible killing for the pursuit of our ideal. For example, our ideal may be — for ideals differ — the production of endless energy for the uses of mankind and womankind, and we may believe so fervently in that ideal — this added convenience to life — that we considered the hypothetical possibility of that convenience being achieved at the risk of losing some lives along the way, that is fanaticism.
It means that we are not willing to take the actual steps in physical reality to achieve the ideal, but that we believe that the end justifies the means: “Certainly some lives may be lost along the way, but overall, mankind and womankind will benefit.” That is the usual argument. The sacredness of life cannot be sacrificed for life’s convenience, or the quality of life itself will suffer. In the same manner, say, the ideal is to protect human life, and in the pursuit of that ideal we give generations of various animals deadly diseases, and sacrifice their lives. Our justification may be that people have souls and animals do not, or that the quality of life is less in the animals, but regardless of those arguments this is fanaticism — and the quality of human life itself suffers as a result, for those who sacrifice any kind of life along the way lose some respect for all life, human life included. The ends do not justify the means.